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Arts & Culture

Changing the face of engineering

The Common Room, the charity known for the restoration of Newcastle’s Neville Hall, recently hosted The Face of Engineering. The three-day festival, set against the backdrop of The Common Room’s historic Grade II* listed building of industrial significance, brought together a range of diverse engineers and those working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) to discuss, debate and challenge how we can collectively change the current face of engineering. The Common Room’s mission is to use its unique heritage to inspire the next generation of innovators and engineers – and the festival was a highlight of its opening offering. The festival was the latest phase in a programme of work that began as a podcast series commissioned during lockdown in 2020.

The current state of play

The sector faces ongoing skills shortages, with struggles in attracting and retaining diverse engineers, including women, women of colour and LGBTQ+ engineers. Combine this with the current impact of the global pandemic on engineering companies, workforce and their families, and now, more than ever, the sector needs to inspire and attract more young people to pursue a career in engineering, as well as retaining these engineers once in the labour market.

The Face of Engineering conference day welcomed both regional and national speakers from different stages in their careers to share their lived experiences of equity and diversity within the sector. Hosted by BBC radio presenter and partner to The Common Room Ngunan Adamu, the conference hosted and live streamed panel discussions on the topics of barriers to entry, why diversity is important, innovation and failure, and how we can inspire future generations.

Panellists and speakers included Steena Nasapen-Watson, regional director for the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE North East, Yorkshire and Humber); Clare Wood, director at Turner & Townsend; and Margherita Pasquariello, head of strategy at NA College. National representatives from Women In Transport, BAE Systems and Morgan Sindall also supported the event.

Across the day, in-person delegates participated in two roundtable discussions on the topics of motherhood and engineering, and inspiring, securing and maintaining diverse talent pipelines. Shrouk El-Attar, lead senior electronic engineer, IET top six young women engineer in the UK 2019 and 2020, belly dancer and refugee, presented her keynote speech on the importance of building environments that allow diverse engineers to flourish, and that engineering is indeed a superpower.

Shrouk shared her lived experiences of coming to the UK as a child refugee from Egypt and her journey to becoming an electrical and electronic engineer. Over the course of her career, Shrouk has worked on several important projects, such as affordable MRI scans the size of your phone that can detect cancer, to silent, wearable, smart solutions for people who menstruate through Elvie.

Shrouk’s key message was to be unapologetically ‘YOU’, and to celebrate creativity and diversity in all its forms. With industry organisation EngineeringUK reporting that women make up 16.5 per cent of the engineering workforce2, two per cent of which are women of colour, speakers, panellists and delegates were asked two key questions: ‘how can we improve diversity and inclusion in engineering, and how will I change the face of engineering?’

These questions sparked many conversations around the impact of positive, relatable, role models for young people, the need for systemic change to the national curriculum in relation to policy, and the importance of implementing diversity and measuring its effectiveness within companies and organisations. Key themes across the day focused on changing the rhetoric around engineering and the question around rebranding engineering to make it more inclusive for all.

Inspiring the next generation

The second day of the festival aimed to provide meaningful encounters for young people with diverse engineers from a range of employers within the sector. Research shows 62 per cent of 16-to-17-year-olds in the UK feel science and maths are more difficult than non-related STEM subjects, and that we see a visible drop off of girls choosing to study STEM A-level subjects, in spite of girls performing better than boys at all levels in STEM.

This shows how important young people’s perceptions of STEM are in influencing their future career choices. Across the day, The Common Room hosted workshops where engineers were able to showcase the range of career pathways and job roles to predominantly young girls from four local schools:

Gosforth Central Middle School, Grace College, John Spence, and Lord Lawson. On the day, pupils took part in four workshops delivered by partners Unipres UK, Turner & Townsend, Ryder Architecture and Morgan Sindall. Pupils were also able to meet engineers through a series of engineering speed chats with female engineers from BAE Systems, EMM, LNER and Network Rail, and ask them questions about their careers.

The importance of key influencers

The final day of the festival provided the opportunity for young people and their key influencers such as parents, carers, family and friends to engage with female engineers from Unipres UK and Morgan Sindall. The Common Room was also joined by speaker Krystina Pearson-Rampeearee, senior flight engineer at BAE Systems and owner of AviateHer, a small business selling accessories to promote diversity in engineering and the wider STEM sector.

Equity for all

The Common Room hopes this to be the first major conference in a series of events over the coming years. Shifting the needle on diversity in engineering is a long-term aim. This challenge is by no means unique to the region, but The Common Room is committed to building on the legacy of engineering within its building and its archive, so that the activities that take place in its grand spaces could once again be at the forefront of innovation to tackle the skills shortage in STEM for the common good.

And perhaps, in doing so, as a region we could make faster headway in tackling the other social and economic challenges this planet is facing, from climate change to good health and wellbeing. Diversity leads to better outcomes for all. And The Common Room is making strides in changing the face of engineering. The Face Of Engineering Festival was made possible thanks to National Lottery players (National Lottery Heritage Fund), plus our supporters The Reece Foundation, NA College, The Platten Family Fund (Community Foundation serving Tyne & Wear and Northumberland), Stadler, Nexus, Turner & Townsend, EngineeringUK, Crowne Plaza Newcastle – Stephenson Quarter, North East Local Enterprise Partnership and Women in Transport.

The Common Room
The Common Room was established in 2017 to manage the assets and lead the redevelopment of The Mining Institute. It is backed by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which awarded the project £5 million to boost its work in supporting the region’s economy and nurturing the next generation of innovators and engineers.