Missing Opportunities – Why men are vital in creating gender diversity

23 June, 2020

International Women in Engineering Day is an opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come in our own businesses and as an industry. In the last year, BAM Nuttall increased our female apprentice intake for the second year running, taking it to nearly a third of all recruits. We continue to see our women shine on some of our most exciting infrastructure projects in the world, including Rothera Wharf in Antarctica where the construction team is led by Project Manager Martha McGowan. And our women are routinely recognised in the industry with Claire Mansfield, Head of Design Delivery, up for Inspirational Woman of the Year in the Women in Rail Awards.

In March, with the WISE community, we marked one million women working in UK STEM roles for the first time, but we’re not there yet – and by “we”, I mean the entire construction industry. Progress feels slow and the latest figures show that less than 10% of people working in construction are women. Depressingly, economists estimate that we’re over 200 years, or ten generations, away from full gender equality.

That’s a long way to go, with multiple, simultaneous priorities needed to achieve an equal balance of men and women working in our industry – company goals and business plans, policies and processes, showcasing appealing careers, visibility of role-models, increasing flexible working, fair recruitment practices, skills-based employment, and removing bias. But the most important, I would argue, is the support and action of men in our industry. If the remaining 90% majority were convinced that using (the other) half of the world’s talent pool, has real, evidenced, impacts on economic growth and future-readiness of businesses, where communities are the winners and societies thrive, would equality be achieved faster?

We want more men to be a part of the gender equity conversation. Not just to see it as a strategy to beat the competition – although it is an advantage – but to understand this isn’t just for or about women in the workplace, this is about benefits and opportunities for everyone.

Men hold most of the decision-making authority in both the public and private sector and their role as mentors, sponsors and allies along the gender equity path is vital. Men hold the power to change the narrative, put more women at the top alongside them, and balance the scales in decades not centuries.

Why Does It Matter? Diversity Doesn’t Build (Literal) Bridges

Apart from the obvious, that it matters how people feel and that they are treated equally and fairly – industry leaders, and investors, are all aware of the business case for diversity, or should be. The bottom line of all our companies can improve from, not only a diverse workforce, but a happy diverse workforce.

We all need to collaborate, men and women together, to improve not only the reputation of our sector but the reality. We face skills shortages in engineering and construction – our traditional workforce isn’t enough to sustain us. This isn’t 'win or lose’ or ‘either one or the other’ this is ‘we all win or lose’ and ‘we need both more than ever’.

This, alongside the need for innovation and new ways of doing things, means exploring new talent pools and employing people who look, sound and think differently to bring alternative approaches based on their broader range of experiences.

Working Beyond Policy

Policy and “rules” can only take us so far in achieving change. The issues don’t sit in HR, but in our businesses and teams where people’s daily attitudes and actions can make a difference.

We hear repeated messages that a diverse workforce is valued – often with a spin on the lack of women in our industry, but what is the lived experience of women once they’re in teams working in and environment where 90% of their colleagues are men?

We can’t make or tell people what to believe and feel. But we hope education and understanding helps everyone see beyond labels to focus on individuals, their varied skillsets, knowledge and their experience. We must create environments where we appreciate and celebrate differences - and the new ideas they ignite.

For the large majority of the people in our industry diversity is not something they think much about. Most have minimal lived experiences of being a member of a minority group – being one of many in a meeting or on a project site and having rarely collaborated as part of a truly diverse team. And we know most feel that they hold no biases.

Our biggest challenge is bringing the majority on board – even starting to involve them in conversation is a struggle. But it’s where we need to start, so men can equip others with a new narrative that explores the benefits of balance and diversity and what they bring to the company.

This does not refute the work, knowledge and skills that our current workforce also brings. The two need to be married up to build a safe, comfortable and accepting environment for everyone, to play to and use their strengths.

Creating Compelling Careers

At the start of the talent pipeline, significant improvement has been made in schools, and we now see equal uptake and achievement in science and maths GCSEs amongst genders. After this however, only 15% of those who embark on an undergraduate engineering degree are women. This number then falls again, with less than half of these women going on to work within the engineering field – more than 20% less than their male counterparts.

BAM is attempting to close this gap with our award-winning apprenticeship programme. The increase in female applications has helped us achieve record levels of appointments, of almost a third, for 2019 and 2020’s intake. The success of this programme just goes to show that engineering and construction offers careers women enjoy and can excel. Showcasing engineering as a viable and relevant career choice for all, and improving the appeal of our industry, could achieve exponential growth of diverse employment in the early stages.

But as businesses and industry work strategically to achieve a better gender balance, individual people and teams create the ways of working on sites and in offices that make our companies places to stay or leave. Everyone wants to work somewhere they feel welcome, connected with others and a valued member of the team.

The way we look at employment needs to change. Expecting people to fit into roles which have, in the past, suited our traditional workforce (white, middle-class, university educated men) will not usually work. Roles need flexibility, and opportunity to tailor to the person and skillset, not the other way around. That topic has proved to create heated debate – and that applies to both men and women!

We can’t afford to lose skilled people because we fail to accommodate alternative working hours, religious needs or even a change in career direction due to skillset or passion for a new part of the business.

Our culture can only ever improve if those who are already there create the space and are willing to let go of the way things have been for them in the past. We all need to work together for the future.

The Importance of Allies

We're an industry which leads in so many ways - constantly pushing for innovation, and continuously improving to do things better. We're using 3D concrete printers to create bridges, we monitor fatigue of people on site with wearable technology, and we track our operational performance with drone images.

But our sector’s making slow progress closing the gender pay-gap.

This is why our industry and our communities need allies on the board and across the board, for the pace of change to accelerate from the historical industry average of 1– 2% per level per year. Allies need to ensure women get the same opportunities to achieve their first promotion and encourage and support progression beyond the early stages of their careers.

We have some fantastic examples, including our exiting CEO Steve Fox who has been a WISE board member since 2017, our new CEO Adrian Savory, who started his career as an engineering apprentice, and Global HR Business Partner Alasdair Henderson who won 2018 WISE Man of the Year. But we’re far from achieving allies across the majority.

For women, sponsorship can go a long way toward fixing the first broken rung on the career ladder. And for men, it can go a long way to understanding better how to create opportunities for everyone in our sector, supporting the needs of individuals, everywhere, to allow them to achieve their best.

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