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Backstory: Kerrine Bryan, ‘Unconscious bias is more of a problem in the UK’

TV presenter Dr. Shini Somara talks to award-winning electrical engineer Kerrine Bryan, co-founder of Butterfly Books, which publishes career-themed picture books for children.

Shini Somara: What kind of technique are you doing right now? Kerrine Bryan: I work for WSP USA, based in New York City in their Energy Group, where I tend to switch between power generation and delivery, and renewables.

I am currently working on one of the largest offshore wind projects in the US, and some major renewable solar projects where I am responsible for electrical system studies, including short circuit analysis and load current analysis.

In addition, I work on a few power distribution projects in New York and the Tristate area. For example, after Hurricane Sandy, some hospitals had to move electrical power equipment outside the flood zone or update their emergency power system in accordance with the latest codes and standards. So I’ve been involved in some of these projects.

SS:How did you get into engineering?

KB: I’d say I got into it because as a kid I didn’t know what an engineer was and I certainly didn’t know any engineer. I went to a career counselor, who told me to become an accountant because I liked math. I was actually on my way to becoming an accountant until a math teacher suggested a residential course in Wales where I learned all about engineering.

It was so interesting that I decided to take a technical education from there. I had to do a foundation year and an industrial internship and was always two years behind people in college, but now I have my master’s degree in engineering so it has all been worth it.

SS:What was your career path like?

KB:With so many opportunities coming my way in the UK, I’ve been very lucky. At the beginning of my career I was lucky enough to have a really great mentor who always pushed me to get higher positions and more responsibility.

I don’t think I would have progressed so quickly if it weren’t for his support. Having strong mentors is key, and my mentor was in a powerful position to make things happen for me.

Few people are qualified to do what I do that made me want to work hard, get far and prove myself. I’ve always known it’s harder for someone like me in engineering.

My mother always told me that as a black woman it would be harder to get into the same places as stereotypical engineers, even compared to white women. This mindset has pushed me to go beyond what is expected of me, when working on projects or tasks.

The lack of diversity in the workplace was challenging at first, but I’ve come to a point where I work in a culture that is very inclusive. It’s been so different since I moved to New York and worked for WSP.

At one point, my tech team was 50 percent female, and we also have a fairly diverse group when it comes to ethnicity. WSP is committed to creating a diverse and inclusive workforce, which really makes a difference to feeling comfortable, motivated and giving your best for the job.

SS: What are the main differences between your UK and US engineering experiences?

KB: I would say unconscious bias is a bigger problem in the UK than in the US. People are not afraid to talk about diversity and inclusion in the US.

I suppose it’s part of British culture not to offend anyone and we like to avoid conflict. But these difficult conversations need to be had for change to happen. Recently my colleague at work did an I&D moment on black hair after seeing a TV discussion on the topic.

He is a white male and presented the point respectfully and accurately. I thought he was brave to talk about this topic, but we talked later that these discussions should make us uncomfortable if there were to change.

SS: What has been your greatest inspiration for doing what you are doing now?

KB: So going back to before I went to college, I remember there were three black kids in my school. The only black boy there came in one day and said his sister was going to college.

I didn’t know what university was then. I had no family who had gone to college. He was so proud and happy and I thought “I want to go to university!”.

Perhaps he acted as a role model for me, without even realizing it. Now I hope that I can also be a role model for my two daughters, especially in tackling prejudice.

SS: How do you manage to juggle so much?

KB: Sometimes it’s hard and you have to prioritize depending on what stage of life you’re in. My husband’s support has been important, especially when we are both in a country where we have no other family there.

What has also been of great help is that you also have a supportive employer who understands and considers your personal circumstances. This support and flexibility motivates me to do my best for my employer in my work as well.