Mar 8, 2018

The future is female

By Carole O’Neil

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we can improve gender diversity within our own business, and within the construction industry as a whole. Preparing our Gender Pay Gap figures (which we published recently, along with some commentary on gender diversity more generally) has helped us to examine what is really going on, and engage in some deep thinking about how we can do better.

It is clear to me that what appears in our data as a “gender pay gap” is actually a “retention gap”. We have been fortunate in recent years to have received large numbers of applications from talented women for entry-level roles within the business, and our demographic at this level is close to 50/50. By the same token, when we compare average male and female salaries for equivalent roles at all levels, we see no real difference. However, the gender split changes rapidly the further up the career ladder we look, and women are woefully under-represented at a senior level within the business. By the same token, a majority of our lower-paid administrative and support roles are filled by women. When I talk to my peers in other organisations, it seems that we are not alone – this seems to be a common problem.

An analysis of our exit interview data doesn’t shed much light on why we are failing to retain our female talent, nor do my informal discussions with my female colleagues. So, what to do? I started with a bit of soul-searching. As one of a small number of senior women within the business, what could I learn from my own experience? I’m fortunate, in that I don’t recall having experienced much (any?) overt or covert bias during my career journey, so why might this be?

I had the (arguably dubious) benefit of a single-sex education. Is there something about this model that encourages young women to aim high, without the added burden of constant comparison with their male counterparts? Similarly, I’ve chosen a professional discipline in HR in which women typically outnumber men, so I haven’t generally been competing with men for the same senior-level opportunities. I don’t have children, so I am spared the agonies of trying to balance the twin roles of “Mum” and “Professional”. I could continue but, in the interests of brevity, my analysis of my own experience led me to conclude that there is a complex mix of individual, organisational and societal factors at play, and that there are not likely to be any easy answers.

That said, we can’t do nothing, and we have to start somewhere. There is a really exciting body of work starting to emerge on this, and I’m privileged to be involved in a number of initiatives, within our own business and across the wider North-East business community, which aim to drive greater levels of aspiration and self-confidence amongst young women, whilst simultaneously ensuring that businesses are putting in place the right infrastructure to enable female talent to fulfil its potential. For instance, I’ve recently joined the “North East Women Leaders Advisory Board”. A mix of businesswomen and academics, this group is looking at what we can do to identify and nurture female leadership talent across industry sectors in the North East, with the aim of making the region an exemplar of good practice in this area. Within the business, we continue to devote significant time and effort to our “Inspiring the Next Generation” volunteering campaign, to encourage young people to consider STEM careers – a significant element of this work focuses on promoting STEM careers to young women. As part of our wider strategy on sustainability, our developing “Ethics, Equality and Fairness” working group is doing some deep work on diversity within the business and will soon be making some recommendations as to specific short, medium- and long term targets that we need to pursue in order to achieve our goal of building a more diverse, fair and inclusive workplace.

In the immediate future, I’m looking forward to our events to mark International Women’s Day and (in June) International Women in Engineering Day. This will include a “Boardroom of the Future” experiment, in which we will bring together a shadow board, with the opposite gender balance to our actual management board, evaluate how this changes the dynamic, and consider what we can learn from this. I think this is going to be a fascinating piece of work, and I am excited to report back on findings.


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Carole O'Neil, Inspiring the next generation, Women in Engineering


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