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Equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) is a burning issue in today’s workplace and, going forward, will only increase in importance. Today’s generation of job candidates have grown up living the ideals that others spent so long for fighting for and, to attract the best employees, companies will need to show that they welcome all individuals.

Organisations benefit when they offer equal opportunities and work to stamp out discrimination. Encouraging EDI helps companies better serve their customers; keep employees happy and motivated; prevent legal issues arising; and attract talent from a wider pool of candidates.

Champion for diversity

Era Shah is a chartered Civil Engineer at Costain, the UK smart infrastructure solutions company. She was named as one of the Women in Engineering Society’s ‘Top 50 Women in Engineering 2021’ and has worked on some of the biggest rail infrastructure projects in recent years, primarily with Network Rail, HS2 and Crossrail. Era is a champion for diversity in the workplace and believes firms can do more to encourage a wider range of candidates.

Era’s entry into the world of engineering came via an Arkwright Scholarship. “The Arkwright Scholarship is part of the Smallpeice Trust, a children’s education charity,” she says. “The idea behind it is to widen the access around engineering and give young people of all backgrounds, and who have an interest in STEM subjects, the ability to understand what engineering is and what it means to be an engineer.”

Arkwright scholarships are offered to the ‘brightest and best’ students of any background, that have the passion and determination to succeed in their future studies and career. Those accepted onto the scholarship receive £600 which can be used to purchase components and materials for technical projects, to purchase text books and reference books, or pay for attendance on technical courses, summer schools or university open days.

“It’s nationally recognised and really prestigious,” Era says, “but the key is that you are afforded a sponsor who can give you connections. Through your sponsor you can set up further work experience, get funding, and access to engineering courses.”

Eyes opened

Despite all the knowledge and experience Era accumulated through her scholarship and the university career that followed, stepping into the workplace opened her eyes to the inequalities that still persist in some companies.

“Going into the workplace after university, you’re not necessarily equipped to deal with situations where you feel like you’re not being heard or you’re a little intimidated. You might not actually speak up, if, for instance, there are lots of men in the room and you’re the only woman.

“I’ve experienced some very cliched experiences. As the only woman in a room during a meeting I was asked to take the minutes because I have ‘lovely handwriting’. That particular moment really made me think, ‘Okay, that’s not cool. Something needs to change.’

“Those sorts of situations have made me passionate to improve things and make the environment more inclusive – to make people more aware of what is right and what is inappropriate. A huge amount has changed now, and I feel empowered to speak up when things aren’t right. But everyone needs the tools to be able to do that, whether they’re directly affected by non-inclusive behaviour, or whether they witness it.”

Missing a trick

But is it enough to for firms to tackle discrimination and promote inclusion once employees are settled within the structure of the company? What positive action can rail companies take to promote EDI at the recruitment stage ­ the first point of contact with potential employees? Firms need to pay more attention to the communities they’re targeting, and the language used in recruitment material, says Era.

“The first things to think about are where are we advertising our roles, and what communities we are tapping into. In terms of career events, where are they actually being held? Maybe we need to be going into communities, rather than relying on people coming to certain events.

“Recruiters also need to think about how job descriptions are put together and what kind of wording is used. For example, certain phrases are probably more attractive to men than women and vice versa. Being mindful of the language that we use and removing any gender bias within the job description is essential.”

But it doesn’t stop there. For potential employees, the interview can be one of the most stressful stages of the recruitment process. Walking into an unwelcoming environment can put even the best interviewee on edge and impact their performance. At the same time, any unconscious bias on the part of the interview panel can result in unfair and poor recruitment decisions.

“It’s important there is representation on the interview panel,” says Era. “Of course, this isn’t always possible, but if the panel can’t be representative, we need to ensure that the people performing the interview are very aware of their own unconscious bias. That’s useful for the assessors as it leads to more logical and less emotion-based decisions, but it can also make the interviewee more relaxed and help them to open up more.”

Avoid the familiar

Recruiters must also avoid being swayed by candidates who might have a similar background or life experiences as themselves. Often, the candidates who have approached their career from a different angle can bring new thinking and decision making to the company, Era says.

“It’s also about how you translate the accomplishments of the individuals you’re interviewing. They might not have taken the same route that you took, and they may not have had the same experience of education as you, but that doesn’t always impact their level of skill or their ability to deliver on the job. By understanding that, I think you can actually widen your talent pool and capture more candidates.” As we move further into the twenty-first century, EDI will become an even bigger topic than it is today. And that’s right – it’s called progress. In the coming years, firms must make clear their commitment to achieving equality for all and provide information on how they’re doing this. Job seekers, especially from Generation Z, are actively searching for companies that have more inclusive values, and those companies that fall behind on these issues risk missing out on a huge pool of candidates.