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FEATURE: 5 ways diversity enhances engineering projects

Zoe Dempsey, business development director at Burns & McDonnell

'A lack of diversity is hampering our ability to stay competitive, and to recover after the pandemic' (Credit: Shutterstock)
'A lack of diversity is hampering our ability to stay competitive, and to recover after the pandemic' (Credit: Shutterstock)

When it comes to greater inclusion, equality, and fairness in the workplace, we know that diversity of all kinds is an essential ingredient. But, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering, the UK has the lowest proportion (8%) of female professional engineers of any European country.

This statistic represents a damaging loss of talent, and a neglected opportunity for the engineering sector. A lack of diversity is hampering our ability to stay competitive, and to recover after the pandemic.

Aside from helping the sector to flourish, diversity is integral to ensuring the smooth and effective design, implementation and execution of individual projects. Here’s what I’ve learned about diversity, and how every engineering project can be enhanced by more diverse teams.

1: Creativity means innovation

The transformation that our energy networks are undergoing to make way for the transition to ‘net zero’ means the demand for innovation and creativity in engineering has never been greater. If we are to stand a chance of meeting the 2050 target, we must harness all the talent we can get.

Studies show that diverse teams, bringing a range of different views and experiences, create a richer and more stimulating environment, enhancing innovation. When a team includes people with varying perspectives from education, experience or identity, its collective intelligence is greater than that of a more homogeneous team. When there is an inclusive culture that fosters and encourages these different viewpoints and effective collaboration, creativity flourishes.

This innovative spirit is important in all businesses and sectors, but particularly so in engineering, where innovative design – which sets the tone of the entire project – is so vital.

2: A motivated team is a productive team

Improving employee engagement and performance is another key driver for diversity. Inclusive teams are more motivated because they feel part of a greater whole. This generates increased productivity and boosts overall retention rates, providing employers with a stable, consistent workforce. With time, this creates strong collaborative working, to the mutual benefit of both sides.

In this way there is a tangible connection between diversity and financial performance – studies from organisations such as McKinsey have shown that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have financial returns that were above their national industry median.

Simply put, businesses that commit to diverse teams and leadership are more successful in the long run.

3: Fast learning encourages effective problem solving

Sometimes it can feel like a project is one long list of challenges that need to be overcome. The ability to solve problems rapidly and to move past hurdles as a team, with limited friction, is integral to delivering engineering projects.

People with diverse mindsets are more likely to be able to bring their experiences to problem-solving, and to learn from others, making this process smoother. Learning from mistakes is also crucial. Continual review and improvement should be a core tenet of all engineering projects, from design through to construction.

4: Positive partnerships bring new perspectives

Diversity within supply chain partners and sub-contractors is an area of huge importance for all engineering businesses. Firms that diversify their supply chain enjoy benefits, such as new ways of looking at product development and marketing, access to new markets and an enhanced brand. Cultural insight from different perspectives is an important part of this.

Supplier diversity also means support for equality, diversity and inclusion in other ways – for example, by ensuring that the businesses that supply your organisation follow policies that live up to your own equality, diversity and inclusion standards.

5: An inclusive culture means satisfied customers

What all of this adds up to is simple - better project outcomes and more positive client and partner relationships. Indeed, research shows that organisations that are successful at creating inclusive cultures have higher customer satisfaction ratings overall.

Increasingly, diversity, inclusion and equality are key strategic drivers for engineering clients across the board – and they want to see this cascade down into their own supply chains. National Grid, for example, places workforce diversity as central to achieving its goals, and champions initiatives to encourage young women to consider engineering as a career. SSEN places diversity and inclusion at the heart of its sustainability plan through its ‘In, On, Up’ inclusion strategy. Matching clients’ expectations is key to the success of projects and longevity of relationships.

Delivering on a customer’s strategic plans begins with your people. If customers can see your team is a diverse one and that you are applying diversity and inclusion principles across your organisation, a project is more likely to proceed on a positive basis.

It starts with us

We need to do better when it comes to diversity, and the reasons why are clear. Achieving that ambition will require big changes in multiple areas – from government, regulators, educators and elsewhere.

But it starts with us, the businesses on the front line, and how we build our teams. It starts with embedding diversity, inclusion and equality into our practices on recruitment, culture and performance evaluation, and championing of women and people from diverse backgrounds.

This International Women in Engineering Day, I hope businesses are inspired to do more to promote diversity in Stem, review their own practices, and think creatively about how they can make a difference, to the benefit of their employees, clients, and partners.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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