Cutting through the Bravado Culture that Dominates the Engineering Sector

Isabel Ashworth and Melissa Ranger of Monolith, on why honest people make better leaders in STEM and the state of women in engineering today.

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The need for diversity in AI

The pandemic has catalysed the rate of integration of AI technologies into engineering sectors, helping to reduce the number of in-person tests and real life simulations at a time of international lockdown. 

AI engineering desperately needs diverse thought to avoid a sector dominated by homogenous tech which is full of innate biases. As AI plays a larger role in the technologies we encounter everyday, we need to know that these sometimes ethical decisions and safety measures are representative of the population at large.

When it comes to AI engineering and design, statistically the sector is very male, and very white. The industry overall has a 72% gender gap - with only 22% of AI professionals being female, while 78% are male, with tech sciences employing very few people of colour - black employees represent only 2.5% of Google’s entire workforce and 4% of Facebook’s and Microsoft’s.

“Fixing the pipeline” of talent is only half the battle

More can be done to encourage individuals from different gender identities and backgrounds into the sector, but in particular, more needs to be done to ensure these individuals want to stay within the sector throughout their career, as opposed to moving onto different disciplines.

There are really valuable high-profile initiatives aimed at promoting STEM subjects to children, and to support young adults into further studies of STEM subjects, all to improve the pipeline of incoming talent. But the retention rate is poor once these individuals enter the field. More needs to be done to change the culture within the industry to ensure people feel included and supported for a long and prosperous career.

Engineering is all about problem solving, we need different ideas to give us options. We need people with different experiences to ensure that we engineer a solution that can accommodate everyone in its intended audience, and for that, we need the solution to have been engineered by a variety of people with different experiences.

Imposter Syndrome

Engineers who don’t come from what the industry might consider a “typical” engineering background, can and do, have occasional brushes with feelings of Imposter Syndrome. 

Right from the word go, studying physics or engineering through school and university, if you’re somehow not a part of this homogenous shared experience, it can make you doubt yourself, your abilities or whether you really belong in the industry.

“Fake it ‘til you make it” is often a good technique to combat feelings of doubt and anxiety, essentially backing yourself until you eventually believe in your own abilities like your colleagues do. It’s an effective coping mechanism for a problem which shouldn’t exist in this day and age. 

Most importantly however, is to recognise that coming from a background which does not reflect that of those around you is a strength, and in no way a weakness. Different experiences, perspectives and creative reasoning skills are a vital asset to any team taking on new technological challenges. What you bring to the table is unique, and the success of innovative projects often relies on bringing together people with original perspectives and ideas. 

The best leaders are honest ones

Often the need for personable, empathetic personalities is overlooked within STEM industries. There is a common misconception that those who rise to the top of the ranks are simply super-humanly bright, functioning almost like robots, and that’s simply not the case.

Especially when it comes to leading a successful team, honesty is probably one of the most significant factors in terms of understanding the concerns of your team and being able to grow from your mistakes. It's part of showing we're human, part of fostering an environment where people can be humble and still be considered good leaders, you don't have to be right all the time to be a good leader.

Some of the best and most respected role models in the industry have been the individuals who have acknowledged their own weaknesses, and showed that they want to grow and learn from their mistakes. In doing so, it allows other people to feel they can do the same – it’s how we learn as a community.

Most importantly, it’s part of how we can bring our true selves to work each day, and in some cases, help to eliminate this feeling of not being enough.

Being honest with your team allows everyone to understand what’s going well, what needs improvement, the overall direction of workstreams and the company at large. Having a shared goal is the best way to foster a sense of community and encourage people to make their feelings and priorities clear. 

In terms of encouraging diversity within the sector, an honest empathetic leader will be able to have tough conversations and react to some of the more nuanced pressures and challenges some professionals still encounter, such as coming up against sexism or racism.

Generating change

Significantly, it’s the responsibility of everyone working within engineering to help generate this much needed change by being mindful, questioning existing processes and bringing these questions to those in leadership positions. For those recruiting looking to bring on greater diversity, some of Monolith’s hiring tactics involve removing names off CVs and advertising to wider audiences. Changing job requirements to “ideal to have” rather than “must have”, also helps to open up the application process as women are less likely to apply if they don’t feel they fit a strict role criteria.

Those in leadership and personnel positions play a huge role in terms of retention. Providing more part-time and flexible roles for people who have caring responsibilities and making sure internal management teams are up to date on diversity and inclusion training helps to spot potential issues within teams before members start voting with their feet.

The future of the engineering sector relies on championing diverse voices and working together unanimously to bring in and retain talented people from all walks of life. If you feel out of place in engineering because of the way you look, or where you came from, remember that the sector desperately needs you. Diverse thought, creativity and problem solving skills are at the heart of what we do, having people with different experiences and thought processes is the life blood of the sector. If you’re ever in doubt, imagine someone you respect and trust telling you “You’ve got this”, because you do.