Striving for gender parity in engineering

Women at work

The dialogue around women in work hasn’t changed much over the last decade. Progress has been slow. Engineering in particular faces a number of challenges if it is to become more female-friendly. Not least of these challenges is a male-dominated talent pool and low numbers of female graduates.

In my time as a Chair of the Consult Australia Male Champions of Change, I’ve been lucky enough to explore the issue with my industry peers. While there is no hard and fast way to ensure more women enter and flourish in the field, we’ve documented a number of steps we can all take to build a more diverse industry.

When the Male Champions of Change came together, there was initially some hesitation about sharing experiences and data with competitors. This changed over time and we have come to view each other as a valuable resource in managing the challenges, identifying learnings and leading meaningful change. In doing so, we’ve brought the conversation to the fore across the industry’s major players.

The collaborative nature of the group has meant we now have a full grasp on the issue at an industry and organisational level, and have also started to test and develop ways to challenge the status quo of women in the workforce.

While we’re a long way from declaring victory, as a team, there is a sense of having achieved something by starting the process, which we believe will continue to have a positive impact on the industry.

 The topic of targets around women in the workplace is contentious, and many argue they are not a productive way to achieve real change. I disagree. While it is vital for a business to hire on merit, setting a target means the item is firmly on the agenda as your performance is regularly measured. It may seem like semantics but what gets measured, gets done.

A clear example of this is workplace safety ten to fifteen years ago; a lack of targets meant it was not a focus for management. Thanks to the implementation of behavioural expectations, processes and targets across the workforce, Australia now has one of the most sophisticated approaches to workplace safety in the Asia Pacific region.

While it is not the only action needed to effect change, setting targets ultimately places a level of accountability on management. This will increase organisational awareness and has the potential to help shift the industry.

In making parity a target, we give ourselves and our industry permission to commit to the cause. We can allocate time and funds to build a proper understanding of the challenges ahead and can start to define a path forward. We have seen this commitment from each of the 12 organisations represented by Consult Australia’s Male Champions of Change and a corresponding positive trend in female representation.

Inherent issues, such as unconscious bias in recruitment and promotions, are difficult to address if you don’t openly commit to active change. Before Arcadis committed to improving workplace diversity, we were missing opportunities to do so without even realising. Since then we have made investments that create a culture of inclusiveness at all levels in the business and allow our day-to-day operations to innately be more mindful of our female workforce.

It’s no secret that diverse teams deliver better outcomes. As a business, it makes sense to invest in ensuring women are represented within your workforce.

As mentioned, hiring on merit is vital for business but where we have seen an opportunity at Arcadis is in finding people with complimentary skillsets that can add value, but may not necessarily be in engineering. As consultants this not only expands the capability of our workforce but also builds diversity and improves business results.

It’s important to remember this is a challenge faced by a number of industries and we are all on a journey to combat it. While there is a strain on the talent pipeline in engineering and the number of women study engineering is stagnant, if we all continue to implement these steps we’ll create a better industry for everyone.