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Interview with Jo Foster, Diversity & Inclusion Manager at The IET

30 September 2020

For almost a decade Jo Foster has been leading on equality, diversity and inclusion at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), one of the largest professional engineering institutions in the world. Jo has been the driving force behind the IET’s Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards and  social media diversity campaigns, two of which are multi-award-winning – to alter perceptions around engineering and who the profession is for. 

We spoke to Jo about how diversity has changed over the past decade and why inclusion should be built into all processes and services rather than it being seen as an additional task for the organisations to undertake. 

For those readers who might not know what diversity and inclusion is, please can you explain why it is so important for the workplace? 

Diversity aims to recognise, understand, celebrate and value the individual differences of everybody.  inclusion ensures that those diverse groups feel able to participate by fostering the right environment to work together.  This is a winning combination – if organisations wish to create equal and professional opportunities for all, then diversity and inclusion must work in synergy to achieve this.   

It is widely accepted and has been conveyed in numerous credible reports that diverse organisations have a competitive advantage when it comes to business. In addition to diversity and inclusion positively impacting an organisation’s bottom line, through diversity of thought, which leads to creativity and sparks innovation; it can enhance the reputation of an organisation from an employer and customer perspective. 

Having diverse teams encourages an inclusive workplace culture, by enabling employees to feel valued, able to contribute and bring their whole selves to work. This in itself is an important aspect of promoting wellbeing in the workplace and creating an inclusive workplace. 

You have been at IET for almost a decade, how have things changed for diversity over that time? 

When I first joined the Institution of Engineering and Technology, my sole focus was gender diversity – the UK has a shortage of skilled engineers and given that women make up approximately 50% of the population, it makes sense to start there. However, whilst it is still key to maintain that focus, it has become more apparent that multiple diversity strands need to be considered in order to be truly inclusive and make meaningful impact. 

What are the issues the industry faces  in embracing diversity and inclusion? 

Some of the issues around organisations not embracing diversity may be down to leaders not fully understanding the benefits that diversity and inclusion can bring to an organisation – many businesses may struggle to gain senior leadership support for this reason which, in my experience is one of the many fundamental keys to embedding it successfully.   

If leaders do not role model the behavior required to promote successful diversity and inclusion practices, then very little will change. Diversity and inclusion should be built into all processes and services rather than it being seen as an additional task for the organisation to undertake. 

It is important to remember that the landscape for diversity and inclusion is always changing therefore, leaders must constantly educate themselves and their teams for the long-term to maintain momentum. 

It is no secret that there is a shortfall of UK engineers entering the workforce. What role has diversity got to play in this and what can we do to ensure we have the next generation of scientists and engineers we need? 

A lack of visible representation of diverse engineers is one of many factors contributing to the to the UK’s shortfall.  According to Marian Wright Edelman, an American activist for children’s rights, “you can’t be what you can’t see” – highlighting existing diversity within the engineering profession is key in altering unhelpful perceptions and stereotypes of what an engineer ‘looks like’.   

In 2018 the IET ran a campaign called #IAmAnEngineer for this very purpose – it featured several engineers with a variety of characteristics, to challenge the idea of who the engineering profession is for. 

Whilst campaigns like this are helpful, it is also important that children have an opportunity to explore the world of science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) from an early age so at the very least this potential career choice is on their radar. STEM careers are not often discussed in the social narrative but other professions such as lawyers or doctors are and so, they become the norm. Not everybody will become an engineer but by highlighting the profession as a viable career choice to as many individuals as possible, will help to encourage the next generation into this rewarding and world-changing profession.   

What advice would you give to a company looking to improve diversity in their workforce? 

To be truly inclusive, organisations should focus on multiple diversity strands and ensure that each area receives equal attention. Their approach to diversity should be transparent and impactful to engender trust from their workforce. 

Having an equality, diversity and inclusion strategy is key in articulating a plan, demonstrating their commitment, creating meaningful change and organisational transformation. This should be signed off by the highest level of an organisation to gain traction and reduce potential barriers.  

Organisations should regularly communicate their ambition and create an inclusive workplace culture that gets the very best from their employees and creates a sense of psychological safety. 

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