The least important thing


I attended an award ceremony some months ago aimed at celebrating diversity in engineering. As chair of the Scottish arm of the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK), I and my colleagues spend many hours volunteering in schools and universities and we urge leaders and businesses to utilise the vast array of talent that exists among so called under-represented groups. Events that celebrate the progress made whilst stressing the task before us, always interest me.

There were many stand out moments that night but one of my more lasting memories from the night happened when one of the key awards for the night was presented. 

The award winner’s name was announced and to loud cheers from his table, a smartly dressed young black man walked up to the stage to receive his award. He then lifted his trophy and stood alongside the presenters to take pictures. At this point, a highly distinguished guest asked if he could say a few words. The guest noted that this recipient, like the others was a truly worthy winner. “He would be a strong contender in any contest; because of his talent”, said this guest. “The least important thing about him is what colour he is”, he added. Some people in the audience applauded in response to this comment, I applauded too. In my mind his statement was a challenge to the idea of prejudice, a statement about fairness, a vision of an industry that values technical ability above any trait. “I completely agree with that”, I thought, but something did not sit comfortably. “The least important thing?” I asked myself.

As I reflected on that statement, I realised that my mild discomfort was because I know that this honestly stated sentiment is not how many people from minority ethnic backgrounds in our industry genuinely feel.

Make no mistake, the industry has come a long way. More overt expressions of prejudice are all but gone and opportunities for progression are much improved, but many minorities certainly still think that their race matters.

 A survey from Zwysen and Longh (2016 Department of Sociology, Institute for Social and Economic Research. University of Essex, UK) noted that, in recruitment, the perception of bias is especially strong among ethnic minority groups. The survey found that some of these students effectively de-select themselves due to negative perceptions of their chances when applying for work, but are such concerns simply a perception or are there genuine concerns?

The answer to this question cannot simply be a binary “yes” or “no”. To address the question adequately, one must find a way to distinguish perception from objective reality. We must move beyond the expressed fears of the perceived victims to an establishment of the facts. The lack of true diversity and inclusion is measurable if we assess the gaps in opportunity and outcomes between people of BME origin and their counterparts.  

Such gaps include:

  1. Recruitment into industry
  2. Retention and career progression to leadership
  1. Recruitment into industry

Back in 2007, in response to the publication of numerous articles about the educational failure of young black men in the UK, increasing gang membership, low aspiration and underachievement, the UK Government initiated an independent study examining the career aspirations and attainment levels of black men. The cabinet offices’ “Social exclusion task force” later highlighted that even families with high levels of aspiration amongst these communities still had a low degree of attainment amongst them.

This conclusion was corroborated by another survey carried out by the University of Warwick, which used consolidated information from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and the Youth Cohort Study of England and Wales (YCS), with data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). The survey revealed that members of certain BME groups are significantly less likely to work in a Science Engineering and Technology (SET) occupations than other groups. The study also stressed the role of community level social structures and the voluntary sector in helping to increase both aspiration and attainment at all levels of education and vocational training.

In 2015 our team published a flowchart for the Educating Enterprising Engineers and Scientists conference at the Nathu Puri Institute at London South Bank University, tracing the typical career progression of a typical BME Engineer from GCSE all the way from graduate level, to seasoned professional and then to corporate management or technical expert:-

Figure 1: Flowchart of BMEs in Engineering Career Progression

The key point to draw from this chart is that whilst the percentage of BME people taking up STEM subjects at GCSE, A-Level and even at University entry level were similar, there was a  difference in the number of students that attend universities likely to help them into engineering jobs. According to this survey there is a relatively lower percentage of students of BME origin gaining entry to study engineering at Russell group universities. Although this can be attributed to factors like the interplay between ethnicity and social class, there are also other possible systemic challenges as reflected in a survey for the Independent in 2018. The survey revealed that black people seeking a place at university in the UK are 21 times more likely to have university applications investigated for misinformation.

In 2009, an experiment was conducted by the “Department for Work and Pensions” in which civil servants made up more than 2,000 fake job applications, in response to 1,000 real vacancies across multiple sectors, professions and pay grades. 

Officials made up fabricated CVs for each job. Some under traditional Anglo-Saxon names and others using ethnic minority-sounding names. The results showed clearly that applicants with white, British-sounding names were far more likely to be called to interview for a position than their ethnic minority counterparts. This goes some way to explaining why UK domiciled ethnic minorities, who make up 25% of students studying engineering degrees wait longer to get into work even when they study at reputable universities. 

2. Retention and career progression to leadership

Through AFBE-UK’s Transition programme, our team has met numerous graduates with strong academic qualifications who found it difficult to secure jobs. When these graduates get into work, they find that making the progression into leadership roles was also very challenging.

In 2016, a report by the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange concluded that, despite a growing BAME middle class, ethnic minorities in highly skilled, well-paid professions are concentrated at the bottom level of senior management roles. 

In 2017, research from the Trades Union Congress reported that more than a third of BAME people that took part in a survey felt they had been bullied, abused or singled out for unfair treatment at work because of their race. It is the experience of many BAME engineers in the industry that they still feel that they must try much harder to earn the trust of the peers, to be given proper access to development opportunities and to be promoted to leadership roles. 

AFBE -UK Transition programme

One of the flagship programmes of AFBE-UK is the Transition programme in which aspiring engineers are coached by practising engineers with their interview skills, CV writing and they participate in group case studies where various competencies are assessed by members of our team. These workshops have no entry criteria and are open to everyone.

These programmes are aimed at preparing undergraduates and apprentices and it is has been very successful in helping many young people into work. It was shown in a survey carried out in 2016 that over 50% of people that had been through the programme were able to secure a job in a relevant role within 6 months. This rose to 70% when we considered how many of our protégés had made the Transition into work 12 months after graduation.

What does industry do to help?

Whilst we all desire to live in a society where race and ethnicity are not viewed as yardsticks with which to assess technical aptitude and leadership potential, we must:

  • Be honest: The “Nothing to see here” stance of many business and industry leaders is one of the main obstacles to achieving true parity. We know enough to say that race is still not the least relevant thing in 2019. 
  • Start Early: Support programmes that aim to inspire the next generation of engineers. By investing Corporate Social Responsibility in schools where a high proportion of pupils have free school meals, we are likely to be reaching disadvantaged communities which often have a high percentage of BME pupils.
  • Manage the data: Devote time to acquiring data to establish the facts on diversity in recruitment, pay, and opportunities for progression. 
  • Benchmark Progress – Industry should consider diversity league tables for companies.
  • Invest in Skills: We must seek to encourage the acquisition of the business, soft and hard skills needed to ensure a smooth transition into industry among young BME university students.
  • Engage the Voluntary Sector: Greater support for local grassroots initiatives rather than an emphasis on large events. The role of such local groups is underappreciated but these often underfunded groups understand the needs of their communities better than most, and are often better placed to raise the aspirations of young BAME people.
  • Mentor and Sponsor: We must enable space for the mentoring of young aspiring engineers from all backgrounds and engage them with real projects. Career progression to corporate leadership will not happen without sponsorship.

Finally, business leaders must understand that our failure to recognise that there is still a problem means that we are more likely to perpetuate it.  

So, as I bring my mind back to the awards ceremony that night and reflect upon what was supposed to be a supportive statement to a talented young man from a minority background, I can’t help but wonder what that young man must have been thinking and how difficult it was for him to attain his position and his award…

As we examine the factual evidence, one must conclude that whilst the intended statement of the guest was indeed honourable, it transpires that in the wider context of objective reality, the opposite of his statement is still true as unfortunately it is still the case that the his colour is NOT the least important thing about him.

Dr Ollie Folayan is the Chair of AFBE-UK Scotland and a PhD qualified Chartered Principal Process Engineer. For more information of AFBE-UK, please go to

This article was originally published at on 25-07-2019