Diversity is Key to Inspiring a New Generation of Engineers | Opinion

This month will see a very special event—a summit on London's Southbank, bringing together 900 engineers and change-makers from the UK, U.S. and China to address two key questions: will artificial intelligence and other transformational technologies change humanity for the better? And can we sustain a global population approaching 10 billion? Against a backdrop of rapid technological change, an unstable geopolitical situation, and ever more evidence of the deleterious effects of climate change, these are complex but crucial questions.

The Global Grand Challenges Summit provides an opportunity to bring people together across continents, disciplines and generations to tackle these challenges. A vital part of the summit will be an innovation competition for international groups of students from the UK, U.S. and China. Once students from each country have pitched their ideas to expert judges, each nation's teams will be reassembled into mixed country teams to tackle the same issues in a new way, to demonstrate the power of diversity and cross-cultural work.

This part of the summit is especially important because it underlies an essential truth about the engineering profession in the 21st century: its future success depends on collaboration, cross-cultural work and diversity. As engineering systems become more complex and enrich every aspect of our lives, from personal communication to healthcare, it is vital that the engineering profession properly reflects the society it serves. Only in this way can engineers truly understand what their customers want—and deliver products that are both useful and sustainable.

Unfortunately, the UK faces a major skills gap and diversity deficit. The latest data indicates that we have an annual shortfall of up to 59,000 engineering graduates and technicians. This is exacerbated by the fact that only 12 percent of the UK's engineering workforce are female. Just 16 percent of those who enter first degrees in engineering and technology in the UK are female, and in a study we commissioned a few years ago, we were placed a lowly 58th out of 86 countries globally for gender diversity among engineering graduates. The situation is even worse for apprenticeships, with just 7 percent of engineering-related apprenticeships completed by women in England in 2015-16; in Scotland this was as low as 3 percent.

The situation is somewhat different, but no less worrisome, for Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) engineers: only 8 percent of UK professional engineers are from BAME backgrounds, despite the fact that over 30 percent of UK engineering higher education students are. Moreover, BAME students are twice as likely to be unemployed six months after graduation than their white counterparts, even when the type of university and degree class is controlled for. This is an unacceptable differential in employment outcomes that we are working hard to tackle.

Engineers play a profoundly important role in shaping the world around us—from designing our cities and transport systems, to delivering clean energy solutions, to enhancing cybersecurity—and our lack of diversity risks affecting our ability to respond effectively to our shared challenges, both locally and globally. That's why last year the Royal Academy of Engineering launched a digital campaign that set out to reposition engineering in the minds of young people to encourage more teenagers from a wider range of backgrounds to see a future for themselves in this amazing, vibrant, creative, and rewarding profession. Developed with EngineeringUK and industry partners, This is Engineering uses digital advertising to reach young people and those who influence their decisions about their futures—including parents and teachers.

The campaign uses short films of young engineers from a range of backgrounds to illustrate how engineering is behind many of the things teenagers are already interested in—sport, fashion and tech, for example—and to show them that they can follow what they love into engineering.

Since the campaign launched in January 2018 across social media, our 16 young film stars have been viewed over 35 million times by a gender-balanced audience of UK teenagers. Whereas 39 percent of teens said they would consider a career in engineering before the campaign launched, after the first year that figure had risen to 72 percent among those who had seen the campaign. Importantly, the change in consideration has been greater among underrepresented groups.

This year, we want to make sure our message reaches even more people. It's up to us to show what modern engineering careers really involve in an interesting and engaging way, so this week the Academy has announced that This is Engineering is entering a new phase. For a start, we've declared our commitment to changing search engine image results for the word "engineer." Currently, this yields a sea of people (mostly men) in hard hats, which has become the lazy visual shorthand for an engineer. It's an outdated and incredibly narrow stereotype of what engineers do and what they look like that simply doesn't do justice to the breadth and excitement of today's engineering roles. To help make the change, we will be launching a new public photo library featuring an array of diverse engineers from all branches of engineering, and we'll be challenging website owners, media, advertisers, and recruiters to commit to helping us use more representative and inclusive images such as these when they depict engineers.

Working with partners across the engineering profession, we have also announced a new national awareness day on 6 November—This is Engineering Day—as part of Tomorrow's Engineers Week. The day will see engineering organizations and supporters showcase the real faces of 21st century engineering to the public. Engineering is everywhere, and by shining a light on the people who make possible so many of the features of modern life, we hope that we will be able to inspire more people from all parts of society to choose a profession that shapes our world.

Dr Hayaatun Sillem is CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering in London, U.K.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​