I read the news reports last week concerning the Scottish sports writers’ awards debacle with increasing dread, a sense of déjà vu and some sympathy if I am honest.

In reflecting on that situation, it’s good to be candid about where your industry is on a number of similar scores, even if that review makes for uncomfortable reading. The awards dinner in question was one of a couple of reasons to do that in the last week for Scottish Engineering, easily setting aside other topics such as industrial automation, digitalisation or investment for a few days at least.

A lack of diversity, on any measure you care to choose, remains a stubborn reality for our manufacturing and engineering sector, and its importance is not just because improving it is the right thing to do and essential for a sector that already has significant skills challenges. More than ever, it’s also because companies recognise it makes great business sense too, adding diversity of thought and all the benefits that brings.

Low levels of gender diversity are our sector’s most keenly discussed deficit, and this was the source of my second prompt to stop and think in the space of the week. One of our larger member companies shared with us their application statistics for this year’s intake of apprentices, and at first it looks like good news with more than 10 times the applications for every apprenticeship on offer. No lack of interest in engineering careers then, but you’ll sense I am holding the bad news back, as less than six percent of those modern apprentice applications were from female applicants, and only 16% for graduate apprentice places. This is of course just one instance, and some sectors – optronics for example – fare much better in terms of interest and results but, unfortunately, it’s an example repeated more often than not.

Engineering UK published this year their Women in Engineering report showing that in 2021, around 16% of those working in engineering roles were women, and this represents a welcome increase from 6% in 2010. But before we break open the bubbles, let’s remember that at that rate we should reach the kind of balance we seek sometime around 2080. That glacial speed of change is despite the excellent activities and focus on progress that have been led by organisations committed to overall improvement and especially speeding up the rate of change, but we know that broader society’s culture and attitude towards a career in STEM has a long way to go.

If every one of those positive actions metaphorically place a marble on the plus side of the scale influencing the attractiveness to all of joining a sector, then the underlying attitudes and acceptance of the unacceptable displayed by the after-dinner speech in question throw a boulder on the negative side of the same scale. Who would want to work in a sector where the idea of a night celebrating excellence comes with a good measure of punching down on any group that happens to be in the minority in attendance?

My sense of dread and déjà vu comes from organising an event years ago. I did not research our after-dinner speaker for that evening and did not invest that part of the event anything approaching nearly enough consideration, and I am ashamed to say it sounds similar to the sports writers’ awards after-dinner speaker. A repeating stream and pattern of sexist joke, racist joke, sexist joke, racist joke was interspersed only with homophobic and transphobic slurs just to really work the room.

My sympathy is for those who like me sat there knowing that what they were listening to was damaging and plainly wrong, but unlike the examples of those who did the right thing and stood up and walked out, found themselves frozen, unsure what to do next, with only future hindsight to remind them of the cost of failing to act.

Action is the only answer to achieve the change we all should seek, whether swearing never to let your event feel or sound anything like that ever again, or by voting with your feet or mouth and calling out the unacceptable publicly. Sitting silently and waiting for the discomfort to pass is not a recipe for success, and the damage to our aspirations for the benefits of diversity and inclusion are too great to sit on our hands again.

Paul Sheerin is chief executive of Scottish Engineering