This rubbish appeared in The Guardian a few days ago:
Thirty years ago, when I was struggling to find work as a chemical engineer, I was used as a case study in a newspaper article about the barriers facing black graduates. Back then we were being told industry was crying out for engineers, so I and many of my black colleagues on similar courses, with good grades, and with similar jobs-market difficulties, couldn’t understand why the industry didn’t seem to want us.
Fast-forward 30 years, and it seems nothing’s changed. This week a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering has revealed that black and minority ethnic graduates are twice as likely to be underemployed two years after finishing their studies than their white counterparts are – and that’s despite attending similar universities and achieving similar grades.
In my experience one is an engineer first and foremost, and one’s ethnicity, nationality, sex, etc. are very much secondary and barely considered at all by one’s peers. I have worked in engineering teams made up of a bewildering array of nationalities and skin colours, and never once have I heard an engineer being criticised or bad-mouthed by their colleagues for anything other than being a shit engineer (managers will criticise good engineers for not being on-message and sufficiently subservient, but that’s a separate issue and one that is equally colourblind).
I have spent the past three years in an engineering team made up of both men and women from the UK, France, Jamaica, Russia, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Syria, and Venezuela, and we cover every hue on the spectrum of possible skin colours (I slot firmly into the category of “pasty white”). When a new project arises I find myself paired off with another team member, and this can be anyone. The first thought that comes to mind when I learn with whom I will be working is how experienced they are on this type of study and how good they are technically and professionally. At no point – and I am being 100% truthful here – do I care what nationality, skin colour, or sex they are. All I’m interested in is their technical ability, and I am sure this goes for almost every other engineer I have worked with. If they can deliver on the technical stuff, nobody cares if you’re black, white, or bright purple with green spots. Things may have been different 30 years ago, but this is how they are now. Hence I am skeptical.
In fact, it found that being in an ethnic minority was a bigger obstacle to employment than any other factor they considered – including degree classification, attending a less prestigious university, or gender.
The report is here, and looks to me as though somebody set out to prove that engineers’ ethnicity was keeping them unemployed and did just that. Anyone who thinks there is a lack of ethnic Chinese or Indians in engineering teams across all disciplines is likely on good terms with a guide dog, but of course the report doesn’t go into such detail: instead it lumps everyone together as Black or Minority Ethnic (BME) and then later, in trying to control for other factors, splits that out into Black and Asian (presumably throwing Indians, Chinese, and Indonesians into the same pot).
Despite my experiences, this came as a shock. I actually thought things were getting better.
Well, if your experiences are telling you one thing but a Diversity Report from an industry body says different, who are you to believe?
When I graduated, in 1987, the world was quite a different place.
Yes, it was.
Diversity had not entered the mainstream conversation.
Yes, those were the days when we weren’t being ordered to take somebody’s skin colour into account when doing engineering work.
It was clear there was inequality, but no one seemed to care. I saw many opportunities pass by that I felt I was more than qualified for.
Yes, this is what happens in an industry where “experience” is equated with “years on the job” and weak managers and HR departments insist on hiring people with 15-20 years experience for jobs an intern could do. When I moved to Sakhalin it was for a job that I had applied for online on one of the main oil and gas career websites. It was the one solitary job I was offered in well over a hundred applications, and this was in the middle of the biggest boom the industry had ever seen and they were hiring people straight out of the military in management and supervisory positions. Life is extremely difficult for young engineers just starting out, even if you’re an Anglo-Saxon white male such as me. See my Recruitment category for my earlier rants about this.
I remember one excruciating meeting at which my interviewer, despite knowing my qualifications and experience before inviting me along, barely asked me a question.
Welcome to engineering recruitment.
He knew my gender in advance; he wouldn’t have known my race. Clearly, he felt he was wasting his time; I wish he hadn’t wasted mine.
Sorry, how do you know he was uninterested in you because of your race? I think it far more likely the position you were applying for had already been earmarked for an internal candidate but HR policies insist the post is advertised externally, and the poor sap that had to interview the applicants knew this. Or maybe the guy was just useless at interviewing: God knows, I’ve sat through enough interviews where I wasn’t asked a single relevant question, but I don’t think it was anything to do with me personally.
I eventually became a chemical industry consultant, and thankfully such incidents are now rare.
One would have thought becoming a successful independent consultant was impossible in an industry that doesn’t like to recruit black people. The fact she’s managed to become one suggests the problem lies more with crap management and recruitment processes than racial prejudice, doesn’t it?
But talking to younger engineers, I learn that a sense of unconscious bias appears to persist.
A sense of unconscious bias appears to persist. This is somebody who supposedly has mastered the hard sciences.
The main problem is that engineering still lags behind other traditional professions, such as law and medicine, which over the years have introduced significant and meaningful initiatives to raise the level of diversity.
No, we never lagged behind. Law and medicine are closed-shops, and it is extremely difficult for a lawyer or doctor to turn up in another country and open a practice. By contrast, engineering is and open industry based on universal principles which transcend international boundaries and cultures such that a Brazilian, Japanese, American, and Russian engineer can all work together in the same team and know what each other is on about: they all sat pretty much the same exams at university. Diversity in engineering comes naturally, it doesn’t need to be forced on people.
Inequality in these professions has regularly been flagged up in the media, and they have been heavily criticised over arcane practices.
Such as being self-regulating closed shops that are not subject to the same commercial pressures as other industries?
Engineering has not been exposed to the same level of scrutiny. Most have heard the news stories of black lawyers struggling to get into the bar, but engineering stories are rarer.
That’s because there is no equivalent of the bar in Engineering. True, engineers sometimes get chartered through a professional body but it is not a requirement to do so as I myself can attest.
Most people are unaware of what professional engineers even do (no, we’re not mechanics). Although engineering touches every part of our lives, the profession operates quietly, out of the public eye.
Yes, and for that we are grateful as it has spared us the bullshit that is foisted on the more prominent industries by poisonous identity politics and social justice activism. At least until now. We just want to be engineers and left alone.
One recent black engineering graduate told me that during the interview process he felt there was an underlying sense on the selection panel of “Will he fit in here?” –
Prospective employees are judged on whether they’d fit into the organisation doing the hiring? How odd.
and that, after many rejections, keeping motivated was hard.
Come back to me when you’ve sent off a hundred plus applications and had three acknowledgements, two of which said “no thanks” and the remaining one said “How do you fancy Sakhalin Island?”
Even when black graduates do get their foot in the front door, their career progression can be slow.
My impression as a young engineer in the UK was that I was waiting for those above me to die before I could move up the ladder. That’s why I emigrated.
A chartered civil engineer who’s worked on some high-profile construction projects tells me that black engineers tend not to be offered the type of work that could further their careers; there are limited opportunities to lead projects and manage teams to develop the skills and experience needed for senior roles.
That I can believe: promotions are handed out based on how much you suck up to the management, and it is probably more difficult for a black guy to do this than his white counterpart in a company full of white people. The Oilfield Expat put up a good post some time back about why this was also a problem for women in engineering. This has less to do with discrimination than appalling management.
There has been a huge push in recent years to take on sexism in the industry and promote science, technology, engineering and maths careers for women. But ethnicity has never been part of any discussion.
That’s probably because anyone who’s worked in an international engineering environment would see it’s like the United Colors of Benetton.
In my years working in the European chemical industry, and having attended countless meetings, I can’t recall seeing another person of colour.
Bullshit. No Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Malays, Nigerians, or Europeans who were anything other than white? Not one? Sorry, bullshit.
The Royal Academy of Engineering now runs a programme tasked with increasing diversity and inclusion across professional engineering institutions. This offers some hope, as there are many such organisations (some of which are relatively small) covering different engineering specialities, and I doubt whether the issue of diversity is high on the agenda for any of them. So the academy could help create a platform for change.
However, these initiatives will count for little if they don’t filter down to the engineering companies themselves. Their practices need to change regarding how they recruit graduates, and how they develop and support black and minority ethnic engineers once employed.
If the experience of other industries and diversity agendas is any guide, this will mean quotas. The irony in all of this is that quotas for ethnic minorities already exist in much of the engineering world in the form of local content legislation. If the author wants to see an office full of black engineers and very few whites, then she can look at Nigeria for an example. When I worked there my company had an engineering department which consisted of ten Nigerians and two Scotsmen and was managed by a pasty white Brit who happened to be me. Did I or anyone else give two hoots what colour the engineers were? No. Did I care what sort of technical work they were producing? Damned right I did. Nobody – including the Nigerians in my team – wanted their suitability as an engineer to be based on their skin colour, they wanted it to be based on their professional qualifications, experience, and competence. And the biggest gripe among Nigerian engineers was that this was often not the case in their country, where personal connections and nepotism play far too great a role.
The last thing the modern engineering world needs is identity politics being rammed down the throats of its employees in an effort to solve problems that either don’t exist or are the result of widespread crap management and recruiting practices.