Article: The leaky pipeline: how to improve diversity and inclusion in engineering

By Hugo Britt

Engineers are adept at putting theory into practice and making things work. Why, then, is the profession struggling to improve and benefit from diversity and inclusion?

A KPMG investigation into DEI amongst Australia’s engineering workforce found that despite 84% of respondents feeling their organisation prioritises the creation of an inclusive and diverse workplace, only 13% of working engineers and 16% of engineering graduates are women.

These numbers reveal a perception gap in organisations that believe they are pulling the right levers to increase diversity yet failing to make progress. 

We spoke with Ashley McCarthy-Griffiths, Principal Business Improvement, Stanmore and President, The Power of Engineering, Dr Gunilla Burrowes, Director, Blue Economy CRC and Principal at Gender Matters, Margarita Moya, Chair of Engineers Without Borders Australia and Eleanor Loudon, CEO of Engineers Without Borders Australia, for their thoughts on how to close the diversity gap and reap the benefits of DEI in engineering.

What are some tangible benefits organisations can realise by embracing DEI?

“As engineers, our role is to problem solve for our communities,” says McCarthy-Griffiths. “There is no way we can develop the best solution to be inclusive for our whole community without diversity of thought. How we enable optimal problem solving is having a diverse team who recognise their differences respectfully and play to their strengths. We can’t solve our world’s challenges without a diverse team reflecting the communities we are solving the problem for, whether that is for today or the future.”

Diversity of thought is a proven springboard for innovation. The Diversity Council of Australia’s Inclusion @ Work Index found workers in inclusive teams are 10 times more likely to be innovative, and 11 times more likely to be effective. This happens through better collaboration, more participation from all team members, a willingness to challenge the status quo and accept different ideas as possibilities.

“We learn so much from others’ perspectives. Outcomes across all parts of the organisation are better when those perspectives bring different nuance, experience and insight,” says Loudon. “Everything is better when we aren't working in a bubble; from culture, to organisational loyalty, to engineering solutions.”

For Moya, one of the key benefits of embracing DEI is the access to diverse thinking (and sometimes the critical challenger mindset) when it comes to decision making. “It comes from having teams who have that richness in technical skillset and also in lived experience,” she says. “As an industry, one of the ways we can make this a continued reality is reimagining the talent pipeline and how we are nurturing it. For example, I was so excited when EWB Australia was able to work with Engineers Australia’s Indigenous Engineers Group and community partners like the Yintjingga Aboriginal Corporation to co-design an Indigenous-led Youth Outreach program. This means we have another mechanism to inspire the next generation in a way that is designed by Indigenous people for Indigenous young people.”

But how can we make benefits of DEI a reality?

“To truly tap into the benefits of diversity requires a consciousness,” says Loudon. “We tend to gravitate toward people who think like us, so as leaders, creating opportunities to build internal networks and encourage conversation is key when designing working groups on a project.”

The benefits of diversity cannot be unlocked without inclusion. Burrowes points to the Diversity Council’s Inclusion model, which states that “Inclusion occurs when a diversity of people are respected, connected, progressing and contributing to organisational success.”

“Inclusion involves being respected for who you are and being able to be yourself,” says Burrowes. “This means you can bring your whole self to work. Ensuring colleagues are connected to each other supports the feeling that you belong there. Inclusive organisations allow everyone to contribute their perspectives and talents, and focus on equally progressing everyone in their career through equal access to opportunities and resources.”

What measures can be implemented to ensure that our workplace culture is inclusive and welcoming for individuals from various backgrounds?

McCarthy-Griffiths believes inclusive language is a good starting point. “Imagine being a young female on the job. You turn up to a construction, mining or workshop, and at the morning team meeting it is all about the ‘servicemen’ or ‘manning’ hours. Every day, the first thing you get told at work is that you are different and you don’t fit in. Just changing these words helps create an inclusive workplace environment where everyone can have a sense of belonging,” she says.

Burrowes also notes the importance of language: “I believe the first step is bringing everyone together to learn a common language, understand the complexities of this issue and develop a strategy that will work for that group. Then, of course, getting feedback to reiterate new strategies to build a new way of working in a continuous positive feedback loop.”

Moya’s advice is to investigate your workplace’s DEI policy (or lack thereof). “Check if your workplace has a policy that clearly speaks to DEI. For us at EWB Australia,  it’s our Diversity and Belonging Policy that you’ll find on our website. If you do have one, then consider if your teams know where to find it and how it can support them in decision making,” she says. “Ideally, it’s a living document that is reviewed regularly for good governance because you want it to continue to reflect who you are and what you are committed to as an organisation.”

“Once we have the policies and procedures in place, we need to live it,” adds Loudon. “Hearing from people from diverse backgrounds is the only way to understand and break down the sense of ‘other’. People with disabilities speaking about accessibility and belonging with staff not only helps us understand other perspectives, it also builds familiarity and removes the fear of failure.”

“It is up to organisations to engage and build bridges. That creates cultural safety. There is a snowball effect with diversity hiring because people looking at our organisation as a potential employer see the diversity at all levels of the organisation and feel comfortable to apply.”

What initiatives can we undertake to provide equal access to professional development and training for all engineers?

Loudon is a firm believer in asking engineers what training and personal development they want, and how they want it. “Some may prefer it to be on weekends when their partners can care for kids. For others, it might be self-paced in the evenings. Just ask!"

McCarthy-Griffiths agrees that enabling flexibility for participants within training and PD programs is pivotal. “The leaky pipeline where we lose a large number of female engineers is at child raising years. We need to look at how the industry and companies support women to continue to progress and develop their careers during this time. I think we will find the typical training structure does not support this demographic.”

KPMG found that female engineers aged 20-39 are overrepresented in leaving the industry by a ratio of nearly 13 to 1.

“We all need education and training to understand the complexity of this issue,” says Burrowes. “Women need to change as much as men, as we have grown up seeing these patriarchal structures as the status quo. This means most men don’t see the privileges that the system gives them, while the status quo doesn't show women (in general) the disadvantage they experience.

“Most STEM qualified individuals work in the private sector,” she continues. “This puts a heavy burden on industry leaders, middle management and workers to champion diversity and work on inclusive practices to reduce barriers.”

Moya recommends establishing a clear capability matrix. “Use this as a tool to identify potential coaches and mentors (technical or behavioural) within your team. This will also help to look beyond technical to socio-technical skillsets and consider how the next recruit will add to the existing team as a whole.”

Are there any unconscious biases you have seen in decision-making processes that might hinder diversity, and how can we address them?

“We use our experiences to short-cut decision making, which can introduce biases,” notes Burrowes. “The issue is that often these biases are out of date or based on incorrect facts because they have developed from the past and the status quo from workplaces based on patriarchal systems. It is critical to train ourselves and support our colleagues to mitigate bias when making a decision. This is not an easy thing to do, as these processes are happening unconsciously.”

McCarthy-Griffiths has seen a great deal of bias at play in leadership recruitment. “With men having traditionally filled those roles, [we tend to] look historically at what works and seek a similar candidate. But if we have never had a different type of leader within that role, how can we know if that type will work? We need to look more broadly and identify the skillsets needed; particularly when female leadership styles are typically very different to men. We can address this through training to recognise signs of bias in our decision making and also by creating a process and environment where it is safe to challenge decision makers’ surrounding biases.”

We can’t eliminate unconscious bias in decision-making, but we can manage it. Burrowes and Loudon break down some of the steps involved:

  • Ask yourself the question: ‘why do I think this?’ 
  • Analyse the potential biases you might be using to make a decision
  • Are you making this decision based on the situation or based on your assumptions?
  • Ask for others’ opinions (preferably from those who don't think like you) to counter or confirm your decision-making
  • Slow down your decision-making to avoid short-cut (biased) thinking

Ashley McCarthy-Griffiths, Gunilla Burrowes, Margarita Moya and Eleanor Loudon will be speaking at the Women in Engineering Summit, 31st October to 2nd November 2023 at Aerial UTS Function Centre, Sydney.

To access the detailed conference program, download the brochure here.