From Coronavirus to Climate Change, the Challenges We Face Call for a Change in our Culture of Engineering | Opinion

From COVID-19 and cybersecurity to flooding and wildfire management, technological and engineering expertise are in demand on a global scale as never before to help tackle the biggest issues faced by humanity. As the pace of technological change accelerates, every nation needs to ensure they have the capacity to conduct engineering in a safe and innovative way, a fact reinforced by new research published by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd's Register Foundation this week to coincide with the first UN World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development on 4 March.

The research project is part of Engineering X, a new international collaboration that brings together some of the world's leading problem-solvers to address the great challenges of our age. The Global Engineering Capability Review compares the engineering capability of 99 countries around the world. Singapore ranks in the top ten in five out of the six categories and comes first under labour force, digital infrastructure and safety standards. The U.S. leads the knowledge rankings, in stark contrast with its safety ranking.

This research aims to provide a baseline to help policymakers, educators and business executives understand their country's relative engineering strengths and to identify and address capability gaps that are barriers to safe and sustainable development. It identifies some unexpected strengths such as Iran's engineering labour force, which tops the index for the highest percentage of graduates (of both sexes) from tertiary education in the fields of engineering, manufacturing and construction, at 30 percent.

The report also highlights some specific issues in particular countries, assessing the context and drivers of engineering capability gaps. These include the production problems facing China as it seeks to become a global leader in artificial intelligence; the environmental and sustainability issues facing Thailand as a key supplier for a growing global market for concrete and sand; and how Jordan, one of the world's driest countries, is facing a crisis in water supply and management, compounded by a large and growing refugee population.

The U.K. features in the top ten of just two categories — knowledge and safety standards – and scores particularly poorly on skills and diversity, ranking 69th out of the 99 nations for the proportion of female graduates in engineering disciplines in tertiary education. As we mark International Women's Day, this is a deeply disappointing statistic.

Engineering in the U.K. has a major diversity deficit. Our workforce is 12 percent female and, despite decades of effort, the proportion of women entering engineering has hardly changed – 7 percent apprentices; 16 percent among undergraduates. In addition, only 9 percent of the engineering workforce are from black and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, which is shocking when you consider that over 30 percent of engineering undergraduates are. In fact there is a marked difference in progression into employment for BAME engineering graduates – you are more than twice as likely to be unemployed six months after graduation if you're from a BAME group than your white counterpart, even taking into account the class of degree you achieved and type of university you went to.

There is now a well-established evidence base for the business benefits of diverse workforces and teams, ranging from productivity to creativity to health and safety to talent retention. But the diversity deficit in U.K. engineering also matters because, whether we realise it or not, engineers shape the world we live in in a profound way – designing and delivering the digital and physical infrastructure that we all rely on, day in day out, as well as developing solutions that will be key to addressing critical challenges we all face, both locally and globally. It is essential that the people undertaking these crucial roles are more reflective of the society they serve.

It is particularly perverse that the U.K. simultaneously faces a severe skills shortage and an unacceptable diversity deficit in engineering: many of the emerging and in-demand jobs identified by the World Economic Forum are engineering jobs, yet every year the U.K. is short of up to 59,000 engineers. There is also good evidence that engineering is a career associated with higher than average salaries and job satisfaction. Unfortunately, the public and online images of engineers that young people are exposed to are dominated by narrow and outdated stereotypes of people, often men, in hard hats and high vis jackets, which simply do not reflect the breadth and variety of modern engineering careers.

That is why, since January 2018, the Royal Academy of Engineering has been leading a perception change campaign called This is Engineering, featuring real early career engineers from all parts of society and engineering. In our first two years the campaign videos have been viewed over 40 million times by a gender balanced audience of U.K. teenagers. Importantly, the campaign is increasing the willingness of young people, especially girls, to consider engineering careers, as well as changing parental perceptions.

We have also created an annual public awareness day to celebrate engineers and engineering. This is Engineering Day on 4 November 2020 will be themed 'Be the difference'. Ahead of this, we have launched a new season of This is Engineering films on social media, focusing on nine real-life engineering heroes whose work helps make a difference in the world. From mitigating flooding and addressing climate change to making farming easier and improving healthcare, they show young people how they can 'Be the difference' if they choose engineering as a career, no matter what subjects they enjoy at school.

Attracting more people into engineering from all parts of society is absolutely essential but focussing on diversity in isolation is not enough. We recently published research demonstrating that while the gender pay gap for engineering is below the national average, the single largest factor underlying it was the lack of women in senior roles. An inclusive culture is one in which everyone feels valued, safe, welcome and able to contribute – there is a level playing field for success. It's a culture in which uniqueness —our sense of individuality —and belongingness —our sense of being part of a community in which we feel at home —can comfortably coexist. As we celebrate International Women's Day, it's a timely reminder that alongside our efforts to attract more girls and women into engineering, we need to redouble our efforts to create cultures where all engineers can thrive.

Dr Hayaatun Sillem CBE is Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering in London, U.K.

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