Is the engineering and construction industry wasting time and energy tackling diversity? Without first addressing problems of inclusion, are diversity initiatives a waste of effort? To address the increasingly complex challenges facing society whilst delivering government’s plans for major infrastructure development, the industry needs to attract and include people from diverse backgrounds. We need diversity of outlook, values, experience and behaviours.
Much is being said by all the political parties on the subject of how much they will be spending on infrastructure, ranging from £20 billion to £50 billion over the next five years. To attract enough high calibre workers to deliver the Government’s plans for major infrastructure development, the industry must engage with the entire available talent pool. We can’t afford to not be able to attract a huge proportion of the potential workforce because they are from different ethnic minority groups.
Many would argue that people from ethnic minority groups are being attracted to the industry and point to the great work being done on diversity. However, once people from different ethnic minority groups have joined the industry, do they get their voices heard? Are their contributions recognised and valued? Are they able to progress their careers through to senior management? Are people from ethnic minorities truly being included?
A quick answer to all these questions can be found in the diversity statistics at board level. When you take a quick look at the makeup of the board and executive management teams in the Top 20 UK based construction companies, there is a noticeable absence of the sort of ethnic diversity we see in society as a whole. Unfortunately, engineering and construction is not alone. A ‘Report into the Ethnic Diversity of UK Boards’ carried out by Ernst & Young in association with Linklaters in 2017, found that UK citizen directors of colour represent only about 2% of the total director population (compared to 14% of the UK population).
If people from diverse ethnic backgrounds are not rising to board level in the same proportions as in our wider society then, clearly, we have a problem of inclusion. Rather than the executive boards in engineering and construction companies being models of inclusivity, they appear to be models of exclusivity. We often see the same people, in the top jobs, rotating around the different companies. It’s like an executive merry-go-round which doesn’t stop for long enough to allow new and diverse talent to jump aboard. Rather to looking to see who is on the merry-go-round, companies would benefit from improving how they identify, develop and include their own talent.
In our society today we are facing huge challenges of sustainability and the adoption of digitalisation. The engineering and construction industry is at the forefront of addressing these challenges. As our society becomes increasing volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), so too our industry. To address the challenges of the VUCA world we need to be able to lever our collective intelligence. To innovate, leaders need to listen, note, challenge and take on the best ideas from all their staff. We need to be able to draw on a diverse range of thinking. We need diversity of outlook, values, experience and behaviours. We need the diversity gained through including people from diverse backgrounds. At a senior level, the industry needs to become more accountable for diversity. To gain greater executive diversity, engineering and construction companies need to broaden their selection processes for promotion by removing any conscious and/or even unconscious discrimination. This discrimination includes practices, conscious or unconscious, which undermine inclusion at all levels in the organisation. To gain the promotion and development, which lead to senior management positions, people’s voices need to be heard and the contributions recognised and valued at all stages of their careers.
The business case for greater diversity and inclusion in senior management is undeniable. Research carried out by the consultancy McKinsey & Company in 2017, drawing on data from over 1,000 companies in 12 countries, found that the companies in the top quartile for executive ethnic diversity were 33% more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.
Unless young people from minority ethnic backgrounds can see they have a potential career path to the very top, they will choose another route and a different work place. As an industry, we need to allow anyone with the appropriate skill to rise through the management ranks and be able to fill the board rooms and senior executive positions. When people from ethnic minority groups play a prominent part in the corporate world, they are seen as role models to the next generation. Having more diverse executive teams will enable the industry to attract, develop and retain the best people from the entire available talent pool.
Eleftherios (Lefty) Panayiotou
Director | Management Consultant
3rd December 2019