McKinsey Global Institute

Forward Thinking on the enduring power of engineering in a digitizing world with Hayaatun Sillem

The first female CEO of the United Kingdom’s Royal Academy of Engineering reflects on the evolving role of engineering in a dematerializing world, its vital role in science and sustainability—and collaborating with a Formula One world champion.

In this episode of the McKinsey Global Institute’s Forward Thinking podcast, co-host Janet Bush talks with Hayaatun Sillem. She is the chief executive officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom—the first woman to serve in that role—and of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. She also serves as chair of judges for The St Andrews Prize for the Environment.

Sillem discusses her transition from a career as a biochemist into the world of engineering, and the work she does to promote the industry to girls and women as well as individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds. On the latter, she collaborated with seven-time Formula One world champion Sir Lewis Hamilton on a landmark study on diversity in motor sport. She answers questions including the following:

  • What excites you most in the world of science at the moment?
  • How does engineering fit into a dematerialized world?
  • How do we change the low share of girls and women who study engineering?
  • Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic that we can solve the environmental challenges facing us?

An edited transcript of this episode follows. Subscribe to the series on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Podcast transcript

Janet Bush, co-host: Michael, today’s guest is Dr. Hayaatun Sillem. She is the chief executive officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom, and in fact the first woman to serve in that role. But she actually started life as a biochemist in the cancer research field. It seemed to me to be a really weird switch of career to go from biology to engineering. But then I remembered our work at MGI on the Biological Revolution, and that showed different disciplines coming together to create what I think is a golden age of innovation.

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Forward Thinking on the enduring power of engineering in a digitizing world with Hayaatun Sillem

Michael Chui, co-host: That’s right: the Bio Revolution really is about a convergence in biological innovation and computing technologies, including engineering. So in that light, it’s not that surprising to talk about Dr. Sillem’s career segue from basic science to engineering. As she points out, engineers have produced the instruments that all basic research depends on.

Janet Bush: Yes indeed. One of the themes that comes out strongly from our conversation is that it is people who break out of narrow career silos and have transferable skills, of course, who are going to be the people who are going to unlock new possibilities.

Michael Chui: I really look forward to listening in.

Janet Bush: Hayaatun, thanks very much for joining us today. And welcome to the podcast. May I just start with a bit of your background. I think you were brought up and educated in the UK, but you have a very interesting name. And I’m dying to know what your family background is.

Hayaatun Sillem: Thanks so much for having me on, Janet. I’m really happy to be here and also happy to explain a little bit about my name. Nobody yet has ever guessed where it comes from.

I do have an unusual ethnic origin. My mother is half Indian, half English. And my father is Cape Malays. He comes from South Africa, but his ancestors came probably primarily from Indonesia. But it’s a mixed ethnic group in itself. And then my name, Hayaatun, is a sort of Indonesian version of an Arabic name. And my surname, Sillem, it’s because my husband is Dutch-Belgian. It’s his name. So our kids had to learn their fractions very early to be able to describe their ethnicity. And it’s quite funny, because you don’t think about these things as you’re growing up. You are who you are.

But I’ve realized, I suppose quite late on, how important that mixed heritage has been to my identity. My earliest memories are probably of thinking about, “How do I behave, dress, speak in different groups?” It sort of became very core to the way I behaved, to try to think about how to make people feel comfortable with me.

I was very aware of my being different. And I was trying to minimize how visible that was to other people. And I probably only realized that I was doing this inadvertent knocking the corners off myself in my 30s. And then, of course, I started to think, “Well, actually, is that what I want to do?”

And I think it has taken me time to fully inhabit those corners of my identity. But I hope that that experience in some way has made me a better ally and a better advocate for the work I now do on diversity and inclusion. I always think that differentness is a good basis for developing empathy, which I think’s a really important part of good leadership. I’ll always be an outsider on the inside. But I’m happy with that these days.

Janet Bush: Sounds good to me. I really want to talk to you about your work with diversity. But first of all, I was fascinated to talk about your career as a biochemist, and particularly your work on cancer. So many of us have been touched by cancer. And you’ve had such a distinguished career in that field. And so much is happening, which is really exciting, in terms of the innovation and the biotech that’s going into fighting cancer, something that MGI actually talked about in a report called The Bio Revolution. I wanted to know what most excites you about what’s happening at the moment.

Hayaatun Sillem: Oh, gosh, Janet. What’s happening now is totally mind-blowing. I would never have had the imagination to foresee what was coming down the line when I was working in the lab back in the day. So I’m spoiled for choices as for things that excite me.

I would actually pick out AlphaFold, which I’m sure you’re aware of. It’s from the AI company DeepMind. And to me, this is one of those monumental steps forward for biology, which creates a platform which is going to, I think, drive all sorts of other breakthroughs and make possible applications that we haven’t yet thought of.

What AlphaFold does is to use AI to accurately predict 3-D structures of proteins. Proteins are the workhorses of the cell, as you know. And it’s been one of those grand challenges in biology to work out how to predict the structure of a protein. And people have spent their life work trying to characterize the structure of an individual protein. And AlphaFold have unlocked a capability that I think is going to transform medicine. I think it’s interesting because it’s an example of a really influential wider direction, which is engineering biology.

I know you’ve had some other brilliant guests who have talked a bit about that. And that’s bringing engineering tools and techniques and mindsets into biology and medicine in a very exciting way. It’s creating positive disruption both in terms of how we do biomedical research and how we then develop biologically based molecules, parts, processes, materials at scale. And that, in turn, is going to help us do all sorts of incredible things, from new materials to new proteins to manufacturing to new treatments for disease. I think this is a pretty special moment, actually.

Janet Bush: We do, too. It’s extraordinary, this confluence of computing, engineering, and biology and medicine all working together to create something that we, as you say, could never have envisaged.

Hayaatun Sillem: That’s absolutely right. And I think it must be exciting for people coming into the field now. We’re still a bit stuck in our silos, those of us who’ve been rattling around for a while. But actually having people who have those transferable skills and versatile mindsets, who are not bound by those traditional disciplines that we all were funneled into when we were going through the education system, that’s going to be, again, another process of unlocking possibilities that we haven’t even dreamt of yet.

Janet Bush: At first glance, I look at your segue from biochemistry into engineering as kind of weird. But in that context, it makes a lot of sense. But how did it happen for you that you went into engineering?

Hayaatun Sillem: As you can probably tell from looking at my CV, it wasn’t a planned career change. Unfortunately, I was in the last year of my PhD, and I developed very severe chemical sensitivities. That meant I really couldn’t pursue a lab-based career anymore. One day I left the lab and I was never allowed back in [laughs]. It was that extreme. And so I had to find something else to do. And I sort of stumbled into the world of engineering and science policy without really knowing very much about it at all.

As you alluded to, though, I think there’s a lot to be said for migrating laterally in your career. We need people who are multilingual in their disciplinary background, their training. They’re going to have the advantage. And when we look at how the world of work is changing—I know you do a lot of work on that at MGI—if you say conservatively, we’re going to expect to have 50-year careers, the idea that you start out on day one doing the thing you’re still going to be doing 50 years later is neither very attractive nor realistic. I think we need to have this mindset of not this linear career path, but much more based around career chapters.

I certainly found that that first career chapter was massively valuable. That scientific training has, I think, underpinned everything I’ve gone on to do. But I’ve also gained new perspectives along the way that I think have complemented it.

Looking back, one of the things I find quite shocking is that I had such a narrow view of what biochemistry and cancer research actually was about and where it sat in terms of a broader ecosystem.

I had no idea that without the work of engineers, any great breakthroughs made in our lab would actually never benefit anybody. They wouldn’t benefit any patients. I never thought about the engineering that had produced the instrumentation that every aspect of our research depended on. I never thought about how you got from that discovery, that insight in the lab, to something that could be manufactured at scale, and how you then ended up managing the logistics to get the delivery in to patients.

And I think that does matter. Because this slightly narrow and unrealistic lone-genius model of science is very alienating for people. It doesn’t acknowledge the huge contributions that so many people, including those who work at the technician level, actually contribute to the overall endeavor. And I don’t think it helps in terms of giving the wider public the sense that they can connect to and have some ownership over research and innovation. It’s just not how innovation works. It’s not an accurate description of how we deliver benefit from our investments in research and innovation.

Janet Bush: It’s interesting that we’re in a world that’s digitizing and dematerializing. And everything is digital. I mean, MGI did a report saying that intangibles—not just software, but managerial organizational skills, and talent, and the rest of it—could be more than half of investment, and actually quite soon. But in that dematerialized world, how does engineering fit in?

Hayaatun Sillem: I think you’d expect me to say that it’s highly relevant, Janet, and I’m not going to disappoint you. Engineers, of course, also deliver our digital economy. The software that runs our lives and the hardware that we use to interact with that software, that’s all engineered.

But I also think that there’s an overemphasis on this distinction between physical and digital, or manufacturing and services. Engineering and manufacturing increasingly rely on digitization, whether that’s just more efficient use of back-office software or, at the other end of the spectrum, highly sophisticated digital twins.

And then, think about something like the importance of servitization. It’s massive for engineering. More and more manufacturing companies are shifting their business model to be much less about selling a product and more about selling services based around those products.

Every engineer into the future is going to have to be a digital engineer of some kind. Those moves, like servitization, they have all sorts of benefits, including for sustainability. It enables you to do things like ensure that companies retain responsibility for a product throughout its life cycle, not just putting it out in the world and not worrying about what happens to it thereafter.

But on the other hand, I do also think it’s worth just dwelling for a moment on the fact that the pandemic brought home to lots of us that the ability to actually produce stuff, key products, key goods, on a local or a national basis is a fundamental part of how we create resilience at the domestic, or the local, or the community level.

It’s quite a useful counterweight to the highly complex and integrated economic model based on these incredible global supply chains and the just-in-time methodologies, which have become so important to the way the global economy runs. There’s nothing wrong with that in many respects. But it’s also interesting to note how the pandemic has caused people to just reflect on, what is it that they want out of their economy and society? And what role does manufacturing and the ability to produce stuff play in that?

That’s part of a desire for people to also be able to have more control over the provenance of things that they consume and that they use, including for ethical, environmental, or social reasons. It’s a very important trend, but I don’t think that engineering is going to be any less significant. So I hope I didn’t disappoint you with my enthusiastic response to that, Janet.

Janet Bush: I was fully expecting it. In Asia, for example, the digital and the physical are beginning to sort of collide in a much more meaningful way, that the physical is coming back. People don’t want just a digital life. They want a physical life, too. So at the same time as you have kids living in the metaverse, you have communities wanting to barter with each other and share tools, and share books, and share cars. 1 So it’s an interesting sort of combination of the physical and the digital.

Hayaatun Sillem: That’s absolutely spot on, Janet.

Janet Bush: One more question about engineering. You’ve already communicated incredible excitement, but point out one thing that really excites you about engineering today.

Hayaatun Sillem: It’s the fact that engineers shape our world, Janet, that gets me out of bed every day. They are the hidden enablers of everything that we take for granted in modern life. From turning on the tap, to the smartphones that we check the moment we’ve woken up, to clean energy, to access to medicine, engineers literally design and deliver the physical and digital infrastructure, the services that we rely on every day even if we are totally oblivious to it. It is a profession that has enormous potential to impact both people and planet. And I think that’s why I feel excited about engineering.

Engineers are the hidden enablers of everything that we take for granted in modern life. From turning on the tap, to the smartphones that we check the moment we’ve woken up, to clean energy, to access to medicine, engineers literally design and deliver the physical and digital infrastructure, the services that we rely on every day—even if we are totally oblivious to it.

Janet Bush: I want to talk to you about the environment. You’ve talked about clean energy and sustainability already in much of what you’ve said. And you are the chair of the St Andrews Prize for the Environment. Can you tell us how that came about, and what that prize is about?

Hayaatun Sillem: I’m delighted to be the chair of the judges for the St Andrews Prize for the Environment. Tackling the climate crisis, tackling our ability to exist sustainably on this planet, is simply the biggest global challenge confronting all of us. It’s a wonderful initiative to be involved with. And it really enables us to identify and to celebrate extraordinary change makers who are committing their lives to creating innovative, impactful, scalable solutions to this climate and sustainability crisis that we’re facing.

And I can tell you that it’s one of the most uplifting things you can do. Yes, we have no shortage of things to depress us around what we’re doing to the planet, but it’s impossible not to be uplifted, impressed, and inspired by the passion, and the commitment, and the creativity of these change makers that we meet through the prize.

Janet Bush: Could you maybe just point to a couple of examples of these change makers that particularly excite you? You don’t need to name them. But I’d love to know what areas they’re working in.

Hayaatun Sillem: There are so many fantastic change makers we meet through this prize. It’s quite hard to pick out just one or two. But actually I think this year’s winner, which is an organization called Snowchange Cooperative, was a really good exemplar of the sort of things that we do uncover through the prize.

What Snowchange Cooperative does is focused on rebuilding landscapes in Finland using traditional knowledge, working very closely with Indigenous communities. In fact, I would say with a leadership embedded within Indigenous communities. And blending that connection with the Indigenous knowledge and with rigorous science. They work very closely with the Sámi in Finland, but they also have connections into the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] process. And they’re doing a really thorough, evidence-based set of activities, which we believe have the potential to drive systemic change and impact at scale for both climate and communities.

That integrated approach is the sort of thing that we find particularly compelling. And I think it was also interesting that this is happening on our doorstep in Europe. Sometimes people think about those sorts of opportunities, and these sorts of projects that focus on Indigenous communities, as being things that happen a long way away from Europe. And this is happening right on our doorstep. And it has huge potential, for climate gains, but also a lot that we can learn about how to do this in a more impactful way across the globe, actually.

Janet Bush: You’re so right that the breadth of community engagement and all the game-changing innovation that’s happening in communities on the ground is just huge. Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic that we’re going to tackle this thing?

Hayaatun Sillem: Janet, I’ve often described myself as a relentless optimist. It’s not something I choose to be—I can’t help myself. But I think it’s really important for optimism to not be a passive state. Optimism should be based on evidence and the action that you and others are taking.

We are facing an enormous challenge. It’s a multilayered system-of-systems challenge. We’re asking societies and economies right around the world to undergo simultaneous transformation of a whole set of vital and interconnected systems, from transport and housing to energy and manufacturing.

We have to create whole new industries from scratch, develop them to maturity. We need sweeping societal, cultural, behavioral, structural change. I’m not underestimating what’s involved. But at the same time, we’ve just come through a global pandemic where I think if there was one takeaway that I certainly had, it’s that we mustn’t lack the ambition and the courage to aim really high.

Because when we find that we have no other choice, we can do things that we never dreamt were possible. And we did those extraordinary things on time scales that seemed fanciful because we felt that the imperative was strong enough. We put collective interest first. We harnessed shared creativity. We really collaborated across cultures, communities, disciplines, professions. And that has to be the proof point that we take forward now into the climate challenge.

Janet Bush: Yes. It showed us that we are actually capable of making decisions, and making decisions very, very quickly, and changing our business models.

Hayaatun Sillem: That’s absolutely right. And in terms of engineering, we are seeing the whole profession pivot to really understand and to step up to the role that we can play, both in terms of navigating this very complex systems challenge—because we need to take that systems view to understand interdependencies and trade-offs, where those big opportunities are for leverage and aligning incentives, so that we can get all parts of our economy and the global economy working towards this joint outcome that we all need—but also making sure that the engineers that are trained and emerged from the education skills system have the right skills and mindset to really contribute and to be part of sustainable leadership.

Janet Bush: Which leads us very nicely into some of your diversity work, and the fact that girls are just not training to be engineers. I think that they study STEM subjects in general less than boys. And I believe only 20 percent of A Level physics students are girls, and that percentage has barely changed. How do we change that?

Hayaatun Sillem: This is a big issue for engineering. Obviously, we’re talking about UK figures here. But we still have a profession that is only 14.5 percent made up of women in engineering in the UK, which is a totally unacceptable place to be. And as you say, the pace of change is nowhere near as fast as we need it to be. If you look at the gender balance of the people who are choosing to take engineering higher degrees, we will take till 2085 to achieve gender parity if we continue along the trajectory that we’re on now.

As I’ve talked about already, engineers are very much serving society. They play a very important role in shaping society. They need to reflect society. One thing that’s really important is that often engineering is clumped together as part of STEM. And there’s a really different picture depending on where you are in those letters in the acronym of STEM. So where I started, in biochemistry, women are in the majority right through most of the profession. Yes, there [are], across all of society, challenges around representation at the most senior leadership levels.

But in biological sciences, psychology, subjects allied to medicine, and so forth, women are in the majority, girls are in the majority in terms of the subjects that lead to those careers. And it’s engineering, computer science, physics that bring that average for STEM down. Here girls are significantly underrepresented, girls and women. And so that has to be one of the things that is an absolute priority to change. One of the things that the academy has been doing, with partners right across the industry, is running a perceptions change program called This is Engineering.

This is Engineering aims to reposition engineering in the minds of young people and those who influence them by challenging those really narrow, outdated stereotypes centered, sadly, often around a man in a hardhat and a hi-vis jacket. We love PPE, personal protective equipment, in engineering. But of course, it’s a very reductive view, of who engineers are and what they do, that simply doesn’t appeal to enough people. And it doesn’t reflect the sheer diversity of modern engineering careers.

This is Engineering is a social media–based campaign. And so far the videos that feature early-career engineers have been viewed by a roughly gender-balanced audience in the main–over 54 million times since we launched in 2018. So it’s a start. There’s a huge amount more to do. And what we need everyone’s help with is just moving on in terms of the perception of engineering as a career that’s manual, that’s dirty, that’s about the industries of the past.

As we were saying earlier, engineers shape our world. And we need people from all backgrounds to see futures for themselves in those professions. The great news is that for women that do pursue engineering careers, we have data to show that they really, really love their jobs in the main. So it’s a very high-career-satisfaction direction to choose for those that make it.

Janet Bush: And is it well paid? Because one of the sources of empowerment for women is to move into higher-paid jobs, more productive jobs. And I guess engineering might be one of those.

Hayaatun Sillem: Yes. Absolutely. There is definitely a salary premium for people who have got a first degree in engineering. Not all those people work in engineering. It’s one of those great degrees that’s in demand in lots of different sectors.

It’s a flexible start in life, if you like. But what we also have done is looked at the gender pay gap within engineering to make sure that we haven’t got a problem with—well, I think society has a problem with the gender pay gap, but to understand specifically for engineering roles what that looks like.

What we see is that for the UK, looking at pay data for over 42,000 engineers, the gender pay gap is smaller than it is for the average across the UK workforce. And really the key contributor, the key factor to that gender pay gap, is that we don’t have enough women in senior roles. So it’s back to this wider challenge around diversifying the profession. But actually there is good news on the pay front for those that do go into engineering.

Janet Bush: Well, that’s a good incentive, at least one of the incentives. But obviously diversity goes beyond gender. It’s also ethnic diversity. And another of the many hats that you wear is working with Sir Lewis Hamilton to promote ethnic diversity in motor sport. Tell us a bit about that.

Hayaatun Sillem: Yes, Janet. That was one of the slightly more unexpected parts of my 2020–21 year [laughs]. The academy elected Sir Lewis Hamilton as an honorary fellow of the academy because he’s been such an extraordinary advocate for engineering throughout his career. He is relatively unusual in that he’s routinely credited his race engineers when he’s talked about his own success. And that makes a real difference to the visibility of engineering and engineering careers, because he is of course such a high-profile and such a visible, influential role model.

Following his election as an honorary fellow, he has been very supportive of the This is Engineering campaign, which I just talked about. And crucially, and I think really quite unusually, when Sir Lewis decided that he wanted to really step up and use the platform that he has to take more decisive action to diversify Formula One and motor sport more generally, his starting point was, “I know what I want to achieve. But I don’t know what the evidence says about the most effective way to do it.”

And so he partnered up with the academy to fill that evidence gap. And I was very honored to co-chair his commission with him. We spent the best part of last year working with an expert team of commissioners to try to understand what does underpin the lack of Black representation in particular in STEM roles in UK motor sport—so focusing much less on the drivers, but on the teams that really power all of their successes. And then, of course, to understand which interventions are going to be most effective in addressing it. And one of the things that was really unusual, actually, was because we were quite focused, we were looking at STEM roles in UK motor sport, we could take a whole-systems view.

That meant we could look at everything, from the employment and recruitment practices in the Formula One team through to the experiences of young Black people in schools. And as a result of that, I think we found a lot of data, and evidence, and insight that I think is of relevance beyond motor sport.

So, for example, you see gaps in opportunity and differential experiences coming into play really, really early. By GCSEs, which are the exams that you do when you’re 16, you can already see that Black Caribbean students are falling behind their peers in subjects like science and maths, which of course affects their ability to pursue these at [a] higher level, which in turn locks them out of careers in motor sport, at least in STEM roles.

You see that, as we’re seeing across all of society, race and ethnicity intersect very strongly with factors like socioeconomic status, so deprivation reduces attainment across all ethnic groups, as you I think would expect. But again, lower proportions of Black Caribbean students achieve higher grades compared with their white British counterparts, even when you take that into account.

We were able to look in the round. If you go up to the other end of the career spectrum, for those that make it into motor sport, you also see differential outcomes for graduates from engineering and motor sport degrees, depending on whether they’re Black graduates or white graduates.

And there’s some really disappointing evidence about what I guess a lot of people would call microaggressions—I’m not sure that does justice to it—and certainly outright racism being passed off as banter, unfortunately, in quite a common way across the motor sport workforce. We were able to look at all of that in the round and come up with a set of recommendations and actions that we believe will help to make a real difference.

Janet Bush: And presumably many of the issues that you turned up in that industry are found in other industries, too. In the US, the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility has been set up. The focus at the moment is on the US. But these are universal issues. How far do we have to go? And how widespread is this?

Hayaatun Sillem: Janet, you’re absolutely right that almost all of the insights and lessons that you learn from these deep dives are things that can inform wider action. I’m more familiar with the position in the UK than the US, so most of my comments reflect that.

But I do see some signs of change. You’ll hear the optimist in me again creeping out. I would say that we’ve made a key step forward in terms of the fact that no credible leader, in my view, of a significant organization would now say, “Well, it’s nothing to do with me” or “It’s not that important.”

I know that sounds like I’m setting a really low bar. But that is not something that we can take for granted. So if I think about the UK perspective, I can certainly say that in academia, for example, which ought to be all about excellence in every dimension, people have been very slow in leadership roles to acknowledge that the underrepresentation of Black people is the result of an uneven playing field, and that taking action to address that is the responsibility of every senior leader.

What we now have to do is to convert that shift in, I suppose, the mindset and sense of ownership into measurable progress. And there’s still a long way to go there. One of the other things that, if I use another example from the academy—a few years ago we conducted analysis at the academy that showed that if you were a Black engineering graduate, you are more than twice as likely to be unemployed six months postgraduation than your white counterpart, even when you control for the grade you got at your degree, your class of degree you got, and the type of university that you went to.

And those differences persist. Black graduates were also less likely to get jobs in engineering. And those that did gain employment are paid less and actually also have a less positive experience in the workplace. So we thought, “Well, this is a terrible, terrible indictment.” It’s important to expose it. But the really important thing is to take action to address it. So we developed a program called the Graduate Engineering Engagement Programme which is trying to increase the successful transition of Black graduates and other underrepresented groups into engineering employment.

What this taught us is there is no magic bullet. You have to graft away at every aspect of the process and stick with it. So in this case, it’s everything from supporting students by giving them access to role models, career surgeries, interview training, building confidence across a peer cohort. And on the other hand working with the companies to understand, “Well, where is the bias in the hiring process creeping in?” You know, “What are the systemic barriers that they haven’t spotted already?” And only by really grafting away at all of that can you expect to achieve the sort of change that we all need.

We’ve made this important step forward in terms of a commitment to improve. But we’ve got a long way to go before we can get to real empowerment and equity.

I also just want to flag that I think it’s so important not just to focus on the “D” but also on the “I.” I always think of diversity and inclusion as being very much counting and culture. And inclusion, of course, means that everybody irrespective of their personal characteristics feels really welcome, really valued, able to contribute to the full. Everyone can bring their sense of uniqueness and have that sitting alongside their sense of belonging to the collective.

But that is not, we know, the daily experience for far too many people. And so I think looking for ways to cultivate those inclusive cultures—and actually probably at a societal level first, to deepen our sense of empathy and shared connectedness at a time when I think there is a lot of evidence that societies feel quite fractured and polarized—it’s going to be really important if we want to make this change that we’re all seeking a reality.

Janet Bush: It strikes me talking to you that being the first woman head of the Royal Academy of Engineering must’ve been a great shock to some people.

Hayaatun Sillem: Yes. I have to say that—you know, we talked about my name at the start. And you can probably tell that my name is actually a very gender-neutral name. And if you use the title doctor, as I do in my professional life, you don’t know that I’m a woman until you see me.

And I’ve had a lot of people who have to rapidly rearrange their facial expression when they ask me what I do, and it turns out that I’m the chief exec. I’ve hopefully jumped over that hurdle now. But, yes, there were a lot of people who I think were quite perplexed at the fact that it turned out that I was the chief exec of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Clearly not what they were expecting.

But, Janet, I think it’s very important. Assumptions are something that we all have embedded in us. If we want to make progress in D&I, we need to have a huge amount of humility. None of us can be bias-free. We never will be. We can work on having a much higher degree of self-awareness. We can work on building our capacity to have empathy. But we cannot eradicate those biases. And assumptions are a product of our very clever brains that make connections between disparate things.

I had this brought home to me a few years ago when I went into a meeting and I was going to chair it. I went to get myself a cup of tea, and somebody said to me, “Oh, good. There’s someone here to pour the coffee.” And I said, “Oh, well, I’m having tea. You can help yourself to coffee. It’s there if you’d like it,” not wanting to create a scene but also not wanting to pour the coffee. They went to help themselves, and I realized that they had a disability that meant that they needed assistance pouring the coffee. So it was just a brilliant reminder to me that we all have bias in us. We all make assumptions. And that humility is something we have to carry with us every day if we want to make positive difference on D&I.

Janet Bush: I love that story [laughs].

You are a mother. I am a mother. And it fascinates me to know how you look at the world going forward for them. We’ve had this extraordinary pandemic, an amazing change for all of us, of mindset and everything. We’ve got this huge climate change cloud on our horizon. How do you look at things?

Hayaatun Sillem: Well, it’s interesting—my kids are so excited about being alive today. They look at me with pity that I had to grow up without all the wonderful technology that they now have. And I think it’s important that we don’t limit ourselves, because in our experience the change that we’re experiencing has in many ways been frightening.

And ultimately, despair is a place which inactivates you. It’s not empowering. It’s very important for the next generation that we just respect the fact they will bring something different to the table. They will have visions and a determination that we don’t have. And I’m sure that you see it in the workplace, as I do, that the younger generations have a very different mindset to many of the people who were already in the workforce.

That is changing all of us. Society is in constant flux. We have gone through some incredible collective trauma, and more lies ahead. But I am fundamentally optimistic about the power of human beings to do good things when we put our minds to it.

Janet Bush: On that wonderfully optimistic note, thank you so much.

Hayaatun Sillem: Thank you for having me, Janet. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.

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