Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Engineering Equality: Build in the female factor

Engineering firms must make gender diversity an integral part of their business strategy to have a chance of achieving a sustainable gender-balanced and, therefore, more successful workforce.

For the past six months, NCE has been outlining the reasons why engineering companies should attract, retain and support the career progression of women. To recap: research shows that the closer a team is to being gender balanced, the better it performs; but the percentage of women going into the profession is far from gender-balanced (only 10% of engineering professionals are women in the UK). Moreover, many women engineers leave the profession because, for a host of reasons, it just doesn’t suit them. Coupled with the fact that there is a skills shortage in the UK it makes sense then that companies are trying harder to attract and retain women engineers.

With labour survey results also placing the UK as the worst performing country in Europe for its proportion of women engineers -countries such as Bulgaria, Cyprus and Latvia perform best with 30% - it is also clear that there must be room for improvement.

Many companies are working hard to improve their working practices to create a more welcoming and supportive environment for women but some analysts feel that many are still only paying lip service to the issue of gender diversity. Business psychologist Sylvana Storey believes that many firms consider diversity as a “loose, one-off action” and are actually doing very little to change working practices and business strategies to align with diversity.


Management: Women are still hitting the glass ceiling

“Most companies see diversity as a stand-alone [issue] rather than being integral,” she tells NCE. Companies might have a diversity policy, she explains, but without any connection to changing the way staff carry out their day-to-day jobs, such policies carry little weight.

Storey previously led a behavioural change programme at Transport for London (TfL) which included implementing and aligning diversity initiatives with her organisation’s overarching business strategy, but this is not how diversity is treated in most organisations.

“At best, diversity is considered, but it is not considered strategically,” she says, adding that the current trend for training staff in unconscious bias (UB) awareness (NCE 25 September) is still a singular form of intervention and has limited impact if it is not part of a wider drive for diversity which underpins business strategy.

“UB is a good start to make people aware of their biases, but then what? It’s very complex - intervention needs to be broader and deeper.”

This propensity to pay lip service to diversity is also sending out the message that there is no real value in embracing diversity - which just isn’t true. A more diverse workforce, compared to one where all members have the same background, is able to explore more ways of reaching an answer allowing it to then choose the best solution, explains Storey.

“Men and women have complementary styles. I don’t want to stereotype, but, on the whole, women ask more questions and go into more detail and tend to be more inclusive”.

Nine-point plan to success

  • Ensure your diversity strategy is aligned with the organisation’s overarching strategy to avoid having bolted-on actions
  • Put in place performance measures that are trackable so that diversity is given equal gravitas and focus as other financial indicators.
  • Accountability is key. Often diversity is marooned into one part of the organisation (for example human resources). Therefore enabling other business areas to absolve themselves from accountability.
  • Develop strategies that focus across the pipeline, not just at the top (board level)
  • Create a consistent strategy across all geographies
  • Change the way in which power and rewards are distributed in the organisations across gender (race and ethnicity).
  • Engage all stakeholders in the process to ensure culture and behaviours are aligned to an inclusive working environment and inclusive practices.
  • Adopt a long-term perspective as opposed to a short-term one.
  • Make sure that words are put into action.

In her book, “The Impact of Diversity on Global Leadership Performance,” she says companies must take an “integrated, systemic approach” to diversity if they are to fully realise the potential of their workforce and be global leaders in their field. Without diversity being part of business strategy, initiatives will be acts of tokenism.

“Diversity isn’t just about how we look, it is about how we think and behave.”

The book draws on research into the working practices of seven global firms from 2007 to 2012.

Contractor Skanska, cosmetics company L’Oreal and platinum producer Anglo Platinum were among the seven companies which took part in the study, although Storey does not disclose the specific findings from individual companies.

Encouragingly, Storey’s experience is that the industry is aware that it needs to do more to attract and retain women and is moving in the right direction to achieve this.

Gender diversity was picked up by most companies as an issue it was already addressing, partly because it is easy to measure and monitor. But little is still being done to create a pipeline of female talent from graduate to director level, says Storey.

“If a company wants to achieve gender balance, a process has to be implemented to reach that target,” she says.

“It’s great to put one or two women on a board, but if the culture of a company hasn’t changed, how will those female board members survive? You can’t put a few women on boards and hope for the best!”

equality management

The idea of increasing the numbers of women at board level has been picked up by campaign group The 30% Club, but Storey comments that the absence of a pipeline of female talent to feed into these roles, will mean there will simply be the same women taking up non-exec roles at board level at several companies just to fill quotas.

Storey’s study investigates how each of the seven companies considered diversity at leadership level, how it was addressed at executive meetings (through various initiatives or as an underlying theme) and the impact of diversity on other organisational issues.

She concludes that the most effective way of implementing diversity successfully, is to understand it as a change process which takes in the three dimensions of diversity: structural diversity (workforce demographics and processes), cognitive diversity (the way people think) and behavioural diversity (the way people behave).

Exclusive to NCE, Storey has created a nine-point guide to help large firms address diversity (small firms tended to be more “picky” about who they employ and are more likely to employ people from a wider range of backgrounds to tap into a wider skills set, she says).

One of the key themes of Storey’s guide is ensuring diversity strategies take on real action.

“It’s not just about dangling words in front of employees at conferences only for those words to disappear into thin air once the champagne has been corked and the lights go out. That will just be perceived as ‘window dressing’ and [employees’] trust and engagement will be seriously undermined and damaged. It is essential to have a sustainable and evolving diversity strategy,” says Storey.

The 30% Club

women on boards

Click here to see a larger version of this table

The 30% Club was started in the UK in November 2010 with a goal of achieving 30% women on FTSE-100 boards by the end of 2015.

The 30% proportion was selected, the group says, because, “research suggests that 30% is the proportion when critical mass is reached - in a group setting, the voices of the minority group become heard in their own right, rather than simply representing the minority”.

The group is made up of about 90 chairs, chief executives or the equivalent from leading professional services firms, who are working to fulfil the goals of the
30% Club through business-led, voluntary action.

The group includes WYG non-executive chair Mike McTighe, Environment Agency chief executive Paul Leinster, Severn Trent non-executive chair Andrew Duff, and Atkins chair Allan Cook, the proportion of women on FTSE 100 company boards is currently 22.8% which is up 10.2% from 2010. There are also currently no all-male boards in the FTSE 100.

NCE has researched the proportion of women at board level for the top 10 companies listed in NCE’s 2014 Consultants and Contractors Files.

The average proportion of women on the boards of the top 10 consultants rests at 14% and 20% for the nine of the top 10 contractors which provided figures.At worst, there are no women at board level in some companies (Mott MacDonald, Bam Nuttall, Volker Wessell and Colas) and at best, women make up a third of the board (Costain and Vinci Group).

However, this may or may not reflect the culture of these companies and the efforts they are making to support women in engineering and their career development.

Bam Nuttall, for example only has three board directors, but is actively taking on initiatives to support the careers of women in its organisation (NCE 3 July).

There may also be several layers of management below board level in which women may be better represented, and arguably, they may be more active role models for women in the company.

Takeovers and mergers can also switch the gender demographic of a firm at its top levels overnight, especially when a global leadership board overarches all regional boards.

However, the numbers speak for themselves and there are very few women, with most holding non-technical roles, at the highest levels across all the firms investigated by NCE.







Related files

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.