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.”
Inclusivity through creativity
The fact that computer games, the largest entertainment industry in the world, couldn’t exist without creative experts with a background in science and technology, could be used to attract young people into STEM. It certainly proved a powerful lure for Shae Kirkpatrick, who has been working as an air traffic management software engineer at Thales’ Australian headquarters in Melbourne for the past three years.
“At university I was initially doing a fine arts degree,” explains Kirkpatrick, who comes from an artistic family, trained in ballet for 16 years and plays the flute and piano. “But when I was there, I did an animation class with some games design students and I thought it was so interesting and so much more creative than what I was doing. So I jumped ship and moved to an engineering degree and never looked back.”
Now she is looking to share her discovery with primary school students, encouraging more of them to consider careers in science and technology. It’s a worthy cause. In Australia, STEM-related course completions are falling at an alarming rate, down from 22% of all course completions a decade ago to just 16%. What’s more, just 14% of Australia’s STEM-qualified workforce is female. Kirkpatrick, for example, is the only female technical engineer in her team of around 30.
Kirkpatrick’s project consists of small programming activities with an air traffic management flair, created with free online programming tool Scratch, which teaches students how to code in a simple graphic manner. It works by dragging and dropping blocks of instructions on the screen, clipping them together like Lego blocks to create a program, game or animation. The focus is not on complex concepts, but the problem solving and creative aspects of programming.
Communicating the creative aspects of STEM is crucial, particularly given Thales’ background in the male-dominated technical sphere, contends Kirkpatrick. “It’s true – defence is male dominated,” she says. “It’s a matter of getting out there and building brand awareness of what we actually do; emphasising how creative you have to be and how you work as a team and deal with customers. There’s this whole creative, innovative side that should really engage young female students.”
Of course there are pressing incentives for businesses like Thales to diversify. European Union law dictates that by 2020, every listed company in the EU must have implemented diversity quotas and their boards must be at least 40% female.
There’s a cogent business case for diversification of the workforce too, argues Ottawa-based Astrid Neuland, who works in business development for Thales Canada Defence and Security and is acting executive vice president of Women In Defence and Security Canada (WiDS) and VP affiliations and sponsorships for the organisation. WiDS promotes the advancement of women leaders in defence and security professions across Canada. Earlier this year, she was named as one of the Top 20 Women in Defence 2017 in Canadian military magazine, Espirit de Corps.
“As our clients become more diverse, so must we,” says Neuland. “The highest ranking female general in the commonwealth is a Canadian, Lieutenant-General Christine Whitecross. “If there is more diversity seated around her table – in terms of gender, cultural background, education and rank – it makes sense if we are more diverse too. We should mirror our clients.”
Which is where Freyr and solar-powered spacecraft come into the equation. Spruck Wrigley used these details in a short story about a truanting schoolgirl called Giff for a workshop with Thales employees, aimed at encouraging creative brainstorming and emphasising how teams of people from a broad range of backgrounds can think more creatively thanks to differences in the way team members approach problems. Perhaps by attracting a more diverse workforce, solar powered space travel may soon be within our grasp.