Overcoming Bias – Learning from Black History Month

08 December 2020

In December 2020, Leonardo became the first UK aerospace and defence company to forge a partnership with the Association For Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK). The association’s mission is to increase the number of BME engineers who succeed professionally and support young people to explore a career in engineering.

This exciting partnership forms part of the company’s ongoing commitment to creating an inclusive workplace, where people from different backgrounds can thrive. Shortly before becoming a partner, Leonardo’s Head of Inclusion and Diversity, Nerys Thomas, conducted a series of interviews throughout Black History Month, talking to colleagues from different backgrounds about their views and learning more about their experiences.

“The interviews identified several important themes,” explains Nerys. “Firstly, there was a view within the company that we could have done more – both internally and externally – to echo the Black Lives Matter message from earlier in the year, so we were keen to understand how we could make more of a meaningful contribution. We knew that there was more we could do, and the feedback from the interviews offered a valuable insight into where we needed to focus our attention.”

Many of the themes that emerged over the course of the interviews reflect the issues AFBE-UK is already working to address, namely:

  • how to attract more applicants from different backgrounds when we are recruiting
  • the feeling that some people needed to work even harder than others because of perceptions, not only due to their background but also because of their age
  • concerns about how to raise the subject of diversity and saying the wrong thing
  • the lack of role models and senior leadership representation

Starting Early

Speaking about the subjects raised during the interviews, Nerys is keen to highlight the importance of engaging with as wide a section of the population during their formative years: “The aim to increase the number of engineers from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and support young people exploring a career in engineering, is a goal we very much share with the AFBE-UK. Our work to address these themes really does start at the early years, with our already busy calendar of STEM activities encouraging students to pursue a career within engineering.

“We are now reviewing our approach to ensure our opportunities are visible, accessible and attractive across the whole community, within schools, colleges and universities. I expect that this will see us going into pastures new as we seek to promote our opportunities more widely. As Arvind Mahendran, one of our colleagues we spoke to during our interviews, said: ‘We need to focus on the future by showing aspiring engineers that no matter what their background, they can look at those who have already chosen a specific career path and been successful, and that there are opportunities for them within our company and across the wider industry.’”

Age is not a barrier

Another theme to have emerged was the perception on an individual’s experience and attitude, not only because of their background, but also on being the youngest in the room.

It was a subject raised in Nerys’s conversation with our Head of Programmes for NATO Joint Electronic Warfare Core Staff (JEWCS), Allan Brown. “It’s not so much a challenge now but in those (early) days, there were many references to me ‘having a chip on my shoulder’,” says Allan. “They were probably correct, because I believed I had to work harder than others to progress – so it was probably perceived as a chip, but I was just going the extra mile to get noticed.”

Nerys believes that mentoring and line management support are crucial, and she is keen to share the impact these are starting to have.

“We support our managers when they first take up their post, with leadership training and managing different generations being part of our curriculum. As part of our I&D strategy, we intend to launch an ‘every voice is valued’ campaign in 2021 that ensures everyone feels able to contribute and be listened to – something we can continually measure through our employee opinion surveys. Our I&D Plan also recognises the value of reverse mentoring and this is something else we are keen to see rolled out across our business.

“Furthermore, when we welcome our early career intakes, we offer a well-structured development programme that ensures everyone is able to perform at their best and supported in doing so by their teams,” she maintains, “not to mention the array of self-directed learning options available, such as our Coursera modules, that are there to give every new employee a confident start to their Leonardo career.”

Don’t be afraid to ask

On the issue of how to raise the subject of ethnicity and not saying the wrong thing, Nerys believes it is important to start having the conversation, something identified by our HR Specialist, Kelly Smallcombe, when we spoke to her. “It’s really about just being open and not being afraid to ask questions,” said Kelly. “I would much rather people asked, and gave me the opportunity to advise them on how I would prefer to be referred to when talking about my background. Most people will be happy to let you know their personal experience, and how they feel about things.”

“This is something we will continue to encourage across our whole organisation through education and through raising more awareness,” adds Nerys. “We’re also looking at different options, such as webinars, for colleagues looking for more support on how they can create the space for conversations to happen.”

Leadership opportunities for all

The discussions also highlighted the desire to see greater diversity in leadership roles at the top of our organisation and the need to have more diverse role models for others to aspire to.

Nerys is keen to highlight how this issue is being addressed. “We have set ourselves targets within our I&D Plan to map out the senior roles that will become available in the short-medium term, to scrutinise our succession planning and to proactively consider our resourcing so that we create a more diverse talent pipeline internally and advertise our roles externally to as wide an audience as possible to attract more diverse candidates to our business. We will also put further support in place, such as development programmes and mentoring to ensure this is a success.”

Nerys continues: “In our recent discussion with Allan Brown, we also talked about the importance of keeping an open mind and ensuring there is no place for any unconscious bias in our selection processes. At Leonardo, we’re constantly looking for ways to further our inclusive recruitment practices; not only have we briefed our hiring managers taking part in the STEM Returners Programme to set the right expectations, we have also launched unconscious bias training for all our managers to ensure we create equal and fair opportunities for all.”

“Working with associations such as the AFBE-UK, we are positive that we can continue to improve on the inclusive culture we have already fostered at Leonardo, for everyone who works here.”