In celebration of the digital release of 20th Century Fox’s Academy Award nominated ‘Hidden Figures’, I was invited to take part in a very special movie night featuring a panel discussion of engineers from both BME backgrounds and the space industry. Joining me on the panel was fellow QEPrize Ambassador and structural engineer, Roma Agrawal; director for spacecraft platforms and demonstration missions at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, Anita Bernie; and President and CEO of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, Dr Nelson Ogunshakin. Chairing the evening’s discussion was Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE, host of the BBC’s ‘The Sky at Night’.
The event opened with a welcome from Dame Ann Dowling, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a Trustee of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. She began by introducing the work of the Academy in promoting engineering to young people, and hailed films such as Hidden Figures for highlighting the variety of exciting careers on offer, as well as the incredible human stories behind them.
Maggie kicked off the panel discussion, looking back on her career in industry; both at the excitement, joy and fulfilment that it has brought her, but also the trials along the way. She told of the times when she first set foot into the world of engineering when she was often mistaken for “the tea lady”. Other panellists chipped in with their own comments, discussing how far we have come since the time of the space race, and how conditions for both women and engineers from BME backgrounds in today’s workforce have improved.
However, it was noted that the statistics of candidates in science and engineering disciplines from these minority groups fall throughout secondary education and into degree courses, and further still in industry. While we have come a long way, and our problems are modest compared to the burdens borne by those portrayed in the film, we owe it to these women to continue to fight for total equality and representative diversity across the industry.
Other discussions throughout the evening focused on the supporting characters in the film. Even those who may have received privilege because of their gender or race have an important role to play in terms of their attitudes and actions towards others. Characters complicit in perpetuating negative barriers to diversity, as well as those who challenged the status quo to support improvements, were discussed and contrasted.
Maggie drew attention, in particular, towards the importance of mentors and sponsors in positions of power to support, guide and champion those from minority groups, encouraging them to fulfil their full potential and removing blockers or challenges from their progression. As a panel, we agreed on the value of having peers and allies speaking up in support individuals in the case of any inappropriate or insensitive behaviour from colleagues.
Each of the speakers shared personal experiences they have had and highlighted similar moments from the film for the audience to look out for and reflect upon both during and after the screening. These moments looked at the conditions experienced by the characters and how they overcame the obstacles in their way, and also demonstrated how we still have much more to do to completely break down the barriers to diversity. The discussion left the audience primed, engaged, and enthusiastic for the screening of the film.
Films about engineering are rare, but are hugely valuable in highlighting to the public the reality of careers in this diverse and fulfilling sector. To have such a thoughtfully produced and inspirational film written not only about engineers, but about engineers who were pioneers of their race and gender, brings a whole new dimension in terms of the value of this film, demonstrating possibilities for people of all backgrounds within our industry. I think it’s a great film, and invaluable in communicating that no matter who you are and what your background, engineering is a career where you are accepted for the skills you bring to the table.
Click the link below to find out more about the QEPrize Global Engineering Ambassadors’ Network.
Click here to read more about Hidden Figures on the Science Museum website.