#WomenExcel: Why do we need diversity in engineering?
A 2012 paper published by Deloitte titled “Waiter is that inclusion in my soup?” found an 80-percent increase in business performance for companies with high diversity rates.
Whilst there is a proven business case for greater diversity, the need for diversity is more personal for me. At the tender age of 16, I was struggling to identify what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had picked math and science subjects for my higher education because I enjoyed these areas of study, and I had a natural aptitude for them. I loved seeing tall, majestic skyscrapers and sweeping bridges, as well as the smaller things that made our everyday lives just a little bit easier.
I had a somewhat romanticised view of civil engineering, and never truly considered it as a viable profession. Research into the profession confirmed my suspicions — girls like me generally don’t do things like engineering. In the U.K., engineering was all about Isambard Brunel and James Watt — inspiring figures who all seemed to fit the same mold and, fundamentally, did not represent me. This was the catalyst for me; if I wanted to see a change, I would have to become that change.
With the pressure mounting from issues such as climate change, adequate global sanitation, and limited food and water supplies, there is a clear need for more engineers and more creativity. To put this plainly, to respond to the wide range of economic, social and environmental challenges of the coming century, we need more engineers and, inherently, we need more diversity.
It has been reported that, with the huge amounts of expected growth in infrastructure needs in the U.K., we need about 87,000 new graduate engineers each year, but we only produce around 25,000. Whilst I have provided U.K.-based statistics, this is a global problem. The U.K., however, does present a special case in terms of its lack of diversity.
In 2014, women accounted for only 14 percent of engineering graduates, despite the fact that nearly half of physics general certificate of secondary education pupils were female. Add to this that more than half of the end users of the projects we undertake are women, and you start getting a scale of the issue. Even worse than this, only 7 percent of the professional engineering workforce in the U.K. is women and 6 percent come from ethnic minority groups.
As engineers, we all strive for that eureka moment of finding the optimal solution. For me, so many of these moments have occurred in the middle of a brainstorming session or a conversation with my peers and colleagues. We all generate ideas using our understanding of the complexities of a problem as well as our past experiences. As individuals, we are the product of our personal and cultural experiences. A more diverse group, whether this is in terms of gender, race or socio-economic background, will provide a richer tapestry of ideas and innovation. It is imperative that the people designing the solutions for the problems of tomorrow reflect the diversity within our communities.
Now, after spending eight years as an engineer, I can see the small flutters of change in the attitudes of our professionals and the wider perception of engineering. The benefits of diversity are obvious; we can develop more creative and innovative solutions to problems all over the world. I believe if we want to drive engineering as a desirable profession, we must appeal to a wider audience and attract talent from all walks of life.
At AECOM, we are in a unique position to tackle the stereotypes and push through boundaries in terms of engineering and diversity. Being the largest global engineering design firm gives us a platform to lead the way in terms of diversity.
Nayera Aslam is a principal consultant on AECOM’s transportation team in Birmingham, United Kingdom. She works on the preliminary designs of local and national highway schemes, which has included the 2012 London Olympics. Aslam’s inspiration to become an engineer was her father, who made her believe that being female should never restrict her ambitions.
LinkedIn: Nayera Aslam