The Male Champions of Change program to reverse gender inequality is bearing fruit in the built environment.
Among the wins are: jobs structured around school terms announced by global engineering giant AECOM; “shared care” arrangements where the partner of a staff member is paid to stay home and look after kids for three months, regardless of who they work for, announced by Aurecon; and fully flexible work arrangements for all, from Arup.
Notice something in common with these pronouncements? They are all by companies in the engineering field.
According to Consult Australia’s chief executive Megan Motto, work underway since 2012 has led to these achievements and more.
A report released on Wednesday, The Consult Australia Male Champions of Change Group Progress Report 2017, provided details of some dramatic changes in workplace flexibility for leaders in the industry, with case studies attached.
Consult Australia’s Male Champions of Change group chair Peter Bailey, Arup chair and CEO – Australasia Region, says: “As engineers, architects and planners we excel at connecting communities through road and rail, yet have struggled to connect fairly and equally with each other.”
Megan Motto told The Fifth Estate ahead of the report’s release that the issue had come in for serious attention from her organisation.
“We’ve had a long debate on how to get more women into the profession and for the first time firms are focused on fixing the structure of the organisation rather than fixing the women,” Motto says.
“If we had only a pipeline problem the issue would fix itself,” she says, referring to the 54 per cent of women graduating from engineering degrees. The reality is that the numbers soon drop sharply away.
The big question is why?
Clearly there is a structural problem, Motto says.
“For the first time the Male Champions of Change have started to unpick those structural barriers.”
They’ve ceased saying, “If only women were more confident or if only they were more ambitious,” – in other words, blaming women for the problem rather than examining systemic issues.
Motto says it’s true women leave businesses when they reach their childbearing years, but according to ABS data about 78 per cent end up back in full-time employment – but not with the same companies.
So the message, Motto says, is, “They’re coming back to work but they’re not coming back to work for you.”
The answer is to make the organisational structure more attractive to women in their career.
“All those things come into play. We’re getting better at it.
“The challenge is that we’re coming from a fair way behind because the building and construction industry has been so heavily dominated by men for so long.”
Some of the initiatives can be “really disruptive”, Motto says.
“It can mean a big change for organisations, though if their proportion of women on staff is say at 12 per cent and they want 30 per cent, they need to recruit twice the numbers.”
We’ve made some progress in the last 12 months but it took a lot to unpack the basics.”
Now it’s the leadership at the bigger end of town that’s started to disrupt the status quo.
“They’re treating it as a business change imperative, right from the board level.”
The success is in contrast to reported slow progress in other industry sectors in the built environment, such as property.
Wider industry programs with the Male Champions of Change have also reported frustration and impatience with an article last year in The Australian Financial Review detailing the backlash against women getting promoted.
Motto doesn’t know if the property sector is slower to change. “The culture is different …” But she says “engineers are more solutions driven”.
Property Council says it’s acting
Property Council chief executive Ken Morrison told The Fifth Estate there was hard work under way through its Male Champions of Change and myriad committees and working groups to reverse issues such as salary discrepancies.
And he says the PCA is setting the standard, raising the proportion of women in its vast network of committees, numbering 1600 people, from 22 per cent three years ago to 43 per cent now.
Motto says the engineers have probably been working at the issue for longer than the property industry, since 2012, initially under the influence of former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, and then with the support of social change advisor Coleen MacKinnon.
“And we took the time to sit and learn world’s best practice.” She cites Australian, Canada-based MacKinnon and former Deloitte CEO and now Global CEO of Aurecon Giam Swiegers as major inspirations.
The Aurecon experience
Aurecon ANZ managing director William Cox underscored Motto’s sense that engineers are both more solutions driven and also acutely aware that they are facing big drivers for change.
“These are issues that people have talked about for a long time, Cox says.
“It’s male dominated and is imbalanced, so we have to intervene to make the change because we know from a business outcome that more diverse teams help to generate better outcomes.”
It’s also important that when the industry creates assets that can be “used by the society we serve that we have a team that looks and feels like the communities we work in. In the engineering sector that’s not the case.”
Diversity and inclusion is also a chance to attract a “better mix of people”, Cox says.
“To do that we have to introduce flexible working and a shared care sponsorship program that can make it easier to attract people from diverse background, whether gender or culture.”
“And to do it in a way to make it easier to for people to come here and stay.”
Part of strategy is to “reposition around growth and to raise the brand and organisation at Aurecon and to raise the profile of engineers in terms of what we create.”
Cox says engineering has an “incredible impact on society at a broader level and this is an important part of us being able to bring a more diverse talented group of people to the team.”
Cox said flexibility in the workplace was important not just for childcare but also for elderly parents or any other commitment staff might have.
He says it is also important for senior and middle managers to show that they use the flexibility arrangements to encourage more junior staff to do so.
Being at the desk from 8.30am to 9pm is no longer essential to demonstrate commitment, not with the technology available to allow staff to work around “the things they want to do in their lives”.
A typical working week, he says, is between 40-45 hours a week. The company recently passed the 30 per cent female staff level, up from 26 per cent a year ago and with a target of 40 per cent by 2020.
“Five years ago it would have been 20 per cent.”
There is starting to be a fundamental shift in the male dominated culture, he says.
“We’re challenging ourselves with solid policies and making sure we have diverse selection groups.”
Was there any pushback on positive discrimination from men?
“You get some off-hand comments, in pockets, but overwhelmingly the culture is supportive of the change and the feedback is very encouraging that people are seeing the benefits both in terms of business outcomes but also in terms of the culture of the organisation.
“It’s important to note that we’re developing and promoting strong performing people; you can’t argue it’s not done on merit.”
Besides, he says, engineers are very rational analytical people and they can see the benefits.
He believes it’s a similar story with other companies in the industry.
Does he think his company is leading the field in this?
“I’m not bold enough to say we are out in front and given the nature of where we all are in the consulting industry, we’re all putting in place programs like we’ve done to help to broaden and diversify the workforce.”
But, given the “fragility” of the workforce this is something that can “slip back, despite best effort,” he says.
Industry wide, he says, there is enormous collaboration.
The profession overall might be fiercely competitive on every other front but not on this. On gender equity, it’s “very collegiate, not a competitive atmosphere, which is good because everyone recognised we’re making progress and we’re all at different levels of maturity in it but we all know we still have our challenges.
“Certainly a challenge for us and the other organisations. We’ve got to continue to work hard and challenge ourselves.”
See the full outline of commitments from The Consult Australia Male Champions of Change Consult Australia Group Progress Report 2017