A vision to create a new inclusive ‘operating system’ that works for all

Dr Mark McBride-Wright, founder and Managing Director of EqualEngineers, is a chartered chemical engineer and advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). He talks to Building Engineer about his safety leadership book, published last month.

As founder and CEO of EqualEngineers, a company that offers a suite of diversity and inclusion consultancy and training services, as well as creative events, Dr Mark McBride-Wright has unquestionably earned what he calls his ‘rainbow stripes’ having campaigned on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) issues for more than a decade. 

A chartered chemical engineer, he first set up InterEngineering, the UK’s largest network for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ+) engineers in 2013, before founding EqualEngineers four years later to connect inclusive organisations with diverse talent in engineering and technology.

EqualEngineers specifically targets female, ethnic minority, LGBTQ+ and disabled engineers, and one of the services it offers is a pathways programme that is designed to enhance employment outcomes for these target groups.

Last month saw the publication of Mark’s book The SAFE Leader: Engineering Inclusive Cultures, which builds on this stellar work by providing a blueprint for embedding EDI across an industry that covers sectors as diverse as construction, manufacturing, oil and gas and renewables. The book’s mission also is to overcome some of the challenges facing the profession.

As the company’s website points out, not only does engineering suffer from a shortage of skilled, qualified workers – partly exacerbated by fewer people studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects – but it also faces a mental health crisis, high suicide rates and stereotypical masculine norms. 

In a profession where 84% of the workforce is white, straight and male, this is perhaps not a surprise, but Mark believes engineering is operating an outdated model and this is where his book comes in. 

Encouraged by his mentor to write The SAFE Leader, it has taken Mark three years to distil his thoughts onto paper, and over eight chapters (including the conclusion) he maps out his vision – the creation of a new inclusive ‘operating system’ that works for all. Last month, he also recorded an audio version to complement the hard copy, which should be available around mid-June.

As Mark concedes, in a profession that is predominantly white, male and straight, one of the keys to achieving inclusive cultures is to positively engage the majority, and in chapter 7 he covers how to do this in great detail. 

In a nutshell, this involves bringing the majority on-board in such a way that the 84% is encouraged to engage in difficult conversations without feeling backed into corner. 

"There is a really important distinction to make here," he explains. "People often conflate EDI about being 'We are now going to change your attitude. You now have to fundamentally shift your values system to one that is not what you have or might be a conflict with an identity you have.' But that is not what EDI is about.

"Innovation happens when you allow different voices to co-exist, but not at the expense of one another or having to give up something. It’s a really fine line to manage as an inclusive leader. Diverse teams do tend to outperform homogenous teams, but only if managed correctly."

SAFE Leader model

As its title suggest, the book outlines the ‘SAFE Leader’ model, with SAFE standing for ‘Share’, ‘Act’, ‘Feel’ and ‘Empower’.

Mark explains that the first step is for each individual – including the male majority – to understand their own diversity story.

"This about revisiting a period in our lives where we may have experience a bit of trauma and asking, “What is it that is holding us back from being open about certain things?”.’ 

Mark describes a framework in his book that readers can then use to discuss their own personal story in a supportive environment. 

"Inclusion is about everyone because everyone has a story to share,’ he says. ‘Then it’s about taking action, feeling and empowering."

Although he notes that an inclusive culture is not about avoiding sensitive conversations around topics like misogyny, homophobia and racism, it is important to challenge any ‘macho’ culture which, if not checked, can become the dominant culture.

In The SAFE Leader, one of the recommendations Mark makes is the promotion of ‘Inclusive Leadership’ whereby leaders are more empathetic and open, and also demonstrate their vulnerability, which ‘then gives permission to others to lead in that way,’ he adds.

Mark’s book talks in detail about EDI principles and practices and, most importantly, explains how it is possible to create a physically and psychologically safe workplace for everyone that fosters innovation and inclusive design while simultaneously closing the industry’s skills gap.

As readers will no doubt be aware, it is estimated that around 20% of the engineering workforce is expected to retire in 2030.

"We are walking to this cliff edge where all these, mainly men, older workers, who have all this wisdom, knowledge, skills and experience [are approaching retirement and] they need to impart [that to the future generations coming through]," he warns. "However, the connection isn’t happening because of the biases that each generation harbours about one another."

Sharing learned experiences

This is where the pathways programme mentioned earlier supports the recommendations in his book. Mark says that, to date, around 350 engineering students from minority backgrounds have been paired with senior engineers working in industry, and he cites a case study where a deaf engineer studying robotics was paired with an experienced engineer to illustrate the wider benefits for an organisation.

"She helped to open his eyes to how she experiences the world and he now has a deeper appreciation, a learned experience of someone that he is not," he says.

Mark feels that applying this approach can help to ‘unlock the hesitancy’ that many male engineers may have towards EDI.

"They then feel part of the movement, fully embrace it and then go out of their way to create inclusive cultures for those around them," he argues. 

"That will then help with the retention of women in engineering. It will also help us have frank conversations around how female engineers experience male majority workplaces. There is a whole raft of stuff that different groups talk about that is not being listened to by the majority group."

In The SAFE Leader Mark details how organisations can implement a holistic and robust EDI strategy. One of his ambitions is that this approach becomes a ‘leadership mantra’.

"In the book, I try and draw a lot of equivalencies between physical and psychological safety," he explains.

Providing an example of the former, he points to construction sites where engineers, irrespective of their level, are empowered to call out unsafe acts without retribution, and how this has led to a reduction in lost-time incident rates linked to physical safety issues.

"The equivalent in psychological safety in EDI is micro-aggressions and micro-inequities," he says. 

"So being empowered to call out non-inclusive behaviours without the fear of retribution or push back… and what this does is it gives licence to people to be self-regulating themselves, but also moderating one another for language that may be putting someone at mental distress who isn’t being vocal about it. They may be feeling permanently excluded by this attitude that might be so pervasive on site."

When asked about the potential impact of his book on the sector, Mark hopes the approach he promotes in The SAFE Leader becomes a new leadership framework that influences not only a single organisation’s culture, but also the broader industry, and extending to its supply chain.

Ultimately, he’d like to see zero tolerance for non-inclusive behaviour.

"My end game is to create this shift in leadership style such that we can accelerate the acceptance that EDI is important for engineering, for STEM, now. Then, as we start to bring in the new engineers, and maybe bring back the engineers who may have left, we get a greater stickiness, so that our attrition rate and loss of talent over the next 30 years reduces and we get better at retaining talent because we are creating more inclusive industries," he says.

"A long-term output will be seeing a diversification of the talent pipeline as it comes through and this is like taking a systems-engineering approach to solving the skills and talent crisis. We need to be thinking about it holistically in that way and all working together on it."

Dr Mark McBride-Wright’s book The SAFE Leader: Engineering Inclusive Cultures is available to purchase here. He can be contacted at: [email protected] 

Readers may also be interested in Mark's recent CABE webinar, 'The Power of Psychological Safety and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in STEM', which Building Engineer reviewed here.

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