Ollie Folayan on racism in renewables

Renewables companies are losing out on talented professionals because of overt and subtle discrimination against workers from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, says Ollie Folayan, co-founder and CEO of the Association for BME Engineers in the UK. He told Richard Heap how firms can respond.

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Richard Heap
June 2, 2022
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Ollie Folayan on racism in renewables

Ollie Folayan, co-founder and CEO of the Association for BME Engineers in the UK

Renewables companies are losing out on talented professionals because of overt and subtle discrimination against workers from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, says Ollie Folayan, co-founder and CEO of the Association for BME Engineers in the UK. He told Richard Heap how firms can respond.

How is the renewables industry doing on racial diversity?

Our focus is on engineering, given that the largest number of people working in the energy sector are engineers.

We have a baseline problem of very high engagement at the earliest stages – around a third of all UK engineering undergraduates are from black or minority ethnic backgrounds – but chronic under-representation in engineers in the industry: around 9% in energy generally, but closer to 5% in renewables.

Why is that?

We can chart the path of a person from a minority ethnic background from their early education to the end of their career, and see under-representation is consistent. The number of people that make it into the sector, the number of people able to get jobs when they complete their degrees, the number of people who stay long enough to reach senior or leadership positions – it just goes down at every stage.

One reason is the lack of professional support and advice from university careers services. Then when they apply for jobs, we know that what their name sounds like has a direct impact on how many callbacks they get. It’s critical. Delays in getting jobs can mean people end up in jobs unrelated to what they studied, like finance.

What about when they get jobs in renewables?

When the people we speak to start their jobs, they can experience issues around workplace culture that isn’t always fair or equitable.

For example, you can have two people who join a company on the same day: one gets to work on a variety of very interesting projects likely to gain them skills, while the other is basically a dogsbody even though they have a PhD.

If you look at those people in two years’ time, one knows infinitely more because they were given opportunities that the other wasn’t. This is where there’s a risk of affinity bias, which is where a manager will put more effort – even subconsciously – in the development of somebody who looks like them and comes from a certain background.

Those are the subtle ways prejudice works in reality, and it makes all the difference. Mentoring in the early stages of a career is important and, if companies need help, there are organisations like AFBE that they can work with. We have around 60 corporations that we advise on their diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies.

So, the discrimination you see isn’t just overt bullying?

No. It can range from doing work and not being credited for it, to bullying, putdowns or other forms of harassment. It can also be when opportunities are there, but some people aren’t moved onto the next stage even if their work shows they deserve it.

Do you see issues specific to renewables?

The big problem is renewables have only started to build into a substantial industry in the last few years, compared to construction or oil and gas. You’ve started with an archetype of the sort of people who work in renewables, which can be hard to shake.

But it’s not too late for the industry to reflect and start to ask questions like: ‘Does our company reflect the communities in which we operate?’

It is important that the renewables sector is diverse because, ultimately, what we are trying to achieve by addressing the challenge of climate change is to ensure that our world is greener and achieve justice for the world’s poorest, in the global south. We need organisations that reflect that diverse outlook.

How can we get more black and minority ethnic role models in wind?

Partly it’s about having those early opportunities we discussed earlier. If you receive those opportunities to get your engineering capability to a high level, you can move on to lead teams and then a department. They also need sponsorship to help them get into the boardroom, but it is rare to find people who speak up for you like that.

Also, more companies are setting up shadow boards and making them more diverse, to reflect the society we live in.

Where do you stand on diversity quotas?

Most of us don’t want a handout. We want to be treated equally and given an equal chance to prove ourselves and succeed. It can help to have aspirational targets to aim for, but targets only work with a strategy to support them.

In our view, it is a business imperative to have a diverse environment, and there are companies making huge progress. People’s attitudes and behaviours towards their D&A strategies are changing. Those who are serious about it will reap the benefits.

Renewables companies are losing out on talented professionals because of overt and subtle discrimination against workers from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, says Ollie Folayan, co-founder and CEO of the Association for BME Engineers in the UK. He told Richard Heap how firms can respond.

How is the renewables industry doing on racial diversity?

Our focus is on engineering, given that the largest number of people working in the energy sector are engineers.

We have a baseline problem of very high engagement at the earliest stages – around a third of all UK engineering undergraduates are from black or minority ethnic backgrounds – but chronic under-representation in engineers in the industry: around 9% in energy generally, but closer to 5% in renewables.

Why is that?

We can chart the path of a person from a minority ethnic background from their early education to the end of their career, and see under-representation is consistent. The number of people that make it into the sector, the number of people able to get jobs when they complete their degrees, the number of people who stay long enough to reach senior or leadership positions – it just goes down at every stage.

One reason is the lack of professional support and advice from university careers services. Then when they apply for jobs, we know that what their name sounds like has a direct impact on how many callbacks they get. It’s critical. Delays in getting jobs can mean people end up in jobs unrelated to what they studied, like finance.

What about when they get jobs in renewables?

When the people we speak to start their jobs, they can experience issues around workplace culture that isn’t always fair or equitable.

For example, you can have two people who join a company on the same day: one gets to work on a variety of very interesting projects likely to gain them skills, while the other is basically a dogsbody even though they have a PhD.

If you look at those people in two years’ time, one knows infinitely more because they were given opportunities that the other wasn’t. This is where there’s a risk of affinity bias, which is where a manager will put more effort – even subconsciously – in the development of somebody who looks like them and comes from a certain background.

Those are the subtle ways prejudice works in reality, and it makes all the difference. Mentoring in the early stages of a career is important and, if companies need help, there are organisations like AFBE that they can work with. We have around 60 corporations that we advise on their diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies.

So, the discrimination you see isn’t just overt bullying?

No. It can range from doing work and not being credited for it, to bullying, putdowns or other forms of harassment. It can also be when opportunities are there, but some people aren’t moved onto the next stage even if their work shows they deserve it.

Do you see issues specific to renewables?

The big problem is renewables have only started to build into a substantial industry in the last few years, compared to construction or oil and gas. You’ve started with an archetype of the sort of people who work in renewables, which can be hard to shake.

But it’s not too late for the industry to reflect and start to ask questions like: ‘Does our company reflect the communities in which we operate?’

It is important that the renewables sector is diverse because, ultimately, what we are trying to achieve by addressing the challenge of climate change is to ensure that our world is greener and achieve justice for the world’s poorest, in the global south. We need organisations that reflect that diverse outlook.

How can we get more black and minority ethnic role models in wind?

Partly it’s about having those early opportunities we discussed earlier. If you receive those opportunities to get your engineering capability to a high level, you can move on to lead teams and then a department. They also need sponsorship to help them get into the boardroom, but it is rare to find people who speak up for you like that.

Also, more companies are setting up shadow boards and making them more diverse, to reflect the society we live in.

Where do you stand on diversity quotas?

Most of us don’t want a handout. We want to be treated equally and given an equal chance to prove ourselves and succeed. It can help to have aspirational targets to aim for, but targets only work with a strategy to support them.

In our view, it is a business imperative to have a diverse environment, and there are companies making huge progress. People’s attitudes and behaviours towards their D&A strategies are changing. Those who are serious about it will reap the benefits.

Renewables companies are losing out on talented professionals because of overt and subtle discrimination against workers from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, says Ollie Folayan, co-founder and CEO of the Association for BME Engineers in the UK. He told Richard Heap how firms can respond.

How is the renewables industry doing on racial diversity?

Our focus is on engineering, given that the largest number of people working in the energy sector are engineers.

We have a baseline problem of very high engagement at the earliest stages – around a third of all UK engineering undergraduates are from black or minority ethnic backgrounds – but chronic under-representation in engineers in the industry: around 9% in energy generally, but closer to 5% in renewables.

Why is that?

We can chart the path of a person from a minority ethnic background from their early education to the end of their career, and see under-representation is consistent. The number of people that make it into the sector, the number of people able to get jobs when they complete their degrees, the number of people who stay long enough to reach senior or leadership positions – it just goes down at every stage.

One reason is the lack of professional support and advice from university careers services. Then when they apply for jobs, we know that what their name sounds like has a direct impact on how many callbacks they get. It’s critical. Delays in getting jobs can mean people end up in jobs unrelated to what they studied, like finance.

What about when they get jobs in renewables?

When the people we speak to start their jobs, they can experience issues around workplace culture that isn’t always fair or equitable.

For example, you can have two people who join a company on the same day: one gets to work on a variety of very interesting projects likely to gain them skills, while the other is basically a dogsbody even though they have a PhD.

If you look at those people in two years’ time, one knows infinitely more because they were given opportunities that the other wasn’t. This is where there’s a risk of affinity bias, which is where a manager will put more effort – even subconsciously – in the development of somebody who looks like them and comes from a certain background.

Those are the subtle ways prejudice works in reality, and it makes all the difference. Mentoring in the early stages of a career is important and, if companies need help, there are organisations like AFBE that they can work with. We have around 60 corporations that we advise on their diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies.

So, the discrimination you see isn’t just overt bullying?

No. It can range from doing work and not being credited for it, to bullying, putdowns or other forms of harassment. It can also be when opportunities are there, but some people aren’t moved onto the next stage even if their work shows they deserve it.

Do you see issues specific to renewables?

The big problem is renewables have only started to build into a substantial industry in the last few years, compared to construction or oil and gas. You’ve started with an archetype of the sort of people who work in renewables, which can be hard to shake.

But it’s not too late for the industry to reflect and start to ask questions like: ‘Does our company reflect the communities in which we operate?’

It is important that the renewables sector is diverse because, ultimately, what we are trying to achieve by addressing the challenge of climate change is to ensure that our world is greener and achieve justice for the world’s poorest, in the global south. We need organisations that reflect that diverse outlook.

How can we get more black and minority ethnic role models in wind?

Partly it’s about having those early opportunities we discussed earlier. If you receive those opportunities to get your engineering capability to a high level, you can move on to lead teams and then a department. They also need sponsorship to help them get into the boardroom, but it is rare to find people who speak up for you like that.

Also, more companies are setting up shadow boards and making them more diverse, to reflect the society we live in.

Where do you stand on diversity quotas?

Most of us don’t want a handout. We want to be treated equally and given an equal chance to prove ourselves and succeed. It can help to have aspirational targets to aim for, but targets only work with a strategy to support them.

In our view, it is a business imperative to have a diverse environment, and there are companies making huge progress. People’s attitudes and behaviours towards their D&A strategies are changing. Those who are serious about it will reap the benefits.

Renewables companies are losing out on talented professionals because of overt and subtle discrimination against workers from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, says Ollie Folayan, co-founder and CEO of the Association for BME Engineers in the UK. He told Richard Heap how firms can respond.

How is the renewables industry doing on racial diversity?

Our focus is on engineering, given that the largest number of people working in the energy sector are engineers.

We have a baseline problem of very high engagement at the earliest stages – around a third of all UK engineering undergraduates are from black or minority ethnic backgrounds – but chronic under-representation in engineers in the industry: around 9% in energy generally, but closer to 5% in renewables.

Why is that?

We can chart the path of a person from a minority ethnic background from their early education to the end of their career, and see under-representation is consistent. The number of people that make it into the sector, the number of people able to get jobs when they complete their degrees, the number of people who stay long enough to reach senior or leadership positions – it just goes down at every stage.

One reason is the lack of professional support and advice from university careers services. Then when they apply for jobs, we know that what their name sounds like has a direct impact on how many callbacks they get. It’s critical. Delays in getting jobs can mean people end up in jobs unrelated to what they studied, like finance.

What about when they get jobs in renewables?

When the people we speak to start their jobs, they can experience issues around workplace culture that isn’t always fair or equitable.

For example, you can have two people who join a company on the same day: one gets to work on a variety of very interesting projects likely to gain them skills, while the other is basically a dogsbody even though they have a PhD.

If you look at those people in two years’ time, one knows infinitely more because they were given opportunities that the other wasn’t. This is where there’s a risk of affinity bias, which is where a manager will put more effort – even subconsciously – in the development of somebody who looks like them and comes from a certain background.

Those are the subtle ways prejudice works in reality, and it makes all the difference. Mentoring in the early stages of a career is important and, if companies need help, there are organisations like AFBE that they can work with. We have around 60 corporations that we advise on their diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies.

So, the discrimination you see isn’t just overt bullying?

No. It can range from doing work and not being credited for it, to bullying, putdowns or other forms of harassment. It can also be when opportunities are there, but some people aren’t moved onto the next stage even if their work shows they deserve it.

Do you see issues specific to renewables?

The big problem is renewables have only started to build into a substantial industry in the last few years, compared to construction or oil and gas. You’ve started with an archetype of the sort of people who work in renewables, which can be hard to shake.

But it’s not too late for the industry to reflect and start to ask questions like: ‘Does our company reflect the communities in which we operate?’

It is important that the renewables sector is diverse because, ultimately, what we are trying to achieve by addressing the challenge of climate change is to ensure that our world is greener and achieve justice for the world’s poorest, in the global south. We need organisations that reflect that diverse outlook.

How can we get more black and minority ethnic role models in wind?

Partly it’s about having those early opportunities we discussed earlier. If you receive those opportunities to get your engineering capability to a high level, you can move on to lead teams and then a department. They also need sponsorship to help them get into the boardroom, but it is rare to find people who speak up for you like that.

Also, more companies are setting up shadow boards and making them more diverse, to reflect the society we live in.

Where do you stand on diversity quotas?

Most of us don’t want a handout. We want to be treated equally and given an equal chance to prove ourselves and succeed. It can help to have aspirational targets to aim for, but targets only work with a strategy to support them.

In our view, it is a business imperative to have a diverse environment, and there are companies making huge progress. People’s attitudes and behaviours towards their D&A strategies are changing. Those who are serious about it will reap the benefits.

Renewables companies are losing out on talented professionals because of overt and subtle discrimination against workers from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, says Ollie Folayan, co-founder and CEO of the Association for BME Engineers in the UK. He told Richard Heap how firms can respond.

How is the renewables industry doing on racial diversity?

Our focus is on engineering, given that the largest number of people working in the energy sector are engineers.

We have a baseline problem of very high engagement at the earliest stages – around a third of all UK engineering undergraduates are from black or minority ethnic backgrounds – but chronic under-representation in engineers in the industry: around 9% in energy generally, but closer to 5% in renewables.

Why is that?

We can chart the path of a person from a minority ethnic background from their early education to the end of their career, and see under-representation is consistent. The number of people that make it into the sector, the number of people able to get jobs when they complete their degrees, the number of people who stay long enough to reach senior or leadership positions – it just goes down at every stage.

One reason is the lack of professional support and advice from university careers services. Then when they apply for jobs, we know that what their name sounds like has a direct impact on how many callbacks they get. It’s critical. Delays in getting jobs can mean people end up in jobs unrelated to what they studied, like finance.

What about when they get jobs in renewables?

When the people we speak to start their jobs, they can experience issues around workplace culture that isn’t always fair or equitable.

For example, you can have two people who join a company on the same day: one gets to work on a variety of very interesting projects likely to gain them skills, while the other is basically a dogsbody even though they have a PhD.

If you look at those people in two years’ time, one knows infinitely more because they were given opportunities that the other wasn’t. This is where there’s a risk of affinity bias, which is where a manager will put more effort – even subconsciously – in the development of somebody who looks like them and comes from a certain background.

Those are the subtle ways prejudice works in reality, and it makes all the difference. Mentoring in the early stages of a career is important and, if companies need help, there are organisations like AFBE that they can work with. We have around 60 corporations that we advise on their diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies.

So, the discrimination you see isn’t just overt bullying?

No. It can range from doing work and not being credited for it, to bullying, putdowns or other forms of harassment. It can also be when opportunities are there, but some people aren’t moved onto the next stage even if their work shows they deserve it.

Do you see issues specific to renewables?

The big problem is renewables have only started to build into a substantial industry in the last few years, compared to construction or oil and gas. You’ve started with an archetype of the sort of people who work in renewables, which can be hard to shake.

But it’s not too late for the industry to reflect and start to ask questions like: ‘Does our company reflect the communities in which we operate?’

It is important that the renewables sector is diverse because, ultimately, what we are trying to achieve by addressing the challenge of climate change is to ensure that our world is greener and achieve justice for the world’s poorest, in the global south. We need organisations that reflect that diverse outlook.

How can we get more black and minority ethnic role models in wind?

Partly it’s about having those early opportunities we discussed earlier. If you receive those opportunities to get your engineering capability to a high level, you can move on to lead teams and then a department. They also need sponsorship to help them get into the boardroom, but it is rare to find people who speak up for you like that.

Also, more companies are setting up shadow boards and making them more diverse, to reflect the society we live in.

Where do you stand on diversity quotas?

Most of us don’t want a handout. We want to be treated equally and given an equal chance to prove ourselves and succeed. It can help to have aspirational targets to aim for, but targets only work with a strategy to support them.

In our view, it is a business imperative to have a diverse environment, and there are companies making huge progress. People’s attitudes and behaviours towards their D&A strategies are changing. Those who are serious about it will reap the benefits.

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Not a member yet?

Become a member of the 6,500-strong A Word About Wind community today, and gain access to our premium content, exclusive lead generation and investment opportunities.