Gender diversity: creating a level playing field

rcw-news-genderdiversity-medAccording to Gender Equity: Insights 2017: Inside Australia’s Gender Pay Gap, top tier female managers in Australian organisations earn on average $93,000, or 25 per cent, less per year compared to their male counterparts.

The report, released this past March by Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre in collaboration with the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, outlines some crucial statistics across many facets of Australia’s economic sector, most notably in construction.

The report shows a 28 per cent gender pay gap between full time employees in the country’s construction industry, making it the third worst percentage in the report.

The conversation around reducing the gender pay gap and gender diversity in general is prevalent across many industries and organisations around Australia.

For the wider engineering, civil and infrastructure sector, it’s an important issue that is at the fore for many individuals and companies. Roads & Civil Works Magazine talks to some key stakeholders in the sector to gain insight into gender equality, how they are addressing it in their workplaces, the strategies they employ and the challenges on the road ahead.

Setting the bar

This past August, global infrastructure firm AECOM announced that its Australian operation had successfully increased the percentage of female senior leaders from 10 to 12.6 per cent.

Its longer-term goal is to increase that statistic to 20 per cent come 2020.

Nicole Stoddart, AECOM’s Managing Director – Construction Services ANZ, is one of those executive leaders, and is enthusiastic about the progress being made in the gender diversity space by the company.

“My background is in civil engineering and I’ve been involved in construction for over 20 years. This is my first time on the consulting side of the industry,” she says.

Ms. Stoddart has worked with a range of major construction firms, both at home and abroad during her career, before she started with AECOM nearly two years ago.

Even from the outside, she could see that the company prioritised gender diversity internally and externally.

“Lara Poloni [AECOM Chief Executive – ANZ] is really inspiring and I saw a lot of opportunities with the company. Lara as a leader in the industry, and her approach to diversity, made it a really attractive prospect,” she says. “The strength of Lara leading the team puts her as a market leader too.

“We invest in leadership training and development. Our business leaders are well-versed on what it means to be part of a diverse team.”

The company is certainly chasing positive outcomes by focusing on flexible hours and healthy office culture, while facilitating these leadership groups.

Each regional AECOM office in Australia and New Zealand hosts regular mentoring circles that provide a space for female employees to talk about issues.

“We’re trying different ways of thinking – we’re always keen to see what else is going on around the diversity agenda.”

The gender pay gap is a major aspect of the diversity conversation AECOM is taking great steps to address. Between May 2015 and May 2016, it reduced the gender pay gap by 3.4 per cent across its nearly 3000 Australian employees. “We invested nearly $1 million over the past two years to address the gender pay gap, which translates across a range of different roles,” says Ms. Stoddart.

Likewise, AECOM achieved almost a 50:50 split among its 2016 undergraduate intake.

“We’ve really challenged ourselves with the graduate program and we’re trying to grow that even more.”

Part of that challenge lies in attracting not just female candidates, but the right candidates.

“When we advertise for graduates and roles, we try to ensure that we have some women in the mix, but we also want the best candidate. So, on the CVs we often remove personal details and gender and take their merits into account,” she says.

In general, AECOM focuses on a merit-based performance and rewards system internally, so employee progress is based on performance, rather than it just being a numbers game.

Ms. Stoddart says that part of the challenge in increasing the number of young women interested in engineering as a profession is being able to engage with them directly.

To engage with the younger generation, AECOM, like many companies, works with learning institutes, such as universities, to reach out to engineering undergraduates.

“A lot of the schools and universities are now focused on the topic – people are more engaged,” says Ms. Stoddart.

“Being out there in the marketplace and doing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) events and lectures in construction management at Melbourne University really helps to promote role models and female leaders in this sector.”

Likewise, she says it’s important to not just talk about opportunities for female engineers in this sector, but to present role models and examples of women succeeding in these areas. “By depicting women in those roles and showing they have the same opportunities, I believe it can help improve the conversation around gender diversity,” she says.

Ms. Stoddart recalls a recent university female engineers event where she discussed challenging yourself and making the most of an opportunity to talk to leaders within the industry.  When she finished, a female engineering student approached her and asked her to assist in finding a graduate position, which she did, and explains it is a good example of this level of engagement in action.

Ms. Stoddart and other AECOM leaders are also active in this space in the wider industry. Ms. Stoddart, for instance, is the keynote speaker at the 2017 Women in Rail, Roads, Transport and Infrastructure Leadership Summit. “I feel greatly honoured to be the keynote at the event – it’s a good chance to meet other leaders in the industry and share my story.

“One of the main focuses for me is talking about how I’ve approached things in my career and to spread that message of taking up opportunities, and challenging yourself.”

While Ms. Stoddart says there are many examples of progress being made in establishing female role models and engaging with younger female students to help promote engineering as a viable career path, there are still many challenges ahead.

“I think there are better places in the world when it comes to gender equality. The United Kingdom, Scandinavia – those countries certainly provide good support for women in the workplace,” she says.

Having said that, Ms. Stoddart says there is progress being made for diversity in general at government and client levels.

“The Department of Transport in Victoria has mandated diversity programs for companies putting in bids for projects, and it’s hoped that that becomes more frequent across departments and states.”

She says even some infrastructure clients are beginning to outline diversity in bids.

Creating a ‘grassroots’ movement

Like AECOM, Australian civil infrastructure firm Seymour Whyte Group is proactive in the gender equality space and has set itself some ambitious targets in both female representation in its workforce and closing the gender pay gap.

“We certainly have some philosophical targets we want to achieve, but also more concrete ones we’re aiming for,” explains John Kirkwood, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer at Seymour Whyte Group.

“Every three years we’re looking at what we want to achieve in this area and the outcomes we want from that. We did this recently and gave ourselves three aims – first to deliver equal pay for men and women at each job grade in the executive leadership team. Secondly, to increase the pipeline of female engineers and graduates coming through the business.”

The third aim was to increase the number of women in executive positions within the company.

The firm’s three targets align with its strategic plan looking towards 2020.

The plan takes a holistic approach, engaging teams and executive internally as a whole, with 2017 already shaping up to see some real change.

“By the end of the year, we are trying to get equal pay for men and women at executive level. Our pipeline of female executives is also on the agenda, but we’re doing well on our journey there – our Chief Financial Officer and Communications, Human Resources, Design and Financial Managers, to name a few, are all female,” says Mr. Kirkwood. Roughly, women make up a third of the company’s senior management team. “Currently, we employ about 11 per cent female engineers. By 2020 we want to increase that number by another 10 per cent,” he says.

The path to achieving these goals stems from Seymour Whyte’s internal diversity policy and drive towards creating equal opportunities within the company.

During its hiring process, for instance, the company tries to include as many women it can in its pool of candidates. Mr. Kirkwood says if the company doesn’t manage to attract any female applicants, it reassesses how they are promoting and advertising the role to make sure it is still providing equal opportunity for women, while finding the best prospects for the job.

The company also puts emphasis on flexible working arrangements and its undergraduates, with a focus on turning any undergraduates it works with into graduates following completion of their studies.

Pushing the gender employment balance and closing the pay gap has come from Seymour Whyte’s executive leadership team, rather than from the board and CEO, which Mr. Kirkwood says is a differentiator for the company. “The executive leadership team has really committed themselves to the cause and are always challenging themselves. There’s also a real openness in terms of the discussions we have about gender diversity.”

This top down approach and openness within Seymour Whyte has helped the company foster valuable external partnerships in this area.

The firm has established notable relationships with organisations and bodies such as the University of Queensland (UQ), the Power of Engineering, Women in Engineering and the Peta Seymour Foundation. The Power of Engineering, for instance, is a not-for-profit organisation whose vision is “to inspire young people to consider a diverse and creative career in the profession of engineering, with a particular focus on females, regional and Indigenous students”.

Seymour Whyte has been involved with the organisation for the past couple of years, participating in and leading a number of Power of Engineering events at high schools and universities around Queensland and New South Wales. Most recently, it signed a three-year partnership with the not-for-profit this past November.

When picking speakers for Power of Engineering events, Mr. Kirkwood says the company asks for volunteers, and regularly gets individuals step forward from all corners of the business.

“People definitely enjoy being a part of that. In March, we had some high school girls come out to our Port of Brisbane project to talk first-hand with one of our female engineers about that project – it’s really strong engagement.

“There are very few female engineering candidates out there. That’s why we’re starting our awareness efforts with school kids – that’s where we start the movement,” he says. “In our business we encourage women to take up engineering careers, there’s no reluctance.

“As part of our efforts to promote gender diversity, we have co-sponsored the University of Queensland visiting scholar programs with the Peta Seymour Foundation and that’s been really good. Going out with the University of Queensland involves talking with school-age girls and female students about careers and opportunities in engineering and it’s been really well received.”

The Peta Seymour Foundation was established for the late Peta Seymour, wife of one of Seymour Whyte’s founders – John Seymour. Mr. Kirkwood says Peta was passionate about creating opportunities for more females within the industry and the company has really been pushing to make things happen in this space.

Mr. Kirkwood asserts that the industry is changing with initiatives such as these, and the focus is on the younger generation of female engineers.

“All of this work that we’re doing with the universities and high schools, and the encouragement to get high school students to look at STEM subjects as a career, is working. I think all of those things are building an understanding that there are opportunities out there for people to get involved,” he says. “I think there are a lot more initiatives out there and a lot more organisations who are spreading the word. There is a change of sentiment in the community as well.”

Mr. Kirkwood’s daughter is representative of the very individuals Seymour Whyte is trying to encourage through its partnerships with these organisations and universities, and is great example of how the field for female engineers has expanded.

While studying at UQ over a decade ago, she and a few other female engineering students started a movement called Skirts in Engineering, which garnered a few members during her time there.

During a recent visit to UQ to introduce a visiting scholar, Mr. Kirkwood asked the audience if the movement still existed. Following his talk, the current president of the body introduced herself and said it had a membership of more than 800 and counting.

“My daughter’s 35 now and she’s been away from there for 14 years, so it’s come a long way.”

Mr. Kirkwood says the social perception of gender diversity has changed, but for some aspects of the construction sector old habits die hard. “There are certainly some challenges for women wanting to work at the blue collar level. It’s hard to change perceptions – it’s a ‘blokey’ industry.”

While engineering is certainly seeing some leaps and bounds in creating a gender balanced workforce, Mr. Kirkwood says that the issue for women wanting a career in the more manual aspects of construction, including machine operators and road crews, is that the entrenched views that it’s a male-orientated area of the industry still exist.

“The broader community and public know it’s no longer about the man being the breadwinner and doing manual labour jobs – we’re well past that stage, which is a great starting point.”

Likewise, he says that smaller firms in the Australian sector face many day-to-day challenges, such as winning tenders and running the business. While the gender balance may be of importance to a company, it may not take precedence over running the day-to-day activities, particularly when trying to stay ahead in Australia’s competitive civil engineering and road construction sector.

Overcoming entrenched views

Sarah Bachmann, CEO of National Precast Concrete Association Australia, agrees with those sentiments, explaining that gender diversity is an issue that is more easily and more often addressed by larger organisations regardless of industry.

Ms. Bachmann has held her position at the association for 14 years, which also makes her the industry body’s longest-serving CEO. Prior to this role, Ms. Bachmann also held CEO positions for associations in industries unrelated to manufacturing or construction, so has experience a range of approaches to the gender diversity issue.

While females are more often appointed to CEO roles for industry and professional associations, Ms. Bachmann is one of the few national industry association leaders in manufacturing and construction.

For Ms. Bachmann personally, she knew there would be some challenges when taking on her role 14 years ago steering an industry body in a male-dominated sector, but she was confident they could be overcome.

“It’s unfortunate that women working in predominantly male industries still face hurdles that men don’t. That goes one step further than the gender diversity issue, but it’s a problem that flows from the lack of gender diversity and is still evident.”

While Ms. Bachmann believes the gender equality and diversity issue is still present, she says it is something that usually can be drilled down to an individual’s performance and attitude. “It still needs to be about the best person for the job at the end of the day,” she comments.

In the precast manufacturing space, Ms. Bachmann says that not unlike other industries, it is usually the larger corporates that have the man – or woman – power to focus on issues such as gender diversity. The same applies to the construction industry.

“The broader industry stakeholders are more of a mix. Architects and engineers tend to be more balanced in their gender representation, but we still aren’t there yet.

“Women in the precast area are few and far between, so it does remain a very male-dominated industry,” she says. “With the smaller companies, the most involvement we see from women is usually in administration or finance roles; only very occasionally are they in either management or more hands-on factory-based roles.”

In exploring why there aren’t more women in these positions, Ms. Bachmann points to the lack of female role models and the nature of the work as possible reasons.

She says views in the Australian civil sector are changing, albeit slowly.

A major issue in this complex conversation, she explains, is about making decisions for the right reasons.

“I’ve always viewed role selection as being about the best person for the job, not about their gender – you can’t push the agenda for the sake of gender equality.”

She says in some cases the regular workforce may feel overlooked as a result, or even the person who is put up for the position may feel like they’re in the spotlight, and not necessarily in a positive way.

All in all, she says it’s a complex situation and topic of discussion in the industry today.

While the civil sector may be seen to be fighting an uphill battle in gender diversity in some aspects, like Ms. Stoddart and Mr. Kirkwood, Ms. Bachmann says there is enormous potential to improve gender representation in Australia’s broader manufacturing, engineering and construction industries by showing young women at school and university that there is a bright future in the industry for them.

“For organisation’s trying to increase their female representation the key is to start at an early level to try and attract women at an earlier age,” she says.

“Initially, it’s about promoting available opportunities and providing role models. Then, once a higher participation rate is achieved, women need to be given equal opportunity and supported so they can succeed.”

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