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Atkins | Rising to the diversity challenge

Atkins STEM

Champions, committees and real commitment: New Civil Engineer talks to one civils company about how it is building diversity.

The disheartening appraisal of engineering, and indeed construction, as being too “male, pale and stale” is nothing new. Engineering consultancy Atkins is broaching the challenge head on in a bid to encourage more diversity within the company and ultimately attract future generations of employees from a more diverse pool of talent.

The company has decided to move its focus to promoting inclusion across the business, as opposed to solely focusing on individual diversity groups. “Our focus is very much about inclusion, which is something that everyone should be involved in,” says Atkins’ UK diversity and inclusion champion David Jenkins, who is also practice director of civils and structures, transportation. “It’s all about the culture of the organisation, where everyone feels included. There’s a clear shift in our focus from just diversity, to being more about inclusion.”

The company is in the process of implementing a five-year diversity inclusion plan. As part of this, Atkins’ Diversity Inclusion Steering Committee – which is chaired by Jenkins – includes representatives from each of the business’ diversity committees. This inclusion of voices from across the business will ensure that a wider community with diverse viewpoints is involved with developing and executing the plan, explains Jenkins.

A Women’s Development Programme and Women’s Professional Network have been created to address the gender balance at the company and encourage the stream of women into senior roles. Management teams are also equipped with unconscious bias awareness training, and the company’s recruitment process is currently under review to ensure it is not restrictive and remains in line with the objectives of the diversity inclusion plan.

While attracting a diverse pool of talent is essential, the company remains committed to promoting inclusion among existing employees. Communication through platforms such as Atkins’ internal intranet and social media network Yammer have been integral to sharing information and encouraging inclusion within the business. “Staff have self-generated various groups – including groups for parents, those with a disability, or the LGBT community – and it is all completely voluntary,” says Jenkins. “The groups provide a forum to ask questions or post articles to share information. It is a great opportunity for employees to input ideas and engage with each other.”

Atkins’ UK business has also taken inspiration from colleagues across the Atlantic. Employees within Atkins’ US business have established a virtual book club which allows the group to share and read books and articles on diversity issues and then discuss the key topics raised.

But this sharing of ideas and drive for collaboration goes beyond just internal communications at the company. Atkins is currently working in partnership with WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) and LGBT campaign group Stonewall. These organisations provide access to advice and best practice guidance that help accelerate activities at the company. Atkins is also working closely with the Royal Academy of Engineering as part of its diversity inclusion leadership group, and has also signed up to the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation’s (CIHT’s) Diversity and Inclusion Charter to help embed a change in culture across the highways and transportation industry.

Jenkins admits there is also an increasing commercial incentive to ensuring that the business is committed to championing diversity. “Five years ago, there was little impetus, but that all changed with the Davies report,” he says. “Now more of our clients, particularly those in the public sector, are themselves being set targets.

Atkins STEM 4

Atkins STEM 4

Source: Atkins

Atkins is working with WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) and LGBT campaign group Stonewall to create change across industry.

“It is important for industry to work together in order to get maximum benefit and share what we’re doing. I think one of the areas that will become bigger in coming years is how tier one suppliers to main contractors start helping their supply chains to become more diversity inclusive. Larger companies are usually in a position where they can easily invest to make that happen, but if you’re a smaller company you have less flexibility to do that. We need to drive the agenda forward by working together and learning from each other.”

“While it’s important to maintain the discussion, we must also keep taking action,” he adds.

But ultimately, insists Jenkins, this cross-industry collaboration and sharing of best practice is dependent on businesses empowering employees to lead this cultural shift. “It’s much more about giving staff freedom and opportunity to discuss things and raise issues themselves. We don’t think the right thing is to be telling our people what they should be doing in this area,” he explains.

Jenkins likens the diversity issue to the changing attitudes towards health and safety awareness. Clear safety regulations and processes now work in tandem with a cultural shift within businesses, says Jenkins. “There has been a recent focus on making the safety issue more natural. It’s all about behaviours. People must feel free to challenge things when they see a problem.

“It’s similar with diversity. You still need the processes but ultimately it’s about behaviours and people’s ways of working. They have to feel empowered to challenge problems when they see them.”

So how far is the industry from this ideal in terms of diversity and inclusion? “We have a long way to go before that becomes natural,” laments Jenkins. “We cannot just compartmentalise the issue. It must be part of everything we do.”

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