Macsene Isles-Ahite shares her vision for ED&I in IChemE and the chemical engineering profession
THE 2020 Black Lives Matter movement has sparked a widespread and much-needed appraisal of the systematic barriers to equality in our societies. While wider society focuses on reform within large institutions, including the police and health services, we too must discuss how members and staff can collaborate to ensure that IChemE is an equal, diverse and inclusive professional engineering institution (PEI). If we fail to do this, we will fail our communities, and IChemE will fall short of serving society.
Before we go much further, I should tell you a little about myself. First off, I have been IChemE’s ED&I Trustee Champion since March, having taken over the role from my fellow Trustee Wendy Wilson. These opinions I am sharing with you are based on my personal experiences and general observations of the profession, of the Institution, and of the world.
In my formative years, I believed that equal opportunity was available to everyone; this naivety was fostered on the Caribbean Island of Montserrat where I was born and educated. I left Montserrat at the age of 16 and since then my views on equality, diversity and inclusion have evolved. I have come to believe that there are barriers to equality and that those barriers can only be removed by educating people about the oppressive nature of generalisation, the unfairness of assuming inferiority due to the fear of difference, and the injustice of prejudicial exclusion.
My daughter has given me permission to tell her story. When she started school aged five, she was stopped from entering the playhouse, in the playground, by three little (white) girls. They stood blocking the door and when she tried to enter, they told her: “No brown girls allowed”. That incident has hurt me more than anything that I have ever experienced before or since. This happened in 2014 and I have still not recovered from the shock that at five years old, on a playground, in a school in the UK, my daughter was barred from entry because of the colour of her skin.
The school dealt with the incident through education; the teacher invited the children to celebrate visible and invisible differences through play, and over time the children developed more diverse friendship groups and a greater tolerance for accepting differences.
Until that incident, I was hopeful that my daughter’s world would be free from stereotypes that lead to prejudice and discrimination. The unfortunate truth is that barriers will remain until certain stereotypes, which are wielded by people with power, still exists. The positive outcomes of the Black Lives Matter movement have encouraged me to use my platform to promote equality, diversity and inclusion within IChemE and to attempt to address any barriers (real or perceived) that may still exist today.
The key question we need to address is: does IChemE have a significant issue to fix when it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion? In truth, we don’t have the answers to that question as yet. Anecdotally, I have seen posts on Interface where members state that they have put themselves forward for volunteer roles and have had their applications ignored. This may be linked to administrative limitations and/or staff inefficiencies. It may not be an indication of bias. However, it is not possible to analyse the role that current systems play in restricting or promoting equality, diversity and inclusion within IChemE as this data is, unfortunately, not yet available.
For example, I would like to have data that would help gauge the diversity of representatives on our many committees, the diversity of members applying to volunteer and fill certain roles, and the diversity of those winning IChemE medals, prizes and awards. Collecting diversity data would help us answer the following sample questions: Is unconscious bias (see boxout) impacting members’ success rates of getting Chartered or elected to Fellow? Do we have a shortfall of women submitting journal papers for publication? Do we have a lack of ethnic minority members seeking election to Congress or Board of Trustees? Are there barriers that discriminate based on race, age, physical disability, sexual orientation or religious beliefs?
Unconscious bias (or implicit bias) is a term that describes the thoughts and feelings we have that are outside of our conscious awareness and control. These in turn can have significant influence on our attitudes and behaviours towards other people, including our fellow chemical engineers. Our unconscious associations are difficult to override, so education and greater personal reflection is important. I’d urge readers to take an Implicit Association Test hosted by US researchers at the Harvard University website:
The limited statistical data available suggests that IChemE’s volunteer pool does not reflect an equal, diverse and inclusive membership. It is important that we collect and analyse diversity data so that the impact of current and future equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives can be measured.
I hope to use my platform to help to educate members and staff about how understanding and promoting systemic equality, diversity and inclusion can only add value to our profession and to our society.
Furthermore, I feel that remaining silent about the impact of unconscious bias is the same as being complicit in perpetuating the cycle of oppression experienced by many minority groups. In this article, I want to show my support for those that seek to expose and oppose all forms of oppression in a peaceful and lawful manner. It is important that those of us with influence address and seek to eliminate key systemic and organisational threats to equality, diversity and inclusion. In our quest to create a better IChemE and a better profession, the first step is to break the cycle of oppression.
Engineers are curious, critical-thinking and creative beings, who often need to deconstruct in order to understand and apply. So what is the cycle of oppression? It begins with the fear of difference which often results in the creation of stereotypes. This in turn forms the basis of prejudice. Prejudice perpetuated by people with power leads to discrimination. Internalised oppression is when people start believing the stereotypes that they are taught about themselves from the society in which they live.
Oppressed individuals typically suffer from imposter syndrome, where feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt can cripple performance and where the external proof of competence is overshadowed by a sense of intellectual fraudulence.
I believe that the cycle of oppression can be broken; it can be broken by educating people (especially those people in positions of power and influence) about the benefits of dismantling and removing barriers and encouraging an atmosphere of equality, diversity and inclusion.
So how can members and staff modify their behaviour to break the cycle of oppression?
Equality is the absence of generalisations and stereotypes. As a collective, we need to foster equality of opportunity, where we all benefit from the same support and equality of outcomes, where we all get the support we need. To break the cycle of oppression, I believe we need to start treating others as equals and respecting the individual rights of others to seek opportunity and/or advancement without barriers.
Diversity is recognising and valuing differences. At our most basic level we are all 99.9% the same; our DNA is mostly identical and that is what denotes that we are from the same species. The 0.1% difference is what sets us apart from others and contributes to us all having different traits. I believe that in order to break the cycle of oppression, we need to start to appreciate our differences and to celebrate what makes us unique.
Inclusion is the extent to which individuals feel that they are valued and accepted. The fact that we are all unique means that we experience the same event in different ways. We have different ambitions and expectations and our differences shape our contributions and motivations. Therefore, embracing our differences is the ultimate antidote to unconscious bias. Breaking the cycle of oppression can only start by treating others fairly and equally and by promoting integrity and mindfulness in our day-to-day interactions and conduct.
While we don’t have the data yet to understand how we are performing on ED&I, there are programmes of work already underway and forthcoming that aim to improve matters.
In the past, IChemE members who wished to put themselves forward for election may have experienced barriers due their geographical location. For example, a member from a region with few other local members may have struggled to find someone to act as a referee or nominee on their behalf. IChemE systems are under constant review and are being altered to ensure that geographical location is no longer a deterrent or a hindrance to securing nominees. Steps have already been taken to promote equality, diversity and inclusion through terms of reference for committees. When it was established, the structure of Congress was designed to encourage a greater geographical representation and more can and will be done, via future initiatives, to encourage equal geographical representation and participation in the membership of other IChemE committees. Another example of an initiative that has been established to promote equality, is Programme SMART, which was set up to deliver sustainable membership growth. IChemE has established four member-led projects specifically aimed at removing barriers to getting Chartered, including flexible routes to membership (p52, issue 946).
As an employer, IChemE has worked to improve its internal communications and promote a culture where everyone is able to speak up about issues of concern regardless of their position and role within the organisation.
IChemE members groups, including special interest groups, should encourage diversity in the composition of their committees. One option would be to encourage groups to include an ED&I champion on their committee. And work is ongoing to update committees’ and other leadership groups’ Terms of Reference to ensure that diversity is considered and there is awareness of its importance.
Membership of the IChemE Board of Trustees is made possible via election, so all Chartered members and Fellows are eligible to participate in the election process as either nominees or as voters. These initiatives are designed to produce more diverse teams, which will result in greater innovation and improved performance.
In Q4 2020, IChemE will be developing guidelines for staff and members about equality, diversity, and inclusion. This will aim to raise awareness, embed good practice, and identify areas where we can aspire for progress.
There have been several new initiatives to recognise and celebrate volunteers, such as The Chemical Engineer’s Volunteer Spotlight series, designed to highlight the various ways that members contribute to advancing their profession. The variety of work being done by volunteers is also regularly promoted via blogs and other articles.
In 2020, IChemE introduced equal opportunities training for staff. From September, this will be enhanced to include unconscious bias training and will become part of mandatory training for all staff.
IChemE’s Strategy 2024 also commits the Institution to “provide a platform to progress opportunities and good practice in equality, diversity and inclusion, in line with our commitments to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s (RAEng’s) Diversity Concordat.”
To this end, IChemE staff promote activities for International Women’s Day and work with members to produce content for International Women in Engineering Day (INWED). These activities raise the profile of female chemical engineers and usually focus on female chemical engineers in senior roles and those serving as role models and mentors in the profession. The goal of this initiative is to encourage more females in highschool to consider careers in STEM.
IChemE staff also completed an ED&I benchmarking exercise with the RAEng Progression Framework in 2017 and are currently preparing for the next benchmarking exercise, which has been delayed until Q1 2021 due to Covid-19. The Progression Framework has eight structured themes:
For the success of this initiative, data capture is important. To overcome existing shortfalls, IChemE staff are currently looking at how members can engage in the process of establishing reliable diversity metrics across IChemE’s operations and projects. The challenge is to identify activities to implement and measure change and to analyse diversity data to highlight opportunities for improvement.
As ED&I Trustee Champion, I am supporting a proposal to establish an ED&I Panel made up of IChemE members and staff to act as an advisory body that reports to the Board of Trustees. This Panel can provide guidance and advice on ED&I matters to support the eight RAEng Progression Framework activities within IChemE. The Panel will also promote awareness of unconscious bias and develop guidelines based on good practice to support equal, diverse and inclusive employee operations and member engagement in IChemE activities. I am currently working with IChemE staff to explore options to collect diversity data to benchmark and monitor improvements in diversity of IChemE’s volunteer pool. After securing Trustee approval for the required budget, the ED&I Staff Working Group led by David Lloyd-Roach and Alana Collis, who I must also thank for supporting me with information for this article, are planning to develop and promote an ED&I membership survey to collect and collate relevant data in Q1 2021. We recognise that there are certain practical limitations and that it is important that this data collection initiative is conducted with cultural sensitivity and an awareness of relevant legislation.
Our membership consists of more than 35,000 people from more than 100 countries. This would suggest a diverse population. In order to measure where things stand now, we need to initiate a project to update our membership database so we can collect helpful classes of information on members (whilst remaining GDPR compliant). I’d like to close by urging members to help us improve our data. Please take the time to complete surveys when requested, update your personal data and preferences on the website under MyIChemE.
Member engagement begins with you; becoming an active member rather than a passive member is a choice that only you can make. As trite as that may sound it is 100% true. I would like to thank all of the past and current volunteers for their service, and challenge members who are disengaged to make a conscious effort and choice to contribute. IChemE is member led, with a remit to serve society. During IChemE’s Centenary year in 2022, we will celebrate the past, the present and the future contributions members have made to our profession. Under the umbrella of an equal, diverse and inclusive membership, let us all celebrate and collaborate, together.
Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.