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Five ways to boost gender equality in engineering

Richard Chapman-Harris, head of inclusion and responsibility

International Women’s Day is one of the busiest dates in Mott MacDonald’s equality, diversity and inclusion calendar, but our efforts to drive gender equality are not limited to one day a year. Overcoming the continuing impacts of historical and current gender inequalities takes hard work. With this year’s theme of #BeBoldforChange, here are five ways engineering firms can bolster gender equality.

1. Face the facts

There’s no point providing more facts on the benefits of gender equality. There are plenty out there, and frankly, if you still don’t understand the business, economic and social cases for gender equality then you are either happy in your ignorance or won’t be convinced by the numbers due to some deep-seated blocker in your mind. In an age of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘broken statistics’, the important thing to remember is that greater gender balance in engineering will result in better infrastructure and a more profitable business. Fact.

2. Start earlier

Boys and girls are socialised into restricting gender roles before we may even realise. The British Social Attitudes survey shows that views on gender roles have changed but that children continue to be socialised in traditional, gender-stereotypical ways at primary and secondary schools. Colleagues who work with schools through the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) ‘People Like Me’ initiative or our ‘Class of Your Own’ programme notice that girls feel discouraged from studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) subjects. We need to engage earlier to tackle these limiting/harmful gender stereotypes and encourage girls into the profession

3. Tackle your unconscious bias

No woman is an island. We are all subject to the information we receive through the media, the people we surround ourselves with and the environment we grow up in. Our unconscious brain finds it easier to acquiesce to what we believe are ‘norms’. This can lead to knee-jerk reactions when we encounter difference. This especially impacts women in engineering and the wider construction industry as they are underrepresented and still viewed in some places as ‘counter-culture’, ie: their presence and increasing influence challenges the prevailing winds of masculine/male norms. In my unconscious bias training we use the acronym ‘BIAS’ to tackle the biases hidden in our brains:

- Be aware: Bias exists and everybody has it.
- Investigate: What are your biases? (The Implicit Association Test can help here).
- Act: Seek advice from a variety of perspectives, and change any biased behaviours.
- Share: What you learn will benefit others too.

4. Include everyone

The message of International Women’s Day has to be extended to everyone:

a) Gender equality – especially in our sector in the UK – doesn’t just apply to white women with a degree (especially an engineering one). We need to tackle racial bias and the ‘double-glazed’ glass ceiling experienced by black, Asian and minority ethnic women, women with a disability and those who identify as lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

b) Men need to be engaged too, as half the population will not change the whole alone. International Women’s Day is about more than debating ‘why we don’t have an International Men’s Day,’ (actually we do – it’s 19 November). It’s about spotlighting the injustice and inequality experienced by women in the workplace – our peers and colleagues – and all working together to make it stop.

5. Find out where there is a lack of diversity in your business and why

Supporting gender equality means asking often challenging questions about your business. Where are your women under or overrepresented? Are you getting a proportional representation of female candidates applying for your jobs? Are you seeing all-male shortlists? What talent pools are you missing out on? Why are there less women at senior levels? The argument that ‘in my day there was only one girl on my engineering course’ doesn’t hold weight anymore. as the talent pools are out there. Why do women leave and when do they leave? How can you tackle this? Looking at our own data trends, we noticed that we were losing a disproportionate number of women in our management pipeline. So we performed further statistical analysis, reviewed our exit interviews, carried out focus groups with our Advancing Gender network and engaged with senior managers and female role models to find out what we could do better. Based on this insight we now have over 150 women in our management pipeline attending a three-day career development programme, are embedding SMART working to drive flexible and agile ways of working, and are reviewing our policies to make them more family-friendly. These efforts support all our staff, improve business performance, and help us retain top talent.

With a tangible skills gap, and other sectors competing for talent, we need to work harder to attract and retain the best people in engineering. Our industry has started to make progress on gender inclusivity over the last decade, and today many women are forging happy and successful careers in engineering. Let’s use the occasion of International Women’s Day to make measurable and bold plans for change.

First published in Infrastructure Intelligence on 8 March 2017

Richard Chapman-Harris

head of inclusion and responsibility

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