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Why Engineering’s Diversity Is Its Strength

Two female engineers working on a problem together
Two female engineers working on a problem together

Fostering a culture of inclusion across your organization will ensure your employees feel supported and valued, and your company will reap the benefits of an engaged workforce. The Ontario Society of Professional Engineers’ (OSPE) Diversity and Inclusion Task Force is focused on creating awareness and providing strategies in several key areas such as leadership, well-being, and training.

These initiatives have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but as active members of the engineering community and thought leaders on issues impacting underrepresented groups, our volunteers have been discussing the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on segments of the engineering community.

Women, caregivers, students, Indigenous persons, members of remote or rural communities, new graduates, and new hires are amongst those most impacted. The burden of care, the lack of access to broadband internet, the inability to obtain employment, and the difficulty of fitting into a new team are just some of the challenges that members have shared with us.

The ABCs of diversity and inclusion

We know that inequities are present within Ontario and Canada’s engineering communities. Through our Breaking Barriers project, we identified various challenges facing women in STEM, such as feeling devalued and disrespected, lacking professional networks, and being underpaid. These same challenges have been echoed by members whose race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ability differs from the majority of those employed within the profession. Unfortunately, during times of crisis, inequities are often amplified and those most negatively impacted are the underrepresented members of the community.

In November 2019, OSPE hosted the conference EDI Imperative: Changing the Profile of STEAM in Canada. Hamlin Grange, Founder of Diversipro, spoke of the importance of making diversity and inclusion part of your core value as an organization. Grange outlined three fundamental principles that drive an organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, called the “ABCs of diversity and inclusion”:

  • Appeasement: Required due to an external or internal event, such as someone’s suing the company or there’s a human rights complaint.
  • Business case: Determined that this will boost the bottom line based on market demands.
  • Core value: Diversity and inclusion is part of your core business, therefore if it’s removed from any part of the business, it will fundamentally change the organization. The diversity and inclusion plan must connect and reflect the business strategy, otherwise, it will be deprioritized.

Creativity in times of crisis

Perhaps at no other time is the significance of making diversity and inclusion part of your core business more important than it is today. In times of crisis, organizations must make strategic and sometimes difficult decisions about their operations. When diversity and inclusion are considered add-ons to the organization rather than embedded in its core values, it’s easy for leaders to abandon their commitments and prioritize other areas of their operations.

However, research demonstrates that diverse and inclusive teams are more innovative, engaged, and creative in their work. In times of adversity, it’s imperative that organizations can bring together different perspectives to collaborate and solve new and emerging challenges. Organizations must remain open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. This will enhance creativity and ensure that employees feel engaged and valued. 

Understand, educate, and empower

As a result of COVID-19, leaders are under unprecedented pressure to make fast decisions and address a complex and evolving reality. The decisions those leaders make today will inadvertently impact the ability of their organizations to grow, attract, and retain top talent post-pandemic. Talent attraction and retention is a key element of success for any organization, without it, it is bound to fail.

Now is not the time to abandon your diversity and inclusion strategy — it’s time to unlock the potential of your workforce. As you work to improve operational processes and determine a way forward, consider how you can also improve this aspect of your operations.

Understand how employees are being impacted across your company

All employees do have equal experiences in times of crisis. Women may face the increased burden of having to take care of children or dependents, while also adhering to their demanding work schedules. Others may be facing mental health challenges due to increased isolation and disrupted schedules. Some may even be facing discrimination due to their ethnic background. Listening, being flexible, and showing empathy will help leaders navigate these circumstances.

Be aware of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is an evolutionary mechanism that helps us make sense of the world we live in. According to the Harvard Business Review, “Research shows that when we’re stressed, we often default to heuristics and gut instincts, rather than making deliberate and goal-oriented decisions.” This often leads to exclusion and negative perceptions of underrepresented groups in the workplace. Understanding that this bias is present and challenging it when making important decisions will help you maintain a culture of inclusion.

Give a voice to everyone around the table

Members of underrepresented groups in the workplace may be less willing to share their opinions or perspectives. Creating a positive environment where everyone is given the opportunity to speak and share their opinions is crucial to generate creativity and innovation. Ensure that even when working remotely you provide every member of your team with the opportunity to speak. If you notice any of your employees are inactive during meetings, check in with them and determine a plan for engagement.

Andrea Carmona is Lead of Policy and Government Relations at the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers.

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