Mott MacDonald chief Keith Howells is on a mission to see his firm visibly taking the lead in the equality debate. Mark Hansford finds out more.
When NCE urged chief executives of the UK’s biggest clients, consultants and contractors to show leadership on the equality agenda by declaring themselves feminists last summer, one of the first to step up was Mott MacDonald chairman and chief executive Keith Howells.
Over the last six months or so Howells has been joined by several inspirational leaders, including Aecom boss Steve Morriss, Atkins CEO Uwe Kreuger, Highways Agency, Environment Agency and Thames Tideway Tunnel chiefs Graham Dalton, Paul Leinster and Andy Mitchell.
Some used the statement to set clear goals or targets for their organisations: Mitchell, for example has set the goal as a gender-balanced workforce by the time his Thames Tideway Tunnel project is completed in 2023.
Howells, in contrast, is initially reticent to set goals or targets.
“I don’t have any figures in mind,” he says. “Our aim is to be a fully-inclusive meritocratic organisation. I don’t think affirmative action does anyone any favours,” he adds.
But he does have some numbers to hand that show how Motts is performing.
“Our graduate intake is disproportionate. We are talking about 30% of our graduate intake as being female, and that’s about double the outtake from universities,” he states. “But we are getting that by selecting on merit,” he stresses.
So at entry level, Motts is well on track to dramatically shifting its demographic.
But Howells knows the real challenge lies in keeping these women once they have joined. And here unconscious bias comes to the fore.
“We’ve done the training on unconscious bias, and having done that you can hear it all the time,” he says.
“Like all these [anti-discriminatory] things we have all the policies in place, as we are required by law. But it is about behaviours. And changing those is a long haul.
“These things come in stages: first you see awareness, then acceptance, and then, finally, actions. We are somewhere between awareness and acceptance,” he says, reflecting on the wider engineering industry as much as on Mott MacDonald.
“And the more we publicise - that’s probably the wrong word - our struggles with it the better, because the more people hear the personal stories, the better. They hurt sometimes. And often, it is just ignorance,” he states.
“I think the key is working on culture and working on behaviours. It needs leadership and sponsorship and you’ve got to put resources into it, and then you can gain momentum. And if you push long enough it becomes business as usual.”
In the UK Mott MacDonald has an employee-led diversity committee which features five part-time regional co-ordinators supported by a full-time diversity champion. This is significant, says Howells.
“I was very keen for us to take a bottom-up approach to this, as it is very difficult to impose these things on people. We want engagement, not imposition,” he states.
The committee exists to champion the cause of diversity and assist in driving out unconscious bias. In parallel with this work is ongoing to discover why the company - like many others in the sector - loses so many women through their careers. Remote working is critical to that, and here Howells thinks there has been a “big shift” at Mott MacDonald, with technology driving acceptance of home working as never before.
“There is now total acceptance within the company that if the system shows you are logged on, then you are available to talk - wherever you are. It has definitely levelled the playing field,” he says.
From simple advances in telephone technology to concerted action around unconscious bias, Howells is determined that Motts succeeds in creating that diverse meritocratic organisation he craves. And success?
“The real success will be women on the board,” states Howells, a key metric that has been picked up by campaign group The 30% Club (see above). And for Howells, by women on the board he means female executive directors on the executive board.
“Appointing women in non-executive roles is the easy answer,” asserts Howells. “And even then it is difficult to find them as there is such demand. FTSE100 companies are paying a fortune for them.
“But to pay someone £70-80k to show up for a few meetings a year is a real push. You want people who are going to be a real value to the business.”
Mott MacDonald’s employee ownership structure means it effectively has two boards. It has a main board of seven that acts as an executive board and a 20-strong shareholder committee that keeps the main board in check.
It’s the former that Howells is focused on.
“We have two women on the shareholder committee, but on the executive board we have no women,” states Howells.
Mott MacDonald is far from alone here. Last year NCE researched the proportion of women at board level for the top 10 companies listed in NCE’s 2014 Consultants and Contractors Files. The numbers were unsurprisingly low.
For consultants the average proportion of women on the boards rests at 14%, and falls to 7% when just executive board members are included. For contractors the number is slightly better, standing at 20% and 9% respectively.
At worst, there are no women at board level in some companies (Mott MacDonald is joined by Bam Nuttall, Volker Wessell and Colas in that) and at best, women make up a third of the board (Costain and Vinci Group).
These raw facts 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).
But Howells clearly wants to see his company moving up that table, and now could be the moment. He explains that his main board is in transition, with three of the seven due to stand down in the next 12 months.
“We are doing a bit of navel gazing,” he states. “We need some [female] execs and we are not far away.”
So there is a target - a female member of the Mott MacDonald executive board. And it looks like the next 12 months could see it hit. But, critically, only if the right candidate - or candidates - come forward.
“They will make it on merit,” he stresses.
The 30% club
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 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.
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.