Diversity and inclusion in engineering: why so slow? Noticing the elephant in the lab

By 20th August 2019Opinion

Four things to notice: first steps to seeing what others experience

Growing the diversity of engineers soaks up millions of pounds on role model schemes, campaigns and outreach, and even more volunteer hours. Yet the percentage of women entering engineering has flatlined at 15%. We keep bashing away trying to crack the nut with a sledgehammer.

You must agree this is a bit uncharacteristic for a profession famed for being analytical, logical problem solvers. If you, or a colleague, ever feel bewildered about what we need to do about diversity in engineering and see outreach as the only answer, read on.

Noticing when there’s an elephant in the lab

There’s an elephant in your lab and you didn’t know it? How could you not notice? It’s quite large, others see it. Some bump into it. Maybe you have bumped, or even (ahem) stepped into something. How did that happen? Were you surprised? This elephant is difference and or being different. By opening your eyes and noticing, or asking, how others experience the environment you share can help you help your colleagues maximise their potential. 

Let’s see how you can start to notice better. 

Surprises happen when you don’t notice the elephant

I accept. Elephants are an overused metaphor, but it’s right. Inclusion and diversity are the elephants in the engineering lab. It’s a large, sometimes tricky topic. It can get out of control. It has been known to be noisy and cause confusion. It can be costly (a lawsuit, or you lose bright, talented staff). Or you might trip over something and it might not be pleasant. Whilst some bump into it, others suffer from what Kahneman in Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow (2011) calls inattentional blindness. Add to this the cultural factors from your family and social background and the consequences of not being in tune with what you don’t notice become real, outlined by Virginia Valian who coined the phrase unconscious bias in Women in science, why so slow?, Valian (1998 and 2018).

Addressing inclusion and diversity in engineering – four reasons people give for not acting

Overhearing (yet again) engineers responding to a discussion about using different pronouns for people as “political correctness gone mad” and another chestnut “I’ve done the unconscious bias training but don’t know what else to do”, I was, indeed, frustrated. Maybe you’ve heard someone say “I’m gender blind, I treat everyone the same” – maybe they do, but does equal treatment mean an equal outcome? And of course, the final reason is that we don’t want to compromise standards. “It’s a meritocracy”

But inclusion is so fundamental to engineering it simply cannot be left to chance. We cannot afford to be gender blind and not be analytical about the situation. So how can you make a difference and help others to as well? 

Happily, at Katalytik we’ve many ideas, both small and large, of things you can do to make a difference. And we can help you measure progress too. 

Let’s consider meritocracy

Meritocracy has been our standard in engineering. The main excuse given for not changing systems and processes. As engineers, we will not compromise on standards or behaviours. And this includes refusing to compromise on the quality of people appointed to roles. For decades we’ve lined up behind this, solid, inarguable stance of quality and excellence. No one: man or woman. No person, wants to be a token minority, awarded an honour or job simply for being representative of a group of people. The problem though is that we have indeed compromised excellence through being blinded by the adherence to meritocracy. Indeed, errors can be seen across science and engineering, identified in the Designing Inclusive Engineering Education report and Stanford University project that documents Gendered Innovations, caused by failing to do good science or engineering.   

The users of things

So how has this translated into engineering and our consideration of users?  Let’s evaluate excellence in terms of the appreciation of people and the needs of technology users. We must ensure that engineers of the future have a clear understanding of how people vary. And how their roles in our gendered society and their physiology create unique problems and demand different solutions that shift by age.

Making engineering more diverse won’t make us any better at understanding people and their problems. These places the burden of noticing on underrepresented people. Because, we’ve trained everyone the same!

We must teach observation and noticing to engineers. Help them to notice differences and look at this in the context of problems, design and users.

Managing the elephant and making folk feel included: four things to notice

In summary, our esteemed meritocracy is compromised by failing to understand what inclusion means. All engineers need to practice noticing:

  1. People who don’t seem engaged: strike up a conversation
  2. Problems in the context of people: always ask, ‘who will use this and how’
  3. Problems different people have in an engineering context: look at policy papers for topics to address
  4. And step up, intervene and challenge those who prevent others from being their best. 

Noticing there’s an elephant in your lab

Noticing there’s an elephant in the lab means you can take the first steps figuring how to befriend it and make it feel welcome. For your first steps notice and appreciate the experiences of some people in your lab will not be the same as yours’ or each others’.  Explore how it can be improved. Strike a conversation. Happily, at Katalytik we’ve many ideas, both small and large, of things you can do to make a difference. And we can help you measure progress too. 

Read: Five reasons to shift how you think about inclusion in engineering and technology.

References

Advance HE (2008). Ethnicity, gender and degree attainment: final report

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York

Peters, J. W. (2018). Designing inclusive engineering education Royal Academy of Engineering

Schiebinger, L. (2019) Gendered Innovations  

Valian, V. (1998). Why so Slow? The Advancement of Women. The MIT Press. Cambridge, Mass.