Ollie Folayan, co-founder of the Association of Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers, offers advice on considering individual lived experiences.
In 2019, I was invited to attend a diversity and inclusion session in Aberdeen featuring a panel of industry leaders.
Although I wasn’t on the panel, I was no ordinary attendee: my job for the day was to help facilitate the discussion by asking the first question from the floor.
I arrived at the venue and was greeted warmly by the host who explained what was expected of me.
“The theme is gender diversity”, she said.
When the time came, I stood up and asked: “Can we reach our gender targets without an appreciation of intersectionality?”.
“What is intersectionality?” came the response from the stage.
I went on to add that since women aren’t all the same, then how could we, as a sector, reach gender targets without addressing other barriers?
These could include race, disability, social class, and more, all of which also shape people’s lived experience.
This moment sparked a series of events exploring intersectionality.
Here are a few things that civil engineering companies can do to take an intersectional approach at work.
1. Study it
2. Understand its relevance today
Intersectionality isn’t simply about multiple identity layers.
It’s about the ways in which societal structures, organisational policies and well-intended programmes have covered injustice with the veneer of representation.
It’s the antidote to the apparent presentation of “Black faces in high places”.
It also helps draw up programmes that aren’t blind to the experiences of the people most in need of support.
3. Disaggregate data
The underrepresentation of women in engineering has been well documented for many years.
But it’s an attempt to investigate the full identity (in terms of religion, social class, race, etc.) of these ‘would-be female engineers’ that will prompt us to ask the right questions.
For example, how many of these women are working class? How many of these women have disabilities?
The intersectional outlook demands that we ensure that our interventions are effective for all women.
4. Avoid sweeping generalisations about any group
When gathering data on intersectionality, it can be tempting to simply add up different layers of identity and then try to predict the extent of oppression by correlating these layers.
But it leads to a tick box exercise where appointments are made based on the number of boxes a person happens to tick.
This is the ‘double jeopardy’ approach that suggests the more the layers, the greater the oppression.
There’s data to confirm that this is true in some contexts. But it’s a blunt tool overall because it overlooks the psychological aspect of the way certain groups interact.
Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto’s theory of Social Dominance describes the degree to which individuals desire and support groups-based hierarchy.
This includes the domination of ‘inferior’ groups by ‘superior’ groups.
Many of our companies are still male dominated.
As such, it follows that random aggression is most likely directed at a minoritised group of men rather than women.
An analysis that assumes that Black women are always at a disadvantage, even in relation to Black men, over-simplifies what’s often a more nuanced picture.
An intersectional approach combines numerical data with the lived experiences of the affected people.
5. Review company policies and projects through an intersectional perspective
Any diversity drive that’s based on an intersectional premise increases its impact just by including the barriers faced by specific communities or sub-cultures.
Initiatives like reporting on ethnicity pay gaps, cultivating inclusive cultures or even creating new policies on issues like menopause will reap greater benefits.
It can also help encourage more people into STEM careers.
For instance, by making the extra effort to reach schools where many pupils are on free school meals.
Schools could also cultivate environments where people who are neurodiverse can flag conditions that affect their learning.
This approach can also enhance the work environment.
In 2020, Aberdeen-based company Step Change in Safety partnered with the gender balance group, the AXIS Network to develop guidance for operators and the supply chain on inclusive working practices.
This was an important and long overdue measure to make offshore oil and gas platforms more accommodating to male and female workers.
The AXIS Network contacted the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK) to ensure that the work reflected the concerns not only of women in general, but the experiences of women of colour.
The team looked at safe-fitting survival suits for women, toilets on offshore platforms and even the content of offshore survival training.
This was a good example of intersectionality in practice.
So, to answer the question from 2019: can we, as a sector, reach gender targets without addressing other barriers?
Knowing what I now know, I don’t believe the engineering sector can reach its gender targets without understanding and practising intersectionality.
*bell hooks’ name is always written in lower case. This was to focus on the ideas behind the work, rather than herself.