This blog originally appeared on the Cambridge Association for Women in Science and Engineering website.
Women make up 50% of the population, 15% of the engineering graduates, but only 11% of the engineering workforce. We are missing out on huge amounts of talent which is desperately needed in our workplaces. So what can we do about it?
In my experience, it is pretty rare to find deliberate discrimination towards female workers. Most professional managers I know are just trying their best to find the right people to do high quality work for their clients. But unconscious bias can creep in unseen. Everyone has got their own personal experience of life on which to draw, and this means that men and women naturally relate to the strengths that have helped them achieve their own successes. One of the key challenges to tackling unconscious bias is to open people’s eyes to the benefits of characteristics which they don’t have themselves. It can be remarkably difficult to persuade people to do this.
Here’s an analogy. Humans can see colours from red to violet. Bees have a spectrum shifted to shorter wavelengths, and can see from orange through to ultra-violet. As a result, many flowers have developed ultra-violet colours to attract pollinating bees. Now, if I choose a bunch of flowers as a gift for my mother, am I going to visit the shop armed with a UV light so I can pick one with beautiful UV patterns? Of course not. I am a human, and I am going to value the colours that I can see, especially those that my mother appreciated last time. Am I discriminating against bees? Not at all. In fact I like bees. They are good for the environment and make honey. It’s just that their view of my mother’s flowers isn’t relevant and so doesn’t even enter my mind. On the other hand, if I want to select a gift of flowers for my mother to put in her garden, then I really ought to give a bit more consideration to the bees’ visual spectrum. Otherwise, she’s going to have no pollination and a barren flower bed.
So to help companies gain the benefits of diversifying the workforce, one important thing people can do at work is to try to help future colleagues to understand the value of their individual strengths.
I personally have gone through a great learning curve on this. Through various experiences and conversations, I have come to appreciate with great clarity the strength diversity amongst the team adds to our business. In much the same way as natural selection does in nature, diversity adds quality and durability to the solutions we produce. I reached a stage where I actively wanted to seek out that diversity. But how to do so was a remarkably difficult challenge, which I now realise required two strategies. One is to help women to be aware that any colleague is subject to unconscious bias, so they need to make their strengths obvious. The second is to change the company’s approach to mitigate that unconscious bias.
The good thing about the first strategy is that it is largely under the control of the individual, so in the next blog I’ll talk in more detail about how candidates can make their strengths obvious to interviewers during the recruitment process.