Equality, diversity and inclusion in the foundation industries

Aerial view of diverse people together

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Sarah Connolly, innovation lead of Transforming Foundation Industries (TFI) challenges, explores the opportunities and challenges of equality, diversity and inclusion in the foundation industries.

This article makes reference to research undertaken by the Enterprise Research Centre (ERC) on behalf of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). To improve understanding of the age and gender diversity of the foundation industry workforce:

  • metals
  • paper
  • chemicals
  • glass
  • ceramics
  • cement.

View the full ERC research report on equality, diversity and inclusion in UK foundation industries.

Age diversity findings summary report (PDF, 459KB)

Gender diversity findings summary report (PDF, 459KB)


International Women in Engineering Day is an opportunity to celebrate the amazing work that women engineers are doing all around the world, supporting lives and livelihoods every day. Those who recognise a problem, and dare to be part of the solution.

But today is also a day to reflect on how far the sector has come, in terms of equality and inclusion, and to deeply consider the barriers still preventing the industry from being truly diverse.

The foundation industries

The foundation industries produce materials that make up everything around us: metals, glass, paper, cements, ceramics and chemicals.

The TFI challenge aims to transform the foundation industries. It will enable the sustainable future survival of these industries within the UK through energy and resource efficiency improvements using the latest technology.

This sustainable future can only be achieved in a sector which attracts and retains the best talent, regardless of background or protected characteristic. For an industry that directly affects both genders equally, there is still a surprising lack of diversity in the workforce.

Diversity in the foundation industries

Across the world, the importance of workforce diversity is receiving an increasing amount of attention, from ensuring business practices are inclusive to active strategies to engage and recruit under-represented groups.

In a survey of engineers by the Royal Academy of Engineering of the benefits of diversity in 2017, 80% reported increased motivation, 68% increased performance and 52% increased commitment to their organisation.

While there is the business case for greater diversity, the role this plays in successful manufacturing businesses (of which foundation industries are a subset) is somewhat less clear cut. Across manufacturing as a whole, only a quarter of the workforce is female. For the foundation industries specifically, there is something of an evidence gap on what drives diversity at the firm level.

Much of the research surrounding diversity has focused on large corporates, with less consideration given to diversity and inclusion practices and challenges across small and medium-sized enterprises, or any breakdown between different industry segments.

Recent ERC research (2021) on innovation barriers in foundation industries found that 40% of surveyed businesses identified skills and recruitment as a barrier to growth, rising to 46% and 48% for businesses in the metals and paper sectors, respectively.

This points to the need for a different approach to attract and develop the necessary skills industry needs now, including through engagement with currently under-represented groups in the local and national labour market. In some businesses and sectors, the pressure to replace skills, lost though retirement, is also looming on the horizon.

In a recent TFI survey of 133 foundation industry businesses, 87% of respondents cited a difficulty in recruiting technical skills, 44% in professional skills, 39% in innovation skills, 22% in digital skills and 27% in management and leadership skills.

Business also acknowledge that skills needs are dynamic, with changing business models, the use of new technology and the development of new markets meaning that new skills will need to be introduced to ensure competitiveness of foundation industries in the UK is sustained in the long-term.

The TFI challenge understood the importance of understanding the baseline diversity data of the industries and exploring the motivations and barriers for increased diversity at a firm level.

The commissioned study completed by ERC, Equality, diversity and inclusion in UK foundation industries, aimed at improving understanding of the age and gender diversity of the foundation industry workforce, the two protected characteristics highlighted as areas of high potential impact within the life of the challenge.

Findings of the study: gender diversity

In 5% of foundation industry businesses, there are no female employees.

Across the board, female employees are a minority in the workforce of most foundation industry businesses. This varies little by business size, but slightly between the six sectors, with the ceramics sector reporting the highest percentage of businesses with greater than 50% female workforce.

Where women are represented in the workforce, this is likely in non-production roles (with production roles classed as, for example, manufacturing, engineering, and technical functions) and predominantly in administration, support services, HR and finance.

This gender split is also mirrored at higher levels of the business, with 59% of foundation industry businesses reporting no female owners or partners, and only 5% of businesses having two or more.

All businesses interviewed acknowledged that the gender balance within their organisations was not optimal and required some action from the business to address female representation. Technology changes are increasingly removing the remaining barriers to inclusivity for all job roles.

Some examples of external drivers to increase diversity were shown, including the increasing role of corporate social responsibility in company image, with the knock-on effects to potential customers and investors.

But two systemic barriers to increased diversity were clear:

  • a tendency towards familiarity bias and hiring like for like
  • a lack of female applicants, particularly at graduate-level positions.

Challenges, such as the current population of female undergraduates in key disciplines required by businesses in foundation industries, a more general lack of appropriate training provision for the industry, together with a lack of specific company level actions to drive increased diversity, have already been discussed.

A number of interviewees also feared treading the line between positive action and positive discrimination, preventing them from running specific recruitment campaigns.

Findings of the study: age diversity

Office for National Statistics data can be used to stratify the UK workforce across four age groups:

  • 16 to 19 years
  • 19 to 24 years
  • 25 to 49 years
  • over 50 years.

Across the economy as a whole, the largest proportion (56%) of the workforce falls within the 25 to 49 years age bracket, with 11% under 25 years and almost a third (33%) aged over 50 years.

Comparatively, survey data showed the percentage of foundation industry workforce under the age of 25 years to be 11%, matching the economy average, but over a quarter of businesses have no employees under 25.

This lack of early career workers is dominated by smaller businesses. The proportion of the  foundation industries workforce over 50 years, however, was higher than the economy average at 37%, with smaller companies having the highest proportion of workers over 50 years.

Ceramics, glass and paper appear to be facing somewhat more acute pressures from an ageing workforce. Around a third of businesses in these sectors reported that more than half of employees fall into this older age bracket.

Determinants of the current workforce structure included issues such as:

  • legacy issues such as changes to pensions provision meaning a mass short-term turnover of staff rapidly without sufficient succession planning
  • recent economic circumstances and workforce restructuring meaning a focus was placed on skills retention rather than recruitment of new workers or developing apprenticeship programmes
  • a tendency to recruit ‘like for like’ when vacancies arise, preventing an influx of younger workers as the pool of candidates tend to be of a similar age profile to those being replaced
  • challenges in recruiting for graduate and technical level skills for their industry, noting that this is expected to intensify in the coming years as technologies and business models continue to evolve within the sector.

TFI challenge actions

Aligned to recommendations from the ERC report, the TFI challenge has created their equality, diversity and inclusion strategy, with four focus areas.

Our next article, published on 30 June, will cover each of these focus areas in more detail, highlighting challenge activities targeted at increasing inclusivity and ultimately diversity, within the foundation industries.

But for today, lets celebrate the inspiring work of women engineers all around the world. Check out our TFI Network+ (Twitter), celebrating women in the network, highlighting other networks and opportunities for you to get involved in outreach and volunteering, or the INWED21 campaign @INWED1919 (Twitter) with #ENGINEERINGHEROES and #INWED21.

Last updated: 26 January 2022

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