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Reframing diversity and inclusion in engineering

Countdown to #ECU2017

ECU is now counting down to our 2017 annual conference, which is taking place in Birmingham on Tuesday 7 and Wednesday 8 November 2017.

As part of our countdown we will be publishing blog posts written by speakers, at our conference, between now and the conference itself.

The fourth post in this series is from Dr Jan Peters who will be presenting on ‘Reframing diversity and inclusion in engineering on day one. For more information about this workshop visit our online conference programme.

Reframing diversity and inclusion in engineering

Littered across the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) landscape are relics of great ideas, abandoned projects and purposeful reports that aim to achieve a more diverse cohort of engineers.

These initiatives offer support, energy and enthusiasm, bound by a common passion for change. Supporters come and go. Funding waxes and wanes. Slowly things evolve. We all accept there is no magic wand and change takes time.

To date our progress in creating a diverse and diversity confident engineering populace has been terminally slow. While the effects of the Athena SWAN Charter are seen at professorial level (engineering has progressed from zero in many fields such as civil engineering to an average of 12% in 18 years) but numbers of female students in engineering remain a static average at 15% and studies report marginalisation of both women (see for example Seron and Silbey) and minority groups.

The culture of engineering (Wendy Faulkner, genders in and of engineering) has not been one that is warm to women or minorities with the default setting on banter and joking. While much has improved there are only a few universities teaching an inclusive mindset at the undergraduate level where engineers are forged.

We need a whole system approach. Hitherto we have been using fairly clumsy blunt instruments and I include unconscious or implicit bias tick box training in that. Training can help people become more aware, but it doesn’t equate to changing beliefs or behaviours. Of late, on my wanderings I find a collective bewilderment at “what next”, specifically after unconscious bias training.

The apparent loose engagement of engineering in the diversity and inclusion landscape is summed up by the UK SPEC requirement to “be diversity aware” through to the low engagement and progress by engineering departments in achieving Athena SWAN Charter awards.

I said apparent loose engagement because I do believe there is a hunger for change, it’s just not being recognised at the same rates as other disciplines.

What might a new approach look like? My starting point for you is the book I set out to write and then found during my research, Gender Inclusive Engineering Education by Julie Mills from 2010. This provided some of the ideas that were incorporated into the Integrated Engineering Programme (IEP) at University College London (UCL) during the design phase including, for example: situating projects and challenges in different global settings; addressing the role of the self in critical thinking; and introducing a vocabulary for different behaviours in team working.

The IEP offered a shift in thinking and the strapline for the faculty became ‘change the world.’ The goal is to give students an authentic learning experience through skills-based and problem based learning pedagogy. Embedded into the programme alongside all the professional skills that engineers need is inclusion: how to be inclusive and what is inclusion in design terms.

Our thinking has now developed beyond this. Following a symposium on inclusion in engineering education in 2016 we are now testing 99 questions in conversation with engineering educators, highlighting what is already being done, how it could be bettered and sharing good practice across departments. This is driven at UCL by the Liberating the Curriculum initiative. Reviewing progress within the IEP we have found case studies, illustrations of fledgling progress and ideas for further work.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.

Benjamin Franklin

The way forward is for us all to ask questions in and around diversity and collect and use the tools that can help. Growing our confidence in being able to talk about difference and explore what difference means in the context of the engineering being done is an important step forward. This is as important for the engineers of the future as for those doing the educating.

This workshop explores a starting framework of where engineering is taught; how it is taught; what is taught; and the opportunities to practice professional socialisation and identity as an engineer.

Find out more at 3pm on Tuesday 7 November in the Balmoral Suite, on day one of the ECU conference.

Dr Jan Peters MBE
External consultant to UCL Engineering

The views and opinions in this blog post reflect those of the authors and not Equality Challenge Unit.