Diversity in science and engineering

I’ve been thinking on the subject of diversity in the last few weeks, prompted most recently by the terrible announcement of an all male membership of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

The current all male committee. There is hope — there are three seats missing & Norman Lamb is concerned. Do your bit, and why not write to your MP to ask them to look into this?

Individual members of this committee are likely individually very talented. They may be worthy members of an important political establishment. However, as an ensemble, the lack of female representation is jarring, problematic and raises significant concern.

Representation is important, and here the lack of diversity in the membership of the committee sends the wrong message and is counter to much of the hard work undertaken within the wider science and engineering community. Furthermore, the lack of diversity on the committee provides an awkward lack of representation and voice for a significant fraction (50%!) of UK society.

Why does diversity matter (for me)

Diversity enables a stronger collective voice (Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash)
  • Diversity empowers people to be themselves (role models);
  • Diversity enables representation of society (relevance & engagement);
  • Diversity of thought drives innovation (points of view);
  • Diversity of thought enables robust decision making (points of view & experience);
  • Diversity promotes sustainable processes (robust to evolving society).

The empowerment of individuals to realise their dreams and objectives is at the heart of my personal motivation.

Privilege, diversity and moving to a pass-it-forward culture

Passing forward is the gift that keeps on giving, especially when supporting those less fortunate than you (Photo by Kendall Lane on Unsplash)

I am increasingly recognising that I have grown up with immense privilege (middle class, white, western, private school, Oxford-educated, stable home, loving friends and family, with supportive and encouraging role-models) that has made many of my key life choices significantly less difficult than they could have been. I hope that my choices and personal success have empowered by hard work and tenacity, but it is easier to work hard, focus and undertake exciting work when standing near the peak of privilege.

Given this background, I want to enable more people to realise their own dreams. However, this is tempered by my circumstances where I have limited resource, and I have multiple other draws upon my time. Also, I think that many societal changes are driven by individuals, often through simple acts of kindness, moments of influence as a role models, and direct support through mentorship.

Enabling change

I believe that I can have the most impact through the mantra of “Less rockstars, more mentors”.

As a mentor, I think that I should encourage others to consider the impact of individual points of view, be respectful of people’s circumstances, and to live my life err-ing on the benefit of the doubt with a view that I should actively attempt to be kind where I can.

Through writing this blog post, tweeting on this issue and discussing it with colleagues, I hope that I can encourage more people to stand up and offer support (formal or informal). In particular, especially as I am in a secure position, I think I should stand-up and be counted, and encourage others to do the same.

One of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of acting as a mentor is the act of listening and enabling others to share their points of view. This makes me far more diverse than trying to stand on a soap-box and lecture others from my limited life experiences.

Does diversity matter?

Supporting and encouraging diversity gets a huge thumbs up in my world (Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash)

Yes. Yes, it really does.

Diversity matters everywhere. Diversity matters with our representatives and key decision makers. Diversity matters for our teachers. Diversity matters with our CEOs, our technicians, our students, and our healthcare providers. Diversity matters for our scientists and engineers both in academia, industry and beyond.

Engineers widely think that a company more diverse, and more inclusive is important. This is especially important in less privileged groups.

Diversity is important, especially women and BAME (black, asian, minority and ethnic) workers in science and engineering (from http://www.raeng.org.uk/publications/reports/creating-cultures-where-all-engineers-thrive)

But Science and Engineering is about problem solving, not people…

People are important — their day-to-day lives impact the science and engineering they undertake. (Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash)

Science and engineering is performed by people. We need great people to work hard on really difficult challenges. These people have families; they have life experiences; they have personal challenges. The humanity of the actors in our science and engineering story is no longer a footnote.

People are formed by their experiences. Role models enhance these experiences, and these role-models are found everywhere. We must enable, and support, diverse role models everywhere.

Individually, supporting everyone everywhere may seem exhausting and insincere. I’m not asking you to drop everything you are doing. I’m asking you to call out bad practice, to share good practice, and to take the time and ask when you could support good practice. Ask yourself why there is an all male panel (a ‘manel’) at your conference? Ask why a poster just has a cluster of male faces? Ask why a committee it stuffed full of male faces? Consider how unconscious bias affects your decision making.

Science and engineering involves sharing our exploration of the great unknown and making an impact that matters. We’ll make that easier for everyone help each other to the top. (Photo by Ms.Sue Huan on Unsplash)

Ultimately, If you are lucky enough to be privileged and to have not had your journey interrupted through formal (or informal) exclusion, take a step back and enjoy that realisation. Now spare a thought to those individuals who have been systematically ignored over the ages, and whose contributions have been largely ignored through the history books. Now spare a few more thoughts and devise some simple actions to enable a change in our culture.

Post script (13/Sept/2017) — there is good news on the horizon. I especially like Lamb’s comment — “In due course I intend to raise questions about this area [gender balance and diversity] of the House’s practice with he Liaison Committee and others”.

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If you fancy getting in touch, telling me your stories, and helping me understand the world better, you can find me on twitter as @BMatB, or keep up to date with the group’s work via @ExpMicroMech.