Engineering has a white-male problem. Women make up just 14.5 percent of the engineering workforce in the United Kingdom, and ethnic minorities make up just 8 percent.
For Lila Ibrahim, chief operating officer at DeepMind, and Hayaatun Sillem, CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering, being women and people of color meant that the challenges faced them in their companies.
But for Sillem, who is the first woman and from a small tribe to have her position, from such different situations helped her to “develop compassion in her life”—a quality she describes as the strongest.
And for Ibrahim, the daughter of immigrants to the United States, she always felt like an “odd” growing up in the American West. “What that has meant throughout my career is that there have been doors opened for me that others may not agree with, because I see things differently,” he said on WIRED Impact in November.
Sillem’s added visibility in his role means he can raise awareness and address the lack of diversity quickly. He said: “The truth is that by doing this job, I can change a lot of things because of the way I look. For Ibrahim, he sees his role now as finding the right people and empowering them to succeed – and a place to fail.
Having diversity and inclusion as a priority brings positive results. Ibrahim cites the example of DeepMind, which with its AI pioneer, AlphaFold, has maintained access to the mind. One way the group did this was to work with neglected diseases to look at technologies to find new treatments for parasitic diseases that affect the Global South but which Western industries ignore. With the help of AlphaFold technology, the project was able to accelerate the development of new drugs to treat a single disease.
In dealing with the challenges facing the world today, diversity and inclusion are non-negotiable. Sillem said: “It is important for a person to move forward in things that affect the future of people. But, he warns, the work is not over; there will always be more work to be done. “Diversity is not the final destination, so you have to enjoy the journey.”