Like most of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, the chemical engineering profession can suffer from a lack of diversity.
The most common diversity angle is the gender balance issue. While there is plenty of room for improvement, we can be proud of the fact that around 35 per cent of IChemE’s global student members are women.
A closer look at IChemE’s membership data shows how the chemical engineering profession is thriving, from a gender perspective, in some countries.
Malaysia tops the list with women accounting for 49 per cent of chemical engineering student members. New Zealand (40 per cent), Australia (35 per cent) and Singapore (31 per cent) also post strong performances for gender balance.
The data for UK and Ireland is lower at 28 per cent, but considerably well above average for typical STEM careers in these countries.
In the rest of the world, over 40 per cent of chemical engineering students on IChemE accredited courses are female. Excellent work by everyone involved.
But gender isn’t the only issue.
Disability, ethnicity and socioeconomic background are areas where there is a great deal to learn and improve on. A report into improving diversity in STEM by the UK-based Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) in May this year highlighted some of the challenges in the UK.
Many STEM employers advocate that a diverse engineering team is often a strong and effective team.
In some countries there is strong link between socioeconomic background and educational attainment. The background can often be a barrier to a university education.
However there are some very talented and resilient individuals that I think the entire STEM profession can be proud of.
I’ve recently learnt about the First Foundation initiative in New Zealand. This educational trust fund provides support for young New Zealanders who don’t have the financial resource to otherwise enter tertiary education.
By removing the financial barriers, many talented people can take further study. Increased knowledge and education is a well known route to improving the socioeconomic position of people.
An inspiring example of the work by the First Foundation is Roseanne Ulunga. The support of a First Foundation scholarship and the opportunity to work at a scholarship partner company Gerard Roofs gave Roseanne the opportunity to develop key skills.
While I am biased, I think this is an example of resilience and support helping someone develop and learn. I think she’ll be an asset to the engineering profession, whichever path she chooses.
Another example is the Schlumberger Foundation that supports education and socio-economic development; recognising the importance of STEM. Part of their work includes the Faculty for the Future, now in its tenth year. This provides fellowships to women from developing and emerging economies to pursue PhD or post-doctoral studies in the physical sciences, engineering and technology at leading international universities.
These types of initiatives are not just about providing the financial support, but like company partners that work with organisations such as First Foundation; providing opportunities for work experience.
Opportunities to work in companies not only offers experience but also inspiration and access to role models. There are various resources available to support diversity; identifying the need to enthuse, support and inspire.
These are just some examples of inspiring people in our profession. I think we should celebrate this more than we do. Once again, to those people reading this; if you’ve got a good news story about chemical engineers and the work they’re doing please share this with me.