One of the most important lessons to be learned in today’s business climate is that diversity in the workplace leads directly to increased profitability and an improved corporate performance. “We are a very diverse society in the UK and the workplace should reflect that,” says Professor John Perkins, chief scientific adviser to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, Honorary Professor at the University of Manchester and Visiting Professor at Imperial College, London and the author of a report about skills in engineering. “We have discovered that diverse teams come up with better solutions than those in which everyone looks like one another.”

UK falling behind

Professor Perkins
Professor Perkins

One huge problem, however, is the relatively few women currently working in engineering. “It’s not just a perception: the statistics support it,” says Professor Perkins. “We’re the worst of any country in Europe. It’s partly a matter of deep seated cultural issues. If you go into any school and look at subjects such as maths or physics and see an underrepresentation of girls, then you will equally see an underrepresentation of boys in subjects like English. There are very dated views about what engineers do: people think of dirty smoke stacks with people working in overalls in oily environments and girls think that’s not for them.”

Professor Perkins thinks that there are two huge arguments for getting women into engineering, the first being simply that there are not enough engineers in this country and we need more. The other, however, is a question of social justice: engineering is a rewarding profession both financially and because it is interesting. “A huge amount of effort is going into encouraging young people into STEM subjects,” he says. “We are looking at materials to make sure we are not discouraging girls. It is still not recognised that engineering is very social and can also be very creative. Engineering is about changing the world, which is a hugely creative endeavour. Multiple solutions open up.”

And it benefits companies, too, as demonstrated in a report, Better Decisions Through Diversity, published back in 2010. The findings are counterintuitive. The mere presence of diversity in a group creates awkwardness, and the need to diffuse this tension leads to better group problem solving, says Katherine Phillips, an associate professor of management and organisations at the Kellogg School of Management.

“There are also a growing number of role models both at starting levels and senior,” says Professor Perkins. Change is in the air.