Psychological safety and EDI in STEM could address skills gap, says expert

Following on from the launch of his book The SAFE Leader last week, Building Engineer spoke to Dr Mark McBride-Wright about his CABE webinar, which explores, among other things, the role of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in resolving the skills gap in engineering.

Last week, Dr Mark McBride-Wright, founder and CEO of EqualEngineers, published his long-awaited book, The SAFE Leader: Engineering Inclusive Cultures, which explores how the principles and practices of equity, diversity, equity and inclusion (EDI) can close the engineering skills gap while also create a physically and psychologically safe workplace that fosters innovation and inclusive design. 

Many of the central themes that Mark discusses in greater detail in his book were also touched upon in a CABE webinar he presented back in March – 'The Power of Psychological Safety and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in STEM'.

Mark’s insightful presentation is free for readers to view and one of the main points he makes is the importance of leveraging safety more effectively to instil EDI values throughout the engineering profession. 

Putting this into a broader context, he explains how different sectors have used different levers to embed EDI. 

In the financial sector, for instance, this industry has used the ‘return on investment to businesses’ as a motivator for embedding EDI while in the legal profession the emphasis has been more on using legislative levers.

"I am not so sure those two messages are typically the things that resonate the most for engineers," he says.

"Safety is the common thread in engineering; the sector-specific lens that we need to exploit more when it comes to embedding EDI."

Safety first

Because physical safety is so intrinsic to the work of engineers, he argues the profession should extend what it already does here to psychological and technical safety but by applying an ‘inclusion lens’ at the same time. 

He discusses this further in his webinar, but speaking to Building Engineer, he explains the importance of the latter.

"Technical safety is where engineers will qualify and quantify likelihoods and probabilities using incident rates and the potential for loss of life in such a design," he explains.

"Engineering projects have to do these assessments so they can get their licences to operate and to move designs through the design cycle from concept through to front-end engineering design, then detailed design, operations and decommissioning. It’s where we look at the lifecycle of an asset."

In this respect, he feels that a lens of inclusivity could easily be built into technical safety design approaches and methodologies. 

"We often don’t think about inclusion as we move through design stages,’ he continues. 
"Imagine if we had had more disabled engineers in the built environment consultancies over the last 50 years. We would live in a very different built environment. Our cities would look different. What you want to avoid in safety is lots of additional layers of protection, lots of additive measures further down the line that you have to rely upon in the event that some root cause happens that could lead to a top event and a loss of life."

Mark argues that if you can make designs as inherently safe as possible – by designing out risks at the earliest stage – you reduce the likelihood of negative events arising later on. 

Influencing EDI in engineering

This prompts him to discuss how EDI can be embedded in engineering, a topic he explores further in the webinar. He offers two routes.

The first is to talk about the engineering, the end product and the end users that will be using whatever is produced, for example, a building. Here, he argues it is critical that engineers consult with the local communities that are going to benefit for the final product at the earliest stage.

The second is ensuring the design team is as diverse as possible so that whatever is produced reflects a broad range of different perspectives. 

Mark is a Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor in Inclusive Engineering Leadership at University College London and he tells Building Engineer that in this role he makes sure every engineering student completes an equality impact assessment (EIA) as part of their design project. 

"An EIA is a design methodology that still doesn’t get done early enough in industry and some students have never heard of them," he says. 

"What I’d like to do is take tools that we already use in industry, albeit too late in the design stage in some instances, bring them into the engineering curriculum and then what have we got? A whole bunch of civil engineers and quantity surveyors for the future that are actively thinking, 'We’ve got to do EIAs as part of this design process'."

Mark’s webinar also touches on the EqualEngineers’ ‘Pathways Programme’. This national mentoring programme, which has different funding models from industry and academia, provides an opportunity for engineering students from diverse backgrounds to improve their employability through a series of different activities. These include industry work experience, placements and internships. 

"We are basically experimenting with what works as we start to scale," he says. "Our ambition is to have an active regionalisation programme where we’ve got regional pathway programmes happening around the country, so if anyone is interested in finding out whether we are active in their area or we could help pool together a programme and they’ve got some funding pockets, we’d love to have a chat."

Inclusive interdependence

One of the other main themes that Mark discusses in his webinar is ‘inclusive interdependence’ in the context of DEI conversations.  

He also covers this topic in greater detail in chapter 5 of his book. This relates to the stage 5 that he puts forward as an extension to the Bradley Curve.

"What I am ultimately advocating is that we drive up the collective standard to be better if we actively look out for one another," he argues.

"If you are in the workplace or on a site and you see something that starts to happen, rather than just letting it be, if it’s safe to do so, get involved and support the individual."

He tells Building Engineer there is an intrinsic motivation for acting in this way, and that is that ultimately it will enhance everyone’s safety. 

"That’s what this idea of stage 5 to the Bradley Curve is. It’s a subtle extension of stage 4, which assumes that we all look out for one another and we do so because it’s the right thing to do," he says. 

"However, people aren’t wired that way… so we then reframe it to be, “Selfishly, it’s better for you if you do it for others because others will then do it for you in reciprocity”. That’s where this idea of “inclusive interdependence” comes in."

Readers can watch Mark’s webinar: 'The Power of Psychological Safety and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in STEM', below.

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