Dr Nike Folayan: seeking to provide strong role-models and support structures for engineers of minority ethnicities.
Chartered Engineer and IET member Dr Nike Folayan is a systems integration consultant with a PhD in electronics. She is also chair of the Association for Black Engineers in the UK that campaigns for more ethnic diversity in the world of engineering. Interview and portrait by Nick Smith
“I’d say the reason why most people where I work know who I am is because not many people in my industry look like me,” says Nike Folayan, a systems integration engineer with global consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff. In terms of being a minority in the world of engineering, the 34-year-old Nigerian feels she’s got the ‘double whammy’. “There aren’t that many black girls walking around tunnels at 2am finding out if things have been done properly,” part of her systems engineering role.
As well as being a professional engineer, Nike is also chair of the Association for Black Engineers in the UK (AFBE-UK), an organisation established to represent black and minority ethnic (BME) professionals in engineering. Nike says: “We do this by presenting an active network and showcasing the variety of opportunities in engineering to the BME community.”
Nike and her brother founded the association in 2007. “It started in the kitchen. I remember there was a lot of stuff about gang culture at the time. There was a lot of black crime in the news and we started to think that there might be this concept that a lot of us are completely different to those who go out in the community causing damage.” Nike and her brother agreed that as engineers “we needed to look at how young people see us – and that’s how the association started.” The first thing the siblings did was to send out an email to 50 of their engineering contacts in the BME community, “and we asked them what they were doing to promote engineering to their local community. Do the people around you know who you are and what you do?”
Despite a generally positive response to their initial e-blast, the first meeting of the AFBE –UK was attended “by I think five people”. Now, the association has 175 members with concentrations in Nottingham and Aberdeen, although the biggest group is in London.
Nike says that the work of the AFBE-UK is to organise a number of activities, the primary one being an annual seminar to discuss engineering issues that affect the wider community or developing countries. “In 2009, we held a seminar on Electric Africa where we talked about the electrification of Africa, and we had Peter Mason, the British Dam Society chair talking about his experiences.” In 2011, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable attended the AFBE-UK’s seminar on infrastructure in the UK. “But, we don’t just talk about things that are happening in Africa. We need to bring it home to where we actually live.”
Apart from seminars on engineering issues the AFBE-UK has also launched the Making Engineering Hot campaign that focuses on volunteering and involvement. “The idea behind this campaign is to go to disadvantaged communities in areas such as Lambeth, Hackney, Southwark and Croydon and talk about engineering.” So far the campaign has reached 850 young people in the Greater London and Nottingham areas and has been commended by Business Secretary Vince Cable. Nike says that the AFBE-UK also engages companies in this process, “because we believe that work placements are very, very important in making young people feel that they are a part of what’s going on.” Nike explains how in Croydon there are “lots of engineering companies around the area. But if you ask young people if they know Mott MacDonald just down the road, they may have seen the building, but they won’t know what’s inside.”
For Nike, it’s the opportunity to get inside that counts. She explains that while she has no problem with black people going into media and music, if those areas are perceived as the only opportunities “we’re going to have a big problem in the UK.” That’s one issue in London, says Nike, who goes on to describe how it’s different in Aberdeen. “There you have the oil and gas industry. And the challenge is to get people workplace-ready. We run a programme called Transition, where we get a panel of experts and other senior people in engineering to talk about industry in general.” To support this, the AFBE-UK assists with interview training, CV clinics and collaborating with organisations such as Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Network. “We’re very specific about how we engage communities,” says Nike. “We look at the area we are working with and then adjust our focus. In Nottingham, it is different again as they have a big immigrant community. The focus there is on talking about the prospects of a career in engineering to children who may be as young as nine or ten.”
According to Nike, diversity in the engineering sector isn’t simply a question of something politically correct that needs to be aimed for. It is something that is needed if Britain is to counter the projected shortfall of skills in the next decade. Nike says that if there were a broadened diversity and there really were more black and minority ethnic engineers in the workplace, then that would really make an impact on Britain’s ability to compete internationally on the engineering stage.
“The AFBE-UK is actively engaging the industry and we have spoken to all of the institutions, including the IET. And what we are really trying to say to these people is actually forget about diversity. What we need is engineers in the UK. Full stop.”
According to a recent survey by the Business in the Community (BITC), the UK ethnic minority community is set to double by 2050. This in turn leads Nike to the realisation that it has never been more crucial that “these people are engaged. But the problem is that there are so many programmes concentrating on diversity going in different directions. Why don’t we come together in one concerted effort and ask how we’re going to look at the problem? The black and ethnic minority community is quite specific and I think that you need to be quite specific in how you engage with it.”
Nike recalls how, as she was growing up, she wanted to be an engineer. But she met resistance from her mother who thought that Nike’s future lay in architecture, because that was ‘more feminine’. This form of strong parental influence is common in the BME community, says Nike “and so it’s not just a question of talking to young people in schools. We need to ask ourselves what the parents know about engineering. It will be their influence that will encourage their children to come forward and hopefully take up a career in engineering.
“I go to a lot of events at places such as the IET, the Institution of Civil Engineers, and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. You can almost guarantee that I’ll be one of maybe two black people there and almost certainly the only ethnic minority woman. Now, my idea is that people like me need to engage with the institutions first. That’s important because when the institutions want to go into schools and colleges they can use people like me as volunteers.”
The reason Nike feels so passionately about this chain of events is so that “young people can feel that actually it’s not just some white man coming to tell me I need to be an engineer. There are people from my background involved in these institutions. That is a key message and one that is missing. Young people need role models, but these models need to be the sort of people who’ve been to the same sorts of schools.”
Recent reports, studies and surveys show that there are now more people from BME backgrounds studying engineering than ever before in the UK. But this might not be the best way to look at the issue says Nike, reflecting on a study carried out by the AFBE-UK in 2009 that examined a group of African-Caribbean Society students at Imperial College. “We asked them if they were going to stay in engineering after they’d completed their engineering-related degrees. Sixty per cent of them said no. Most of them were moving into the financial sector – anything other than engineering.” Engineering was seen as a good degree that would increase their chances of getting picked up by the financial sector. This is why Nike says it’s more important than ever to look at the figures related to those actually in the workplace, those who have stuck to the path. “After all the effort we put in to get people to choose to study engineering at university, they’re not keeping on with it and taking those skills into the world of work.”
This is frustrating for Nike who became an engineer as a child, when she realised that she was interested on how images came to arrive on a TV screen. “I didn’t even know that what I was curious about was engineering, but I knew that I wanted to know about how it worked. As soon as I started physics I was impressed by how interesting it all was.
Nike gained a doctorate in antenna design and electromagnetics at the University of Sheffield in 2007. From Sheffield she went to engineering and development consultancy Mott MacDonald specialising in transport telecommunications “which gave me the opportunity to use what I studied. I worked on the radio design for a number of tunnels as well as communications systems such as CCTV and public address systems.”
A few years down the line and Nike became a systems integration engineer with global consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff, where she is today, working on the Great Western Mainline electrification project.
So how can institutions such as the IET play their part in the integration of the BME community into the world of engineering? “There needs to be a concerted effort towards a focus on how to engage ethnic minority people in engineering. There needs to be a round table discussion on that. And there needs to be a set of action points going forward.”
She says that it would be ideal if the people sitting at the table were the CEOs of organisations such as the IET. “I know that some of these bodies are addressing this, but if you’re not involving people from the communities that you are trying to engage with then you’re missing a trick. I’m constantly reading about diversity, and I’m always reading about how the institutions are engaging in discussions on this, but that’s not really the point. The point is what are you doing after the engagement? What are you doing with the information? How are you moving forward? And I think that there needs to be a clear action plan not just for the future of ethnic minorities, but for women in engineering as well.”
Nike says that one of the first questions she would ask such a meeting is regarding the membership statistics for BME people. “I know a lot of black engineers who aren’t members of any of these professional bodies and we need to do something about that.”
The vision of AFBE-UK is to function as a representative body and to address issues affecting the development of the BME community in the UK using engineering as a platform.
• AFBE-UK is not exclusive to people from a particular ethnic origin, however, it focuses on people that have and share the experience and interest in inspiring people of BME origin in our communities.
• AFBE-UK has worked towards building up a network of UK-based engineers who promote interest in the engineering profession, especially among young people of underrepresented communities in engineering in the UK. It does this by holding programs, seminars, and networking events that are of interest to engineers; and by promoting engineering to young people with the Making Engineering Hot! campaign.
• AFBE-UK’s goals are to encourage partnership within engineering communities, to gain recognition within the engineering industry and to support young people in engineering and technology.
• AFBE-UK has received a warm welcome from key players within the engineering industry through its advisory board made up of senior industry leaders.
To find out more, visit www.afbe.org.uk
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