JOHN O’REGAN reports on a recent AECOM-hosted workshop on gender diversity in the Irish construction industry, and on AECOM’s own strategy approach to the issue.

young construction trainees on site

Gender diversity, inclusion and women in leadership are becoming increasingly important issues for many businesses. Most international businesses now have a specific diversity strategy to help them attract, develop and retain a diverse workforce.

Why is diversity important to these businesses?
Aside from the moral and social responsibilities that companies have, there are a number of business advantages to improving diversity. There is an increasing body of research, including the McKinsey and Company report ‘Diversity Matters’, which makes it clear that companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially.
Different backgrounds bring a variety of experiences, viewpoints, ideas and market insights to draw upon, contributing towards more innovative and creative solutions that can ultimately lead to superior financial performance. Innovation and the avoidance of ‘group think’ require diverse inputs to decision making.

So how do these issues apply to the Irish construction industry?
There is limited statistical analysis on gender diversity in the Irish construction sector, but it can be observed at any industry event that the proportion of female involvement is limited.
The problem starts with the number of women entering the industry. The number of female students choosing to pursue third-level education in construction-related subjects or trade training is still very small. Universities, schools and colleges have made efforts to encourage female students to choose science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. The professional institutes have also put some focus on women entering engineering- and construction-related fields. These efforts must continue and be supported by industry in order to address the longstanding deficit. The lack of female role models in the sector also has an inevitable impact.
In addition to the limited numbers of women entering the industry, there are also challenges in retaining female talent and in the extent to which women progress to leadership roles. The recent Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland (SCSI) Salary Survey indicated that the average salary of its female members was 13% lower than that of their male peers.

Tackling the issues in construction
While these issues are gaining attention in the business environment in general, the level of activity and interest in gender diversity in the construction industry in Ireland has been limited. The issues and challenges associated with gender diversity in construction were considered at a recent workshop in Dublin, hosted by AECOM. The workshop was attended by industry leaders and invited representatives from the various professional and contracting bodies.
The workshop included presentations by:
■ Claire Solon,Head of Property at Friends First and current President of the SCSI;
■ Nicola Gillen,workplace strategist, AECOM Director and Global Head of Strategy Plus; and,
■ Liz O’Donnell,columnist,diversity advocate and former Minister of State.

John O'Regan and Claire Solon (SCSI President) copy

SCSI President Claire Solon and John O’Regan at the recent gender diversity event.

The presentations were followed by round table discussion groups on areas including:
■hiring the best people for the job;
■ glass ceilings;
■ leading the way;
■ attracting females into male-dominated industries;
■ changing the face of the construction industry;
■ female leadership traits;
■ pay gap monitoring; and,
■ the role of mentoring programmes/role models.

There was a high level of engagement from the group in attendance. While a range of challenges were identified, the consensus was that initiatives including improved employment conditions and flexibility, and measured recruitment and promotion approaches, as well as mentoring, could be implemented in most organisations, which, over time, would have a real impact on the industry.

It is clear that there is no single action or series of actions that will change the industry overnight. However, it is equally clear that there are a series of simple actions that individuals and organisations can take that will, over time, help to influence gender diversity across the industry.

Strategy
A number of bodies, including the RICS, have published diversity strategy documents that provide a template for businesses looking to introduce initiatives that address diversity in the workplace.
In January 2016, AECOM published its five-year strategy for enabling diversity across its operations in Europe. The objectives of the policy are to:
■ create a culture that embraces flexibility and inclusiveness for all;
■ increase the gender diversity of its workforce and leadership teams; and,
■ become the industry leader in attracting,developing and managing a diverse workforce.

John O'Regan with Nicola Gillen, Liz Nolan and Claire Solon copy

Pictured at the recent gender diversity event were (from left): Nicola Gillen; Claire Solon; Liz O’Donnell; and, John O’Regan.

There are five pillars to the strategy. The first is combatting unconscious bias. We all hold unconscious biases that are developed from our upbringing and experiences. To avoid these biases influencing recruitment, promotion and remuneration processes, AECOM is raising awareness of unconscious bias through a training programme.
The second pillar is gender targets. Recognising that our industry is male dominated and that the starting position is one of imbalance, the target is for 20% of senior management and leadership in AECOM to be women by 2020.
External hiring is the third pillar. AECOM will always hire the best person for any role regardless of gender. The focus is on making AECOM an attractive place for women to work and ensuring that women are included at the key selection decision points. The company works hard to ensure that talented women are suitably represented on selection shortlists.
The fourth pillar is culture. Flexible working, promotion of work–life balance and benefits that support working parents are all elements that promote inclusivity. The final pillar is career development. It is recognised that women are sometimes hesitant in putting themselves forward.
The strategy includes a planned approach to career planning, mentoring, promotion of role models and succession planning.
Given the scale of the gender imbalance and the existing culture of the Irish construction industry, it can sometimes be hard for businesses to work out how best to tackle gender diversity or understand how individuals and single organisations can make a difference. It is clear that there is no single action or series of actions that will change the industry overnight. However, it is equally clear that there are a series of simple actions that individuals and organisations can take that will, over time, help to influence gender diversity across the industry.
The industry is, once again, in a position where skills shortages are having an impact, particularly in Dublin. In the battle for the best talent, organisations that can demonstrate they have a positive, fair and flexible working environment will be the winners.

JohnO'Regan

John O’Regan

Director: Head of Programme, Cost and Consultancy Services Ireland, AECOM.