Highways Agency chief executive Graham Dalton has raised the profile of the gender equality debate by joining a select band of industry leaders to declare themselves feminists.
Dalton told NCE that he was happy to declare himself a feminist in an interview ahead of next Monday’s National Women in Engineering Day.
On the day, Dalton will be hosting a seminar for 70 roads industry leaders in which he will challenge them to do more to tackle the under-representation of women in the highways industry.
“We are taking some time out with our key suppliers to say this stuff matters,” said Dalton.
And Dalton stressed the motivation was more than simply the need to fill a looming skills gap coinciding with record levels of investment in highways.
“I’m taking the opportunity of the day to reinforce the messsage that with the increased investment we are getting there is not just a raw demand for skills but also a real need to get fresh thinking in,” he said.
“Our suppliers have boards of directors, and their number one objective is delivering value for their shareholders. Their next objective is to be a sustainable business. And a business that doesn’t reflect the society it operates in becomes unsustainable as it slowly loses touch,” he said.
Dalton said the session will focus on attracting, retaining and promoting women within the highways sector, but with a real focus on retention and promotion. This is because the numbers of girls choosing to study STEM subjects at A level and then going on to study engineering subjects at university is on the way up, said Dalton. The problem is recognising and rewarding female talent that already exists.
“We’ll be looking at how do we get women into more senior roles; which might mean we are not currently defining the roles correctly,” he said.
“It is about having the rights sort of cultures and behaviours,” he said, adding that the Agency has the power to influence those behaviours through its supplier assessment tools.
“As a client we punch well above our weight on issues like low carbon, cost efficiency and safety. So when we stand up and say this is important, and make it clear we are going to award a better score to firms who are looking to employ a broad group of people, then they will scrabble round and respond,” he said.
And from personal experience Dalton was clear that feminism - the advocacy of equal opportunities of women - was something to be embraced. “I’ve got three daughters and it doesn’t enter any of their heads that there should be any restriction on what they could or should do based on their gender. So am I a feminist? Yes I probably am.”
Dalton’s willingness to be seen as a feminist comes days after Atkins chief executive David Tonkin and Bullivant director John Patch made the same commitment.