Hayaatun Sillem, CEO at the Royal Academy of Engineering, believes that all employers can learn from its study of corporate culture in the engineering industry
In October the Royal Academy of Engineering published the results of a UK survey seeking the views of more than 7,000 engineers about the culture of their profession. While the poll found broad agreement among respondents that there are numerous positive traits – including loyalty, teamwork, safety-consciousness and flexibility – it also highlighted significant differences of opinion across both gender and race lines. For instance, men were far more likely than women to say that gender is irrelevant to how they’re viewed at work (82 per cent versus 43 per cent). Black and minority ethnic (BME) engineers, meanwhile, were more likely than their white counterparts to report that colleagues have made assumptions about them based on their ethnicity (85 per cent versus 58 per cent).
“As you would expect, women feel less included than men and BME groups feel less included than white groups,” says Hayaatun Sillem, the academy’s CEO and director of strategy. “It’s a reminder that the world looks different from different perspectives.”
The survey also examined the business benefits of inclusivity, producing findings that will resonate in industries far beyond engineering. Some 80 per cent of respondents said that the feeling of inclusion increased their motivation, for instance, while 68 per cent said that it improved their overall performance.
Inclusivity “is something that any company thinking hard about its bottom line should want to maximise”, says Sillem, who believes that concerted action by employers to tackle the issue will go a long way towards closing the nation’s growth-limiting skills gap.
“Only nine per cent of this country’s professional engineers are women – the lowest proportion in Europe and a disappointing figure in 2017,” she says. “Six per cent are from a BME background, compared with 14 per cent of the population as a whole – and 26 per cent of UK engineering students. It seems absolutely evident that you’re not going to tackle your skills shortage unless you tackle your diversity and inclusion shortfall.”
A 2015 study by Deloitte and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative found a particular intolerance among millennials of employers that don’t allow them to “be authentic” – a key factor in inclusivity. Indeed, Sillem notes that “inclusion is more of a priority for millennials entering the workplace than it is for the generation that’s now leading companies. If your firm has a culture that doesn’t value female or minority ethnic employees, the reputational cost can be very high. We can all think of recent examples of US companies whose reputations have been severely dented by the view that they don’t value diversity and inclusion. The most talented people can choose where they work – they’re the most mobile ones who are extremely employable. Why would they choose an organisation where they don’t feel valued?”
A linked factor, she argues, is the inability of less inclusive organisations to engage effectively with customers and clients from certain demographic groups. Becoming disconnected from various market segments that you might want to target could limit your ability to succeed in those areas, she warns, adding: “The purchasing power of women has become increasingly important in the UK, for instance. If your company has a culture in which the voices of its female employees are not heard, it risks losing its competitive edge.”
Onus on leaders
Employers in all sectors can effect change by ensuring that they keep channels of communication with the whole workforce open and ask the right questions, according to Sillem, who says: “If you don’t experience any negative aspects of your company culture yourself, why would you worry about such things or be trying to take action to address issues that don’t appear important to you?”
The term for this lack of awareness and empathy, she explains, is “inclusion privilege” – highlighted in the survey’s finding that white men were the least likely respondents to cite the need for the engineering profession to become more diverse and/or inclusive as a high priority. Building a critical mass of “white and male allies” to get behind an inclusivity drive is therefore critical.
“This is where data comes in very handy,” Sillem explains. “Incorporating some of the inclusion questions we asked in our research into your staff surveys will give you a baseline and help you to track changes and monitor progress. It can also help to inform the development of interventions that you think have a better chance of working. It doesn’t matter how much we buy into the principle; we need to root it in data and evidence, because this will cause people to challenge their assumptions.”
Another barrier to achieving an inclusive culture, she notes, is a discomfort with the terminology. “Diversity is about difference; inclusion is about togetherness. Diversity is based on hard data – the numbers of people in different groups. Inclusion is about how people feel. The fact that this seems relatively soft, fluffy and amorphous can make those who work in professions rooted in practical approaches feel uncomfortable,” she says. “To me, inclusion is simply about creating an environment in which everybody feels welcome and able to contribute their best, so it’s fundamental to success in business. Mobilising ‘inclusion champions’ across your organisation – people who are confident using the language of diversity and inclusion, and who are happy to support and challenge others – is very valuable.”
Sillem continues: “There is a growing recognition that we have a shared responsibility for governance and for behaving properly. The level of expectation and scrutiny about what a well-governed organisation looks like is increasing. Diversity and inclusion is core to a well-governed organisation. The risk associated with an inability to deliver on that is something I wouldn’t advise any company to take lightly.”
Early career Graduates from Oxford with a degree in molecular and cellular biochemistry before completing a PhD in biochemistry signal transduction at the Cancer Research UK-UCL Centre
2002 Joins the Royal Academy of Engineering as an engineering policy adviser, rising to head of international activities in 2006 and director of programmes and fellowship in 2011
2008-09 Serves as specialist adviser to the government’s innovation, universities, science and skills committee
2016 Becomes deputy CEO and director of strategy for the academy
Did you know? Sillem is a trustee of, and judge for, the St Andrews Prize for the Environment. She is also a trustee of the London Transport Museum