Making workplaces more inclusive – you can Transform the Future

Some thoughts from our CEO, Jan Peters for #INWED19

Jan Peters spoke at the National Physical Laboratory on 20 June 2019 and explored historic women and reasons for shifting the language we use to be inclusive. 

Four tips to start building a more inclusive work and living space.

The blockbuster film Hidden Figures blows away the image of (women) mathematicians and coders. Suddenly they are clever, sassy and stylish. These are people who made a difference against the odds. How come so few people have heard of these changemaker mathematicians working at NASA?

In 1919 we’re celebrating that the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) is 100 years old. I’ve been involved in some way since I was a PhD student in the early 90’s. The kinds of things we did included outreach with schools, supporting women students with work expereince and sharing stories and experiences with other engineers, for instance. Always, we were trying to work out how to change the engineering culture. The experiences of similar network groups are described superbly by Henri Etzkowitz in his book Athena Unbound. Times though are changing.

The more I repeat and share the stories of WES founders’ and members’ contributions to making a difference to the world, the more interest I feel from others. And the more I enjoy honouring their energy and sacrifices. I’m proud to play my small part in that. Two people who have made a tremendous contribution to uncovering the profiles of the early women engineers are Nina Baker (The Women Engineers Blogsite)  and Dawn Bonfield (Magnificent Women and their Flying Machines

WES, today is a thriving society for people who share a passion about engineering and the opportunities it affords women. It was set up at a time when women were excluded from the professional institutions – important because in those days that is how one had one’s work published. The society and its phenomenal membership have spent a century challenging what it means to be an engineer, not a ‘woman engineer’.

Playing your part, whoever you are, and becoming an effective Changemaker can be done in your own way. And it doesn’t have to be time consuming or difficult.

Is it change for change sake?

Changing the experiences of women in engineering has been mostly done by women, for women. Careers have been lost to this effort: excited and maybe distracted by outreach; enthused by the potential of Athena SWAN to make a difference; or standing up against bad behaviour. It’s distracting and draining. Shifting a system, turning a ship, is easier when done with the current, not against it. Each member of the engineering community needs to play a role in changing the experiences of engineers through being inclusive. 

It’s not just a nice thing to do though. In failing to be inclusive we are compromising the very excellence of engineering and innovation. How might we overcome this? Try training our engineers to think of product users as individuals: talking to them; including our colleagues in discussions and decisions: noticing and listening to their views. Through this engineering products and services will become better. And if we each consider co-workers and clients more rigorously as individuals we will shift our experiences and outcomes. We might even start to innovate through seeing problems we hadn’t noticed before.

Crucially, people’s experiences can’t change until their contributions are valued and they feel useful. 

Realising that we each have the power within us to make a difference for all we come into contact with is a powerful start.

Inclusive language and words

Begin with valuing each other: creating the conditions for participation and growth. As you go about your day begin noticing other’s value and contributions and acknowledge it. You can do this by choosing words wisely. Making a vital link from philosophy to artefact. 

So, our focus is making sure we don’t repeat the errors of the past and that we nurture and value every drop of talent. Making this commitment is a first step towards inclusion:  noticing and valuing those we have previously not noticed. And the best thing? To do this is free. And the gift lies within each of us in choosing the words we use. How, and when we use them. 

Making a difference: four things to start doing now.

I am asking you now to take responsibility for noticing. Start practising now as you go about your daily business, try:

  1. Walking between meetings: slowing down, looking up and noticing people. Nod, and say hello.
  2. Inviting people to contribute in meetings: be intentional. Noticing those who need more time to contribute means you can connect with them before the next meeting and ask them if they have any thoughts they’d like to contribute for example.
  3. Actively listening to people. Specifically, let people know you have listened by asking a question. Try level 1 and level 2 questions: Level 1: empathising and nodding. Level 2: start your questions with “What” and ask about how people are feeling. What were they doing?  What differences would they like to see and how. Remember: Notice. Listen. Question. Demonstrate how you value people’s contributions.
  4. Sharing the cognitive burden borne by under-represented people: you have a pivotal role in appreciating and understanding that people with caring responsibilities may have 50 things firing through their brains when you ask if they can attend a meeting or take on a task. It’s not that they aren’t interested, just trying to see if it will work out.

It’s truly a great thing that the phenomenal film Hidden Figures blew away the image of (women) mathematicians and coders so beautifully. Making sure the contributions and sacrifices of women and minority groups are always valued and visible is an honour towards these heroines and the struggles they faced. Each of us can play our own part by making small changes each day: start with nodding and saying hello to people. And start today.