This article was written by Rob Brown and published in the Innovations magazine #6.
The business case for a diverse and inclusive culture goes far beyond the bottom line.
Companies perform better when they have at least one female executive on the board.
More needs to be done to promote diversity and inclusion in engineering.
Communicating the creativity of science, technology, engineering and mathematics related professions is crucial to engage more young women.
The technology is as advanced as its application is ironic. Within years we will be sending solar powered aircraft to the moon. We are about to take the first step towards this goal with the test flight of Freyr, a huge solar powered cargo ship that is launched by a powerful mechanical catapult and can travel from London to Cairo in two hours. It is as silent as a bird and as beautiful as an eagle.
Freyr is not real and commercial solar powered aviation, let alone space travel, is still little more than a concept. This scenario is, in fact, from the imagination of writer Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, commissioned by Thales for a project with a much more down to earth aim: to try novel approaches to stimulating creativity and collaboration in a diverse workforce.
Diversity – in terms of gender, nationality, origin and so on – matters. Numerous studies demonstrate the link between company performance and diversity. According to a 2015 Credit Suisse report, for instance, European companies with just one female board director achieve a significantly higher return on investment than those with none – 14.1% since 2005 versus 11.2%, specifically. The report concludes: “It is not a case of a greater ability of one gender versus the other but that a more diverse group makes for better decision making and corporate performance.”
Multinationals are listening. L’Oréal, for example, has appointed 30 managers across its global operations to increase diversity. Crédit Agricole, meanwhile, has declared fostering female leadership as a key strategic aim. Danone runs kids’ days in which the children of employees are invited to visit HQ to learn about their parents’ jobs. At French state railway SNCF, high school students are invited to meet female employees to bust the myth that engineering is a ‘man’s job’.So where does all this leave Thales, which currently has a workforce that is 78% male and 54% French? If a lack of diversity really does impact the growth prospects of a company and its ability to innovate, what is the company doing to diversify? And where exactly does Freyr and solar powered space travel come into all of this?
The push to diversify goes far beyond the bottom line, says Alvin Wilby, vice president for research, technical and innovation (RTI) at Thales UK. “It’s all very well talking about growth and innovation, but if we ignore gender diversity we have an existential threat to our engineering workforce,” he explains. “It’s an ageing, largely male population and we know that there’s going to be a skills crisis as people retire and the new crop comes through university and apprenticeships. if we don’t fish effectively in the female 50%, we won’t get the recruits we need. This needs to change.”
Thales has set ambitious targets to address this and is aiming for women to represent 40% of its new recruits, up from 29% in 2014. And diversity, in terms of gender, nationality and generation, will be considered during the recruitment process at application stage. The aim is for women to hold at least 30% of manager positions. To achieve these goals, Thales is looking to attract students from outside STEM’s white, male, middle-class heartland. In the UK, Thales is a supporter of Teach First, a programme that trains teaching professionals to become classroom leaders in underprivileged areas to end educational inequality, for example.
That’s not all. RTI co-ordinator Ana Mirsayar has been working with a team of teachers to increase STEM participation in English and Welsh schools and raise Thales’ profile. They’ve been smart in their approach, looking to appeal to what seems like an almost universal teenage interest. “We’ve created a computer game that teaches kids in KS3 basic equations,” explains Mirsayar, adding that all UK students are required to understand 12 key equations to be able to complete GCSE qualifications in physics and maths; a tough call, considering the demands of Pokémon Go and the latest Call of Duty instalment.
“It is important to note that these equations are an area that students struggle with, so by designing a game that inspires and teaches them is fundamental. Teach First teachers provide the understanding needed to create lesson plans that meet the needs of students and the national curriculum. Our Thales graduates have been able to provide the coding skills. The group is also developing a KS4 coding activity that can be used in Computer Science GSCE subjects or in STEM clubs.”