Reaping the rewards of a diverse workforce

How two engineering employers are addressing their gender imbalance and reaping the rewards

Caption: A group of women engineers from Transport Scotland celebrate INWED18. (Image: WES)

Latest figures from Engineering UK’s 2018 report on the state of engineering show only around 12% of the UK’s engineering workforce is female. The report also acknowledges that employers have a significant role to play in promoting equality and diversity, a view shared by Elizabeth Donnelly, CEO of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES).

Getting it right

Two companies which prove that businesses large and small can get things right are global infrastructure services firm, AECOM and small UK family business, G&B Electronics. Both have created a working culture which is inclusive and diverse and benefits not just women but men too.

In 2018, nearly half of AECOM’s UK and Ireland graduate intake was female and its latest diversity figures show that 31% of the company’s workforce in the UK and Ireland is female, with 13% in leadership roles, well above industry average. Its Freedom to Grow programme, launched last year, offers a whole new way of working and the company runs female mentoring and returners programmes to ensure that it retains women at all levels.

Eloise John is a regional director for Water, Ports & Power, UK and Ireland at AECOM and, along with other employees, is key to the support the company offers women. “I’m specifically involved as a mentor for mCircles, a scheme which connects women across our business so they can learn from and support each other,” she said. “I am also a sponsor for the Returners programme, designed to help both men and women returning to work after a career break of two years or more.”

John is also responsible, along with others, for ensuring the Freedom to Grow programme works as it should. “It recognises the need for employees to balance their work with other commitments.” Supporting the programme is a range of standard contracts covering different working hours, such as term-time only working. Parental leave is the same across AECOM for both mothers and fathers and includes the same pay policy. “Ultimately, we are creating a culture which allows all employees to explore the working patterns that suit them best and forge ahead with their careers, whatever their circumstances. As a result, employees are loyal and motivated.”

Driving a new culture

Driving a flexible and inclusive culture is something Laura McBrown has been doing with her small family business for the last three years. She’s managing director of a small electronics engineering company, G & B Electronics in Hampshire, which has around 50 employees. The three directors of the company are female and McBrown is very proud of the fact that her leadership team is 50:50 men and women as is her entire workforce.

“We’ve spent the last three years trying to change the culture,” said McBrown, “and it’s been a challenge to get the right processes, people and training in place and to get people to think differently, but now we’re really seeing the benefits and have structures in place which will help us move forward.”

Moving forward, retaining that 50:50 gender balance and the culture that has been so carefully created is no mean feat, “We try to nurture the people we have, training them and promoting from within,” said McBrown, “but we also make sure that new recruits have those all-important soft skills as well as engineering skills. We need to know they’ll fit in as part of the team.”

The flexibility factor

Flexibility has been a big factor in G&B’s success with equality and diversity. “We’ve found it’s essential to have a flexible approach to working hours and it has made a big difference. We make sure we’re doing the same for men and women and offer paternity leave as well as maternity leave and flexible working hours for anyone who has children or other caring responsibilities. It’s the way we keep good people – we support them and they stick with us.”

Women usually have a more diverse set of experiences but they’re also more honest if they don’t understand things

She finds that the benefits of having a more diverse workforce and a supportive culture come in unexpected ways. “It’s in the quality of questions and conversations when the team is trying to problem-solve. People feel more comfortable speaking up and they ask more searching questions so there’s a better quality of discussion. I think that’s partly because women usually have a more diverse set of experiences but they’re also more honest if they don’t understand things, especially if it’s new to them. They’ll always ask and that seems to free up the men to ask questions they might not otherwise have asked.”

McBrown is only too aware that her company’s gender balance and culture is a rare thing in the world of engineering. She admits it hasn’t been an easy task but would like to see every company working to achieve similar goals. “It takes time and effort, but changing the culture is possible and ultimately it leads to success for the company because employees are more engaged, loyal and motivated. Customers see that too when they visit the company, they notice that our employees care about what they’re doing and I’m very proud of that.”