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Royal Academy of Engineering chief: “The industry has a diversity deficit”

Hayaatun Sillem on the need for inclusive product design, problems with the education system, and her unexpected route into engineering.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Hayaatun Sillem, the chief executive officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering, never envisioned that she would have a career in engineering – let alone become the figurehead of one of the sector’s most influential bodies. But when she was forced to abandon her burgeoning biochemistry career in 2002 after developing severe chemical sensitivities, she knew she needed a new profession.

Sillem was in the final year of her doctorate in cancer research at University College London (UCL) when she had this “traumatic” experience, she told Spotlight. “As you can imagine, if you, one day in the fourth year of your PhD, walk into the lab to do your work, and then leave it and are told you’re never allowed to go back,” she said, “it’s quite discombobulating.”

She was able to finish her PhD but didn’t know what to do next. “I had absolutely no clue what was available to me,” Sillem recalled. “So I applied for jobs in science publishing, science communication and engineering policy.”

Those jobs happened to be based at the Royal Academy of Engineering. “I got the engineering policy job immediately, despite, if I’m honest, not knowing anything about engineering or policy,” Sillem added, with a humorous tone from her office at the academy’s headquarters in central London. “Looking back, I was incredibly lucky that they hired me.”

Indeed Sillem was lucky the skills she learned during her academic career were “super transferrable”, and she was able to put the “life skills, analytical thinking and problem-solving” she had developed towards other ventures. After a two-year stint as a policy adviser at the academy, Sillem worked for the Science and Technology Select Committee in a similar advisory role for two years. She rejoined the Royal Academy in 2006 as head of international activities, and has since climbed the organisation’s internal ladder.

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“I stumbled into the world of engineering policy, because I was trying to work out: ‘what are the alternative pathways?’” said Sillem. From her experience of school in the Nineties and observing her children’s experiences now, Sillem remains perplexed by the binaries of the British educational system. She believes they force people into “narrow specialisation” and to “self-identify professionally at a young age”, which she said is “not healthy”.

Her 13-year-old son is about to choose his GCSE subjects. “By the time he’s done that, he will have already potentially excluded himself from certain careers,” she said. Constant technological change and the emerging “jobs of tomorrow” – particularly, “green jobs” – mean that the future workforce should not be consigned to having just one specialist skill, but instead receive flexible learning that provides a diverse skillset that allows them to change paths if they choose. It’s something Sillem believes the current British educational system “fails” to do. 

“It’s a great shame, because we [also] benefit from having a diversity of experiences and knowledge that we bring into the world around us,” Sillem added. “Because, if you’re an engineer, the fact that you might have studied psychology or music is just as relevant to the fact that you might have studied maths or physics, in the sense that it has [transferrable] skills that can help you to be an outstanding engineer.” 

[See also: Where next for levelling up?]

Diversity is central to Sillem’s job. Yet she is both the first woman and person of colour to hold her esteemed role in an industry that, despite aims to produce products for the whole of society, is barely representative of its workforce. The industry struggles to attract and retain women and people from minority ethnic groups: women comprise just 16.5 per cent of the engineering workforce, while only 10 per cent in the profession are from ethnic minority backgrounds, according to the not-for-profit organisation EngineeringUK.

Sillem, who was born in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, and is of South African and Indian heritage, acknowledged that “engineering has a very long-standing diversity deficit”. An un-diverse workforce results in product design that is not universally applicable or of high enough quality. Examples include facial recognition technology that perpetuates racial biases, the fact that crash-test dummies have typically only been based on male bodies, and inaccessible medicine packaging for people with disabilities. A lack of diversity in all production stages, from ideation and design through to testing, means that products end up unsuitable for many potential users. “Successful design is based on how effective it is at meeting the needs of that end user,” said Sillem, “and to me, that’s a fancy way of saying ‘inclusion’.”

Some progress is being made in diversity and inclusion. The academy now offers targeted fellowships, grants and schemes to support new and established engineers. Through policy advocacy work, it also wants to achieve its goal of “harnessing the power of engineering to build a sustainable society and inclusive economy that works for everyone”.

But achieving this needs to be a “shared endeavour”, Sillem said, and added that there needs to be “collaboration between industry and government to recognise that we need a strategic process to understand our future labour-force needs”. She pointed to the £23m investment – funded by the state and industry – to create more data and AI conversion master’s courses, which the government says will grant up to 2,000 scholarships to “young people from underrepresented groups including women, black people and people with disabilities join the UK’s world-leading artificial intelligence industry”.

It’s an effective template to build upon, as it boosts the industry’s power and diversity in one go, Sillem believes. “So you don’t just increase the number of people with the right skills to enter the jobs we know we need filling in those areas. But you also diversify the population that’s then going into that by lowering the barriers to entry for people from underrepresented groups”.

Sillem’s expertise led to her being invited on to the Levelling Up Advisory Council, the independent body that advises the government on how to deliver its flagship policy. Despite the Conservatives making a pledge to “level up” the country in 2019, household disposable income is on the verge of falling by 7 per cent over the next two years, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility – the biggest decline on record. Life, for many, feels harder compared with 2019. Last year’s levelling-up white paper set out an ambition for the number of people doing skills training to have “significantly increased in every area of the UK” by 2030. 

But how plausible is this goal in the context of increasing deprivation? Sillem said that it’s “very difficult… to predict where we’re going to be in 2030”. While she believes that current government investment in skills and engineering is going “in the right direction”, overall “it’s a fragmented picture”. 

“There is still a stronger role for the government [to play] in convening and catalysing sectoral investment,” Sillem said. “I see a lot of willingness from larger companies to not just make sensible investments that benefit them, but that go further to create a wider, skilled labour pool that will support their supply chain. But I think there is a [bigger] role for government in being a convener and a catalyst; I think it’s happening in pockets, but I wouldn’t say consistently.”

Whatever may lie ahead for Britain’s engineering sector, Sillem sees diversity as a key driver for future success. “There’s the moral case but layered on top of that is the business case for engineers to create services and products that really do meet the needs of diverse end users,” she said. “That makes it an absolute imperative for us as a community to make faster progress.”

[See also: Why are right-wingers suddenly excited about diversity?]

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