Quotas. An incendiary word in the equality debate, with many - on both sides of the argument - strongly against such approaches.
But things just aren’t changing quickly enough. Senior industry leaders aren’t being bold enough. We can keep banging on about tackling the problem at schools level, but that means we have to endure another decade - at least - of what we have now: male-dominated teams; male-dominated sites; male-dominated events; male-dominated attitudes.
You really do sense that patience is wearing thin with our industry. That is certainly what I hear from the government. And it is certainly what we heard last week from the new president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Naomi Climer.
Climer, also president of Sony Media Cloud Services, has simply had enough. “Despite the best efforts, there has been little progress in attracting more women into engineering over the past few decades, so I feel that the time is right to force action through the use of quotas,” she told me.
Yes, she accepts that there is much more to do at grass roots level and at the broader public perception level. She also accepts that there are many worthy initiatives underway. But the feeling clearly is that there just isn’t enough urgency.
Climer’s call comes about a year after Mark Carne, the then relatively new and unscarred chief executive of Network Rail, expressed his frustrations at our industry’s gender balance, urging companies to set targets and deadlines for the proportion of women they want to employ.
He explained how he had demanded that 30% of his overall workforce be women by 2018, requiring the rail infrastructure company to more than double the proportion of women it employs.
Carne told us then that targets were necessary to ensure the number of women the industry increases: “If you don’t set those targets, you don’t force yourself to think differently,” he said.
Yet one year on, companies stepping forward to join in with Network Rail are notable by their absence.
High Speed 2 Ltd is making promising noises: chief executive Simon Kirby this week tells us how diversity will feature in the selection of civils firms for the project.
“The construction industry has a long way to go in areas such as diversity and we are looking to push the bar substantially higher on this programme. We are looking for organisations that share that value,” he says, but falls short of setting a Carne-style target.
And elsewhere there is little to report. Another year, another year of inaction.
You really do begin to see Climer’s point. Next month the ICE will inaugurate Sir John Armitt, probably the greatest statesmen in our industry today, as its President. Armitt is a massive supporter of skills and so it will be interesting to see how close he will stand to his IET counterpart. Certainly the two big engineering institutions standing together on a big issue like this would be a hugely powerful statement.
- Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor