Nigel Whitehead is the Group Managing Director for Programmes and Support at BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest defence companies, developing the most advanced, technology-led defence, aerospace and security solutions on offer. The multinational organisation employs over 83,000 people in more than 40 countries and works alongside customers and local partners around the world.

We spoke to Nigel to hear his thoughts on the challenges of diversity in engineering and the role big businesses can play in bringing about change.

Nigel, why is it so important to promote and encourage diversity in engineering?

BAE Systems, as a global engineering company, has a reputation for being able to solve the really difficult problems our customers face. As the world of technology and science is evolving at such a fast pace, ensuring we have the right mix of people and skills to meet our customer’s changing needs is critical.

Engineering projects are invariably delivered by teams, and it is the teams that demonstrate diversity of thought that will succeed in developing the best solutions. We must recruit the most talented people from right across the breadth of society in order to improve performance and deliver competitively to our customer.

BAE Systems is one of the biggest defence companies in the world, with operations spread across the globe. How valuable is it for industry leaders, such as BAE Systems, to set an example in promoting equality in the workplace?

It’s vitally important that big businesses take the subject of equality seriously and encourage others to do the same. A diverse workforce and an inclusive working environment lead to wider collaboration, broader thinking and greater innovation.

We need to create an inclusive environment within the workplace where everyone can thrive, be valued for who they are and what they do, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other factor.

Are there any challenges or obstacles you can see BAE Systems facing in the future with regards to D&I?

The engineering sector in the UK as a whole is facing a shortage of graduate engineers, which means our biggest challenge is the real competition for new talent between engineering businesses, huge national infrastructure projects, and other sectors. That is why BAE Systems places such emphasis on promoting the uptake of STEM subjects and encouraging young people to seriously consider a career in engineering early.

If we can increase the overall pool of engineering talent, it can only be good for us and the UK as a whole. In growing this pool, it’s important that we encourage everyone, regardless of background, to see engineering as an exciting and inclusive sector.

In an effort to address this shortage we have been working for many years to expand the number and diversity of students choosing STEM subjects and careers. In 2017 our long-running schools engineering and science roadshow will reach 420 schools and 90,000 students, in partnership with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, using an exciting theatre show and workshop to bring the STEM subjects to life. Our 300+ active Schools Ambassadors, 35% of whom are women, help make female role models visible. In addition, our female graduates and apprentices visit schools, colleges, universities to demonstrate the benefits of a career in engineering.

Where would you like to see diversity in engineering headed? And when will we know when we get there?

Ideally, I would like us to reach the point where diversity is no longer a topic for discussion because it is simply the embedded way of things. In truth, it is likely that there will always be a need to focus on the topic in some way and continually challenge the status quo.

It has been demonstrated that when LGBT+ engineers feel unable to be open with their sexuality at work, it can have a negative impact on productivity in the business. What do you think are some of the barriers to diversity in engineering in particular, and how can employers tackle these?

Helping all of our employees be themselves in the workplace is a fundamental part of inclusion. An engaged workforce is a productive workforce, and a key element of engagement is a sense of belonging. We know that if individuals feel the need to constantly censor how they act and what they say, with respect to their personal circumstances, it can be demoralising and stressful, to the detriment of their wellbeing and productivity.

Workplace support networks can provide minority engineers an opportunity to discuss their experiences. At BAE Systems we have an LGBT Employee Resource Group, called OutlinkUK, which gives support and advice and offers a forum to discuss any issues they may be facing. This year we are increasing awareness of our Allies Programme to create a visible community of employees who actively support their LGBT colleagues. Establishing this community is fundamental to developing a working environment where everyone feels safe and included. Creating a culture where all individuals feel they can be open about their lives is really important and can be absolutely life-changing for LGBT employees.

What steps are BAE Systems taking to promote diversity and inclusion, and how do you ensure your workforce is representative of the markets you operate in?

Our Diversity & Inclusion Strategy aims to ensure that our workforce is representative of our local communities as far as is practical. We have set ourselves challenging aspirational targets around gender, disability and ethnic minority groups within our early careers population. We won’t see huge changes overnight, but by focussing on the apprentices and graduates joining our business, coupled with increased efforts within the existing workforce, we are starting to move the needle in terms of diversity. Our schools’ roadshows play a part in this, as do our 300+ schools ambassadors, presenting visible role models and showing the young students that engineering and science offers exciting opportunities regardless of their gender, race or physical ability.

We are also committed to ensuring the culture of the organisation is inclusive and that BAE Systems is seen as a good employer and an attractive place to work by as diverse an employee base as possible. For example, we are encouraging the adoption of a flexible workplace culture that enables more people to work in ways that suit their needs and lifestyles – particularly benefitting working parents and carers.

What motivates you personally to be an advocate of equality in engineering?

Just seeing the great things that can be achieved by diverse teams is extraordinarily motivating for me. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to encourage and inspire future engineering talent and ensure that everyone has the same opportunities regardless of background. People work at their best when they feel included, engaged, and valued for their efforts. Feeling excluded in the workplace can be really debilitating – improving organisational culture for people can make a massive difference to their lives and the health of the business.

If you could suggest one action that all industry leaders should take to increase diversity within engineering, what would it be?

Be vocal on the subject and show that you personally value diversity. It can sometimes feel awkward, but that shouldn’t be a reason not to discuss these important issues. At BAE Systems our CEO chairs the Diversity & Inclusion Council, demonstrating to the wider workforce just how important the senior team believe this topic to be. This level of interest and endorsement helps to engender the appropriate thinking and behaviours throughout the company.

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