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The future is female

Women in Engineering By Carole O'Neil, Managing Partner – 08 March 2018

Two women in the Cundall Birmingham office discussing a drawing on their table that is out of view


Carole in a coral top in front of a wooden panel wall

Carole O'Neil

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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. Having now published our Gender Pay Gap figures (as well as some more detailed commentary on issues relating to gender diversity within out business) for a number of years, we are starting to identify some trends, as well as seeing the impact of some of the work that we have done in this area.

It’s encouraging to note that our gender pay gap has narrowed in the period since we started reporting, and we are making progress with regard to improving female representation in more senior roles within our business. However, the data continues to point to a significant “retention gap” in our own business and the wider industry. 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 differential. However, the gender split changes rapidly the further up the career ladder we look, and women are still 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 go on, but it’s clear 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.

So, what are we doing about this? Our “Valuing Diversity” strategy sets out clear targets with regard to improving gender diversity within our business. We are making progress towards these, but we still have work to do! There is a really exciting body of work starting to emerge externally, and I’m privileged to be involved in a number of initiatives 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 remain involved with the “North East Women Leaders Advisory Board”. A mix of business people 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 supporting “next generation” talent from a diverse range of backgrounds, through sponsorship of bursary schemes with engineering institutions, and educational outreach work in schools. The establishment of our employee-led affinity networks (including our Gender and Inclusion Network, “GAIN”) is already proving valuable in challenging us to do better, and we are working in collaboration with this group to improve our approach to mentoring (both traditional- and “reverse” mentoring) to drive more rapid progress in this area.

Exciting times ahead!