The Right Direction

21 April 2022

Leonardo is a proud member of the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE). To coincide with our sponsorship of this year’s AFBE Live event, we spoke with Leonardo’s Ethnicity Network Group STEM Lead and Mechanical Engineer, Arvind Mahendran, about the importance of mentorship and representation when challenging the barriers around diversity and social mobility.

We can all benefit from a little guidance

I’ve been lucky enough to have mentors throughout my career; key people who have helped me significantly and, although we may not have stayed in contact constantly, have always touched base with me at vital inflection points.

I may not have realised that they were my mentors at the time, but I have gone back to these people for advice, on things like career progression, continuously. My current boss was a mentor from the start; when I had frustrations in my day-to-day role, it was great to speak to people like him, as someone outside of my own sphere.

Sometimes you need an outside party to help you look at things from a different, more experienced perspective. When focussed on your daily deadlines and activities, you often don’t take those steps back to evaluate what you are doing, and how this will help you develop in your career – that’s where a mentor can come in really handy, whoever they may be.

Why I wanted to offer mentorship through AFBE

I realise that I am in a privileged position to have got to where I am in my career. The privileges I have managed to accrue in my own life, that have helped me get here, may not be available to everyone – that’s reflected in the make-up of our business and our profession. I know people within the ethnic minority community that are incredibly capable, but do not necessarily have strong mentorship, especially mentorship from people that look like them.

This is something that I was conscious of when I chose to get involved in the AFBE Mentorship programme through our Leonardo partnership. I wanted to try to make a change.

Currently, we have nine Leonardo colleagues signed up as mentors, and three as mentees. This is the first time we have been involved in such a programme, and I’m looking forward to seeing the continued impact as the mentoring relationships develop.

Now, I admit, I personally didn’t receive mentorship from people that looked like me, so I don’t know if it was something that I myself particularly needed; but you don’t know what you don’t have, and having this option might be the thing that encourages more people from ethnic minority backgrounds to join such a scheme.

I have risen to my current position with the help of my mentors, and there are things that I simply could not have learned without guidance. Without it, things could have worked out differently for me.

Why mentorship is so important for those from minority ethnic backgrounds

Having a young child has really given me a new perspective of this. I might not have had some of the overt struggles that the others have had, but there have been times when I’ve felt I’ve needed to face things that others do not, things that maybe without a voice, without support, you might feel you have to just shrug off. Awkward questions and comments that might not necessarily be about you, but could be construed as offensive.

One too common approach may be to not call these things out; not because you won’t be heard, but because you don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker or someone who rocks the boat.

It is cathartic to talk about our problems, and it’s an important part of helping to educate people. We realise that it is the actions we take that will make real change, and we cannot just be tokenistic.

This is one of the founding principles of the Leonardo Ethnicity network group – we want to work with everyone to make a real change. The idea of our network group is not to be exclusive. The group is for everyone, from every background, and we are all here to tackle issues of inequality, and for everyone to be treated equitably. We want there to be no barriers, so that everyone has the same opportunities.

Broadening our Horizons

This is a principle we want to take outside of our company, and we are discussing the types of universities and schools we approach. It is a reasonable argument that we are not getting the number of diverse candidates we want because of the type of schools we are reaching out to, and a focus on Russell Group universities.

It becomes a part of a self-fulfilling prophesy. I can honestly say that, despite going to a Russell Group university, my education was no better than a number of universities outside the group that are considered favourable for engineering. I would say that we have probably missed out on a bunch of bright people by limiting our search to a small area.

It was pointed out to me that one of the main benefits of these Russell Group universities is the networking and connections they provide you; many of them are courted by industry purely on their name. This perception is now shifting, as people realise that nothing is going to change if you continue to fish in the same pond.

I come from a relatively middle-class background: my dad made something of himself, and his priority was to ensure his kids were educated. This is the case with many other first-generation immigrants, and it is seen a leveller for them, although it is not something that they all had the opportunity to do. I am happy to be to be seen as example of someone from a minority background who may be seen to have gone far in my career, but I don’t think that means it is attainable for everyone. I’m lucky enough to have had the support networks and access to the opportunities that I did because of my socio-economic position. Some of the doors that were open to me were due to my family background.

Bridging the Gap

People take for granted how beneficial it is to have someone to talk to who knows and understands a sector like engineering when growing up. Being able to talk in-depth about the industry, what it is like to be an engineer and work within this world, is hugely valuable. If you do not have someone to talk to, it can be quite a leap of faith to say at a young age: “I am going to be an engineer”.

As a country, the UK is struggling to keep up with the demand for engineers for projects ahead, let alone engineers from minority backgrounds. More widely, there is going to be a large deficiency of engineers and we need to address how we encourage young people into STEM subjects, and how to cast a much wider net.

To ask the most basic of questions: how do we get people to want to be in our industry, and what do we need to do to make ourselves available to all sorts of people, particularly minorities, as they seem to be underrepresented?

There are so many universities, and so many opportunities for undergraduates to engage with a company like ours, so it is important to make people understand just how exciting it is to be an engineer – often they don’t know what it entails. This is crucial for those from an ethnic minority background, who may not currently have access to mentors or role models in the industry, if we want to address inequality.

The value of Mentorships

Mentorships are an extension of equity that we need to provide to those unable to achieve their potential by themselves. I guarantee that if we give more people access to the tools and channels required to have conversations about career paths such as engineering, we will eventually see a more diverse community in our workplace and sector.

People do not realise just how invaluable these interactions can be.

Find out more about AFBE and their partnership with Leonardo.