7 January 2021
by Nicole Lee GradIMMM

What role does race have in the workplace?

Reflecting on the reality of racial disparity in STEM, Nicole Lee GradIMMM, member of the IOM3 Ethnic Minorities in Materials, Minerals and Mining (EMM3) group and Senior Engineer at Frazer-Nash Consultancy, highlights the existence of systemic racism and unconscious bias in the workplace. She explores how employers and individuals can implement positive change to create an inclusive culture.

Nicole Lee
Nicole Lee

Race. It is a topic that is often skirted around for fear of potentially uncomfortable conversations, especially in the workplace. In STEM industries, there is a clear racial disparity. According to A picture of the UK scientific workforce: Diversity data analysis for the Royal Society Summary Report, issued in February 2014, people from white ethnic backgrounds are 1.5 times more likely to have worked in science than people from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds. And around 8% of people in engineering come from minority ethnic groups, reports Engineering UK 2018: The state of engineering. With a recent shift in public awareness of racism and unconscious bias, it is worth exploring the reasons behind this lack of representation.

In STEM, there is a growing understanding that behaviours related to systemic racism are ingrained from an early age. Whitewashing in school curricula has been apparent to a degree, as well as in science communication. Outreach activities have been showing some success in encouraging children from BAME backgrounds to consider careers in STEM. Unfortunately, this does not yet translate to improved visibility in the workplace.

In 2015-16, 80% of white students obtained a first or upper second class degree in engineering and technology, compared with just 69% of BME students, reports Engineering UK in the aforementioned publication. Furthermore, black or Asian engineering graduates are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts, highlights the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) in its report Engineering graduates highly employable - but ethnicity still a barrier, released in November 2016. These statistics demonstrate that significant disadvantages for minority ethnic people still exist in STEM. While the causes of such disparity are worthy of debate, it is apparent that policies and institutions can contribute to discrimination through unconscious bias, prejudices and stereotyping.

With the recent progress made by the Black Lives Matter movement, many people are beginning to investigate how they can act against racial injustice and advocate for racial equality. Many businesses are now looking internally to assess and implement diversity and inclusion initiatives, with the aim of tackling discrimination. For instance, companies such as Ball Aerospace are reported to be implementing unconscious bias training, and hiring diversity and inclusion managers to drive initiatives. Meanwhile, EDF and Jaguar Land Rover both have employee-led BAME networks that offer a platform for people to share views and experiences and recommend improvements. Other examples include the RAE’s award-winning Graduate Engineering Engagement Programme (GEEP), which aims to support the transition of engineering graduates from ethnic minority and socially disadvantaged backgrounds into engineering employment, and is supported by companies such as Amey, GSK, Network Rail and Rolls-Royce.

Although it can be difficult to know how and where to begin, the first step is to acknowledge that there is a widespread need to tackle institutional racism. After becoming aware of the challenges that their staff and students faced with regards to being an ethnic minority in STEM, the University of Bristol, UK, responded by holding a conference to generate ideas to create a better environment. Several primary recommendations were identified – the underlying principles of which have the potential to be applied across the industry. The recommendations include: unconscious bias training, mentoring schemes aimed at supporting ethnic minority groups, ensuring diversity on committees, highlighting ethnic minority contributions to STEM, introducing anonymised applications in recruitment processes and providing role models at all career stages.

Likewise, increasingly, more companies are beginning to review their hiring practices, including eliminating distinguishing information from job applications, interviewing a minimum number of people from  under-represented groups and setting ethnic diversity quotas.

Opposition to such schemes may arise on whether this means candidates are receiving special treatment instead of being judged on merit alone. However, if the current system was truly free from bias and genuinely reflected talent and ability, then our workplaces would probably look very different, especially at senior management level. It is important to consider the bigger picture and realise that this is more akin to levelling the playing field, which will ultimately bring us closer to equal opportunities for everyone.

On an individual basis, we can take actions to combat racism in the workplace, ranging from being an ally – especially if you are in a position of privilege – to recognising and actively challenging any negative stereotypes that may crop up day-to-day. We can help to drive change by listening to stories from minority communities with an open mind, and continuing to stay informed about anti-racism, especially in the workplace. On the whole, just keep reading, listening and learning about how to influence positive change – as you decided to do so by reading this article.

If you wish to join the IOM3 EMM3 group, contact us . Keep up to date with our activities on Twitter. Also find our content celebrating Black History Month.

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Nicole Lee GradIMMM

Senior Engineer, Frazer-Nash Consultancy