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Insights Safety Consultant, Heraa on shaping the world for equality #INWED20

In our latest International Women in Engineering Day (#INWED20) interview, Heraa delivers some straight talk from her perspective as a brown woman in engineering. In 2013, Heraa Joined Atkins, a member of the AtkinsRéalis Group, as a Graduate Engineer. Today she works as one of our talented Safety Engineers. Part of Engineering & Consulting in the Resources sector, she specializes in project delivery for the Energy market. Here's her story.

Image of Heraa smiling

What does INWED mean to you?

I was torn when I was approached to share my experiences as a female engineer for INWED. I could share my experiences as a woman in engineering, ignore the request, or write about my experiences as a brown woman in engineering and in society. I chose the latter because, suddenly, it seems like it's ok to talk about race. Yes, it's uncomfortable, but finally, people are listening. While we've read a lot about this lately, I felt it was important for me to add my voice.

It's no secret that women in engineering are an underrepresented group, but what happens when we add the BAME factor to the equation? 

Things get harder, they get more complicated. While we see more BAME networks, inclusion champions and training initiatives, it's still not something that gets the time and attention it deserves. It's not something we've made much progress with either. And when I think about my role models, the people I look up to, the engineers working on ground-breaking projects, I don't see anyone that really looks like me. My manager is white, my team lead is white, my group lead is white, my technical authority is white, my mentors are white, my entire leadership team is white. And this isn't an isolated occurrence. This is the norm. 

We all get that role models are essential, but what is their role in developing a more diverse workforce?

When people say 'picture yourself in the job you want, the role you see yourself doing in five or ten years' time,' I simply can't. I can't do this because no one doing these roles looks like me. When I say that I can't see myself having a leadership role, it's not because I lack ambition, it's because I'm scared. I'm in the early stages of my career, and, already, every promotion, every accolade, every step up, feels so fragile. It's so utterly surprising whenever I make progress because I can't look to anyone ahead of me and truly relate to them. 

What else do you feel hampers organizations' progress in this area?

We may be doing everything we can to ensure that more people from BAME backgrounds are employed at all levels of business. But are we also creating comfortable, welcoming environments where people from underrepresented groups can thrive and lead? And even if the answer is yes, the issue of race does not go away when we leave our (now virtual) offices. As much as we don't want to admit it, racism is everywhere. It's systemic. 

Most people don't identify as racists and can't relate to systemic racism. How would you describe it?

It's "in the system" that will call black people "immigrants," but white people "expats." It's in our taxis when we're asked, "where are you really from?" It's in our hospitals where black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. It's in our restaurants where our curries are happily devoured, but we're mocked for their smell. It's in our universities where black people are less likely to be offered a place, despite having equal or better qualifications. It's in the system that will "randomly" flag me to be searched before boarding a flight to America but not the dozens of white people who have boarded before me. 

Do you think society and the industry can move forward from this unjust way of life?

The only way we can fix the injustices of systemic racism is through policy change. And I believe that we, as individuals, and as employees of large corporations, have a part to play in this. We must use our voices to encourage our leaders to use their power and influence to drive change. We can use the relationships we've built with governments around the world to change the policies and systems that can hold people of colour back. While we are not born racist, the system we're born into is, and it's up to those on the winning side to change it.

What would you say to your industry peers and colleagues around the world?

I don't want these to be empty words that get lost within the many corporate statements we've seen across social media. I want this to be something that leads to change and shows how engineers have a part to play in improving diversity and inclusion. Join your BAME network, talk to your inclusion champion, take that training course, educate yourself, ask questions. Take action. 

The theme for INWED20 is Shape the World. What does that mean to you?

While these issues have always been important to me, I'm ashamed to say I've never prioritized them. That changes now. In the past, I'd become frustrated when progress has been slow, or when changes have been small. But, I'm an engineer, I solve problems – we all solve problems. That's exactly what we need to do here. This problem can't be forgotten when things get too hard or too busy. This issue can't go away because we're in a pandemic, a recession, or a structural reorganization. We have to work together to make things better for those that come after us, I might struggle to find a role model that looks like me, but the next generation should be spoiled for choice. This is how we Shape the World.

Discover more about our equality, diversity & inclusion journey and the pledges we've made to our people so far.