Why we need diversity in engineering
It is widely acknowledged that diversity brings huge benefits to a company, from improved financial performance to greater innovation. But what does this mean day to day? I believe that the majority of those working in engineering would not consciously disregard candidates who have a disability, women, ethnic minorities or those with caring responsibilities when making recruitment decisions. But I also know there are many people who have a niggle at the back of their minds that the current focus on diverse recruitment is just about being ‘politically correct’ or filling a quota.
So, let’s talk real life, a real scenario which could have benefited from a bit of diversity in the decision-making process.
I live and work in Birmingham city centre and it’s going through some pretty amazing changes at the moment. The one I am most looking forward to is the expansion of the Midland Metro tram network. Trams are amazingly inclusive, allowing access to key locations for those unfamiliar with the city and those with mobility issues. Also, a city hop at the moment, that will get you from Grand Central to the Jewellery Quarter is just £1! However, bringing this infrastructure to the masses inevitability involves disruption to the everyday working life of the city.
On one of my lunchtime walks assessing the progress of the Centenary Square extension I came across the newly erected hoarding around the construction site in Victoria Square.
For those not familiar with Birmingham, this is the access to Hill Street from Victoria Square which links the city to landmarks such as New Street Station and the Mailbox shopping centre. With the placement of hoarding they have now removed step-free access to Hill Street. I stood annoyed and frustrated because to me it seems obvious that by moving the hoarding just 0.5m-1m would have maintained step-free access and avoided inconveniencing people.
Now a person who uses a wheelchair, people with mobility issues, those that struggle with steps, do you think they would have identified this issue? Those who have young children, who know what it’s like to navigate busy shopping centres with a pushchair, shopping bags and possibly other children running around, do you think they would have identified this issue?
Of course, there may have been a good engineering reason why they positioned the hording in that way, but as I continued my walk I found something else quite unsettling.
These are some of the diversion routes for those unable to go along Hill Street. I personally would think twice before walking down any of these roads. While there are lights positioned along the routes, they lack clear sight lines; anyone could be around the corner. On Pinfold Street there are alcoves by the shop frontages that someone could be hiding in. If you were someone vulnerable would you want to walk down these narrow passages?
With more than 90% of those working in engineering roles being male, it may not register that women like myself feel uncomfortable using these walkways. Where they just see a walkway, I see a potential ambush situation where I may be attacked and assaulted. I obviously assess the risks, but it’s easier for me as I walk this route every day. How would someone new to the city, or who had previously been targeted because of their race, gender or sexual orientation feel about walking down such routes?
As engineers we are responsible for designing for everyone, especially those whose lives could be improved by thoughtful design, but the problem is most people who design these types of schemes don’t feel vulnerable walking down a narrow passage by themselves. This is where a diverse project team would have been key; someone could have highlighted that the project could be more inclusive or that it may not feel safe for everyone. There could have been an assessment, maybe even a design change. Now, how many little decisions like these do engineers have to make in a day, in a year? Different perspectives help us deliver better and more inclusive projects. Isn’t that why we got into this business in the first place, to make people’s lives better?