IMechE Engineering Policy Adviser, Carly Nettleford, examines the attitudes she has experienced to date in her career as a black female engineer.
The recent murder of George Floyd has caused international outrage and protests worldwide, including the UK. This event brought to the attention of many that racism still very much exists within the UK. Racism is something I have experienced first-hand; this is also the case for many black people that I have encountered, who have expressed the same, whether the racism was conscious, subconscious, systematic or a microaggression.
Being a young, black, female engineer, I am a considered minority and as a result I have experienced discrimination in many ways, based on my age, race, and gender. It has caused me to have a thicker skin and was always brushed off as ‘banter’, yet these experiences have stuck with me for many years. I remember being around the age of four or five when my parents sat me down and explained to me the history of racism, and their personal experiences of racism since immigrating to the UK in the 60s. My dad has constantly reinforced over the years that I may experience racism from both kids and adults during my life and that I need to be prepared, be strong and stay professional.
In 2013 I finished my pre-apprenticeship and was looking for a full-time apprenticeship scheme. I had three interviews and was very excited to be on the path to be come a fully-trained engineer. My very first interview was with a local manufacturing company. When I entered the building, I could see it was extremely old fashioned. I was given a tour of the workshop where the men working had no PPE, there was large machinery on the floor of the designated walkway, which we had to step over to leave the workshop, and derogatory images of women stuck on the walls. My interviewer, although keen to employ me stated to me “there are two other coloured engineers on the shop floor so I’m sure you’ll fit in just fine”. As a very shy 19-year-old, I smiled, said thank you and left. They continuously rang me to offer me the job and I politely declined, to their disappointment but of course I would not be comfortable working in an environment like that. I brushed this off as an old-fashioned place and figured their mentality was mirrored by their facilities. I was positive that I would not experience racism in a more modern establishment. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
During my apprenticeship there were many blatant microaggressions, and I was called coloured many times, even by my mentor. In my last role there were 180 engineers in the field, I think that during my time there I met most of them and yet never came across another black engineer. In fact, there were more female engineers than black engineers and I always felt it. I’ve had my natural hair laughed at; I have had quote ‘Jamaican swear words’ used in casual conversations with me. I am generally a laid-back person and get on well with most people, which as a result have been told “you’re really nice, you’re not loud like the rest of you”. The list goes on and on.
This may come as a shock to many, but it is reality for many black people. Over the years I have never allowed my race to stop me from progressing. The under representation of minorities in STEM has been seen since the earliest days of industry. My dad is a motor mechanic and he has told me many stories of institutional racism in the 70s. According to the AFBE-UK only 7.8% of engineers are from black and minority ethnic (BME).
Many organisations have been using their platform to raise awareness of this and to encourage more diversity and inclusion within engineering. The Royal Academy of Engineering published a report which stated that among UK domiciles who had taken a degree in engineering full time, six months after graduating employment statistics were: 73% of employed white graduates went into the engineering sector in 2014/15, compared with 58% of BME graduates. This proportion was particularly low among black graduates at just (50%). They also researched the ethnicity pay gap, stating that six months after graduating, BME engineering graduates in full-time work earned on average £507 less than their white counterparts. The pay gap was particularly wide for Black engineering graduates (£24,924) compared with white engineering graduates (£26,220 – a difference of £1296). These studies tackle real issues and are important for raising awareness and help us to tackle the lack of diversity issue.
My experiences have shaped me into being an open and accepting person. When entering my place of work, I always hope that I will be seen for my competency rather than my colour. I felt extremely encouraged when joining IMechE as I could see how diverse the organisation is. The Institution does represent women, people of colour, the LGBT community, and people with disabilities within its staff and members. It is apparent through discussion and promotion how important diversity and inclusion are to the organisation. IMechE is one of the most diverse companies I have worked at and I am glad to have the opportunity to share my story and make a change.
Source: IMechE UK