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Transport conference speaker programmes don’t reflect the profession’s ethnic diversity

'The Secret Traffic Engineer'
16 August 2019

Walking through the halls and stairwells of the Institution of Civil Engineers, I often wonder if a person of any other ethnicity will ever have their portrait grace these illustrious walls. To its credit, the ICE elected its first woman president in 2008 and is poised to appoint its second in 2020. However, diversity encompasses more than gender equality. 

In my many years of working within London in the traffic and transportation field, it’s my experience that ethnicity is sparsely represented here, nowhere more so than at conferences and award ceremonies. Yet ethnicity and inclusion are topics frequented cited by speakers outlining why our field of expertise is increasingly relevant in addressing diversity. When speakers from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are chosen to speak, they seldom do so from a background of expertise, but rather from political or entertainment standpoints. Within the last two years I have attended all the major traffic and transportation conferences and award ceremonies held in London. 

At the Hackney Cycling Conference in 2018, Diane Abbott MP opened proceedings and drew reference to the lack of ethnic diversity at an event held in one of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in the country. Councillor Feryal Demirci, the then deputy mayor of Hackney and cabinet member for health, social care, transportation and parks, backed up this point with a speech of her own. By 2019 the event had evolved into the London Walking and Cycling Conference; however, not much else had changed.

When speakers from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are chosen to speak, they seldom do so from a background of expertise, but rather from political or entertainment standpoints.

Out of the 40 speakers on the agenda, two were of a BAME background; one being the mayor of London, the other a traffic engineer, who conducted the bike tour. At the Healthy Streets Awards, held in the same location later that year, out of the 44 speakers only one could be described as BAME: Dr Zoe Williams, a TV presenter and physical activity expert. Out of the 40 speakers at the Liveable Neighbourhoods Conference held in Alexander Palace this year, only three could be identified as BAME. One of the three was the leader of Haringey Council, Joseph Ejiofor. Diversity, or the lack of it, was again referenced in a speech at this year’s London Transport Awards.

Diversity in the broader sense is key to delivering progressive schemes on our roads, but can this really be achieved if policy-makers aren’t from diverse backgrounds themselves? Speaking about the need for more inclusivity yet taking marginal steps in this direction will only ever yield marginal change. 

London is the home to one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world. Our professional class is equally as wide ranging. From Zimbabwean engineers trained in communist Cuba to Jamaican ones with Masters from the University of the West Indies; Montserratian consultation officers converting technical jargon into language suitable for the lay public; Ghanaian disabled parking bay officers ensuring residents with mobility issues can park as close to home as possible; Nigerian parking officers introducing controlled parking zones in areas close to train stations to ease the burden of local residents; and Grenadian crossover specialists seamlessly blending footways and access to driveways to maintain ease of movement for pedestrians. Descendants of the Windrush generation are working quietly yet diligently to deliver award-winning projects across London. 

These engineers have all contributed to making the United Kingdom safer for all road users. Surely they also deserve a chance to convey their experiences, and pave the route into the industry for budding engineers of similar backgrounds. 

It would be remiss of me to highlight these issues without salient suggestions for change. Having a diverse decision-making panel when choosing speakers is a necessity. 

Gathering, analysing and actually acting on feedback would be extremely useful. Filling out countless feedback forms, and then coming back to find none of the suggestions have been enacted, nor reasons given as to why, begs the question, ‘What’s the point?’. 

Showing diversity within marketing and promotional material is an essential part of drawing in potential recruits to the industry. The ‘invisible superheroes’ exhibition held by the ICE is setting the foundation. For its 200th anniversary the Institution is celebrating the role civil engineers play in transforming lives. This is a year-long exhibition focusing on the unsung heroes behind some of the world’s most amazing engineering projects. The unique comic book look is designed to help inspire the next generation of engineers and create a memorable experience for everyone who visits. 

Let’s build on this strategy and broaden the field of invisible superheroes to reflect more BAME engineers like the ones I’ve highlighted. Introduce policies and procedures to ensure more candidates from BAME backgrounds are promoted to higher levels in the industry; ensure interview panels reflect the candidates being interviewed; organise networking events away from the gentleman’s clubs and bring them to the schools and colleges where students are deciding what career paths to follow. 

The public and private sectors in the UK have made concerted efforts to ensure their workforce reflects the diversity of the world around them. Adhering to some of these examples could create a cascading effect, resulting in a lot more diversity coming to conferences near you in the not so distant future. 

In conclusion, I reiterate my opening point that much has been done to close the gap in gender inequality within civil engineering. Women make up on average almost 40 per cent of speakers at the aforementioned conferences, proving change is possible in what is ordinarily perceived to be a very male-dominated industry. Take Kirsten Hearn, for example, Haringey’s cabinet member for climate change and sustainability, who also identifies as a blind lesbian. Yet more proof that diversity can be accurately reflected if we so choose to. 

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