In some ways at least, the global pandemic has been the secret saviour of innovation and equality.
FOR some, the pandemic caused a slow-down, both in our pace of life and our economy. Human interaction was stifled, as many of us struggled to juggle the competing demands of our home and professional lives, from our kitchen workstations. But out of adversity often comes great innovation and if there’s one thing we can thank the pandemic for, it’s forcing us all to re-evaluate the very substance of how we do business.
It's fitting then that this year’s theme for International Women in Engineering Day is inventors and innovators. As a sector, these characteristics are part of our DNA. Daily, we solve problems and provide solutions to society’s most pressing challenges. What the pandemic did was turn these skills inwards, forcing us to explore how we could adapt what we do to keep industry going in the most pressing of circumstances.
I’ve thought about this a lot over the last year and an age-old Charles Darwin quote always comes to mind. He was, of course, right when he said it’s not the strongest nor most intelligent of the species that survives, but the one that’s most adaptable to change. Quite simply, innovation is necessary for survival – and often peaks when things go wrong.
Covid-19 meant that the rug was well and truly pulled from underneath us – the systems and processes that we had relied on over many months and years needed to be adapted, or in some cases completely overhauled.
In my role at Air Products, this was a simultaneously frightening and exciting prospect. While the company was identified as a critical supplier by Government, we also had to work around the new social distancing guidelines and introduce even stricter protocols to ensure everyone stayed safe. The challenge was, quite simply, to keep plant operations for critical oil and gas customers running smoothly, efficiently, and safely with limited in-person contact.
In response, I developed a desktop plant performance analysis tool from scratch, enabling us to remotely diagnose and support our customer with any plant performance issues, monitor and help the customer manage the smooth running of their production plants. The tool was designed with certain KPIs to help us analyse performance, highlight any inefficiencies, and identify optimisation opportunities for efficient power consumption or production improvement.
It’s worked incredibly well and I’m really proud that, despite the cancellation of all Covid-19 restrictions, this system is still enabling us to help our customers across Europe and Africa. It shows how adversity caused us to really challenge core business principles and processes and make them better. This is a mind-set and philosophy we should hold on to with both hands.
But the opportunity to challenge and innovate wasn’t the only benefit I saw stem from the pandemic. We know that women were disproportionately affected, and experts are united in the view that the pandemic and its economic impact are having a regressive effect on gender equality. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated, for example, that "women were a third more likely to be employed in sectors that were 'shut down' over the first national lockdown, and thus particularly at risk of job loss". But from these most challenging of circumstances, I did see a glimmer of hope when it comes to unconscious bias and gender equality, and it manifested itself on a forum that will always be synonymous with the pandemic – Microsoft Teams.
It’s no secret that the engineering sector is heavily male dominated; in my career so far, I have experienced unconscious bias while visiting some production plants. As a female engineer, I have been in situations where people have made a judgment based on my gender, age, and appearance, and instead deferred to my male – and sometimes less experienced – colleagues.
The beauty of Teams is that I can choose to turn off the video function in what would otherwise have been an in-person meeting and simply be heard. This has led the person on the other end to actually listen to what I have to say, without any unconscious – or conscious – bias, preceding the conversation. I don’t feel any pressure to switch my camera on – in fact I feel empowered by not doing so.
Of course, the preference is for the unconscious bias to be tackled at source. But as we progress on that journey, the move to digital communications and a "camera-off" option has certainly helped me feel on a more even footing. My gender, skin colour, race or appearance has become almost irrelevant.
As life has moved back to a similar level of normality to what we had pre-pandemic, it’s important that we don’t forget the things that have changed for the better. For example, I’ve recognised the power that good onboarding and nurturing a supportive culture can give to employees, particularly those who work remotely. Managers can play an important role in fostering a culture that encourages innovation and new ideas; importantly, they should be listening to their teams – particularly the younger members, who aren’t limited to doing things "the way they’ve always been done". Creating this environment allows engineers to put their ideas forward and be heard, which will enable greater innovation to take place and help solve problems in more creative ways; as I demonstrated with the creation of my desktop plant performance analysis tool. This is one way we can give our engineers more support and set them up to succeed.
Similarly, creating a culture that takes away some element of challenge is another area where managers can step in and help their colleagues to be heard. For example, a comment about "manpower" or "guys" may be completely innocent, but they’re examples of phrasing that can be interpreted differently, depending on the recipient’s culture or native language; some people may find this harmless, whereas others may find this language sexist. Providing cultural training for employees would help to raise greater awareness of diversity and how to be more inclusive. Engineers need to understand culture and how it can affect who they’re talking to and how they work; we all need to peel away our own layer of unconscious bias and think more rationally when listening to what someone has said, appreciating any differences in culture and language. Through greater understanding and having management teams that want to create a more inclusive culture, this will enable more engineers to continue the work they’re doing, without any additional challenges to bias.
So, as we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day, let’s also celebrate these small but important stories of triumph over adversity and take note of how the pandemic helped as well as hindered. In the ongoing battle to ensure women have both opportunities to innovate and recognition for that innovation, it is these small steps that disrupt traditional ways of thinking and working that will ultimately guide us forward and help deliver greater equity.
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