Construction leaders need to be active allies to improve diversity
Anna Koukoullis shares her thoughts on how construction leaders can become better allies to improve diversity & inclusion
29 June 2020
Whilst Pride celebrations outside has been cancelled this year, the decision to move celebrations inside with a call for 30,000 acts of allyship is an empowering rally call to people and businesses around the world to step up and play a stronger role to tackle inequalities.
We participated at Pride in London last year as part of the wider 'Building Equality' campaign across construction. Sadly due to the pandemic, this year's event was understandably cancelled.
What is allyship?
The dictionary definition of Allyship is: the state or condition of being a supportive association with a person or group or specifically: with members of marginalised or mistreated groups.
Over the last few month’s, I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking deeply about the word allyship and how I can personally do more to be a stronger ally.
As I pondered on what the word ally meant to me, and why it so important, I was drawn back to a memory last year, when a student undertaking work experience with us at Willmott Dixon Interiors, took part in our annual LGBT+ awareness raising campaign.
The student was 17 years old and keen to take part in our Inclusivi-tea hot topic debate to discuss the barriers LGBT+ communities face in the workplace.
A dozen or so colleagues and I huddled in the break-out area in our London office. The student was quietly nodding along listening to the debates, when out of nowhere, in an act of courage (in front of many professionals she did not know) powerfully expressed what allyship meant to her:
“At school being gay is still a taboo, for me personally, when I see a business like this flying a pride flag it gives me hope, it shows me that you hear and support me, it visually demonstrates to me that you are my ally”
The comment has stayed with me. Allyship in its simplest term is the act of supporting others. Demonstrating allyship however, is having the courage to empower others to feel equally seen and heard.
Why is being an ally important in Construction?
Whilst the construction industry has changed considerably over the years, a 2018 survey conducted by Construction News reported over 50% of LGBT workers in construction still do not feel comfortable to be openly gay.
The construction industry has historically thrived on an alpha culture, where being bolshy and aggressive is glorified, whilst calm, vulnerable leadership is considered ‘weak’. The industry also suffers from a culture of inappropriate behaviour - which is often fobbed off as ‘banter’ - but in reality only serves to undermine and isolate.
Recently up to 59% of people surveyed, had heard the word ‘gay’ used as an insult in the workplace. It is simply not good enough. No one should come to work and feel scared to be themselves.
The construction industry has suffered skill shortages for years.
With an array of diverse customers, and diverse career pathways the construction industry is built to attract a diverse workforce. It will not however, attract, recruit or retain a diverse workforce until leaders across the industry become allies and make a stand to change toxic work cultures.
Our site teams, such as our team at the Metropolitan Police project do a great job to promote diversity and inclusion within the industry.
What can business leaders do to be better allies?
I thought long and hard about the insights I would share in this article. Below are my top 3 tips that I think all businesses can do to create cultural shifts to enable and empower their people to be allies.
1. The uncomfortable truth – when I first started to deliver Equality, Diversity and Inclusion workshops, I remember feeling dreadfully uncomfortable. I was genuinely concerned I might say something that would offend. I realised however, that this is extremely normal, and the only way to really make a change is to get uncomfortable. If we are to become better allies, we must first be willing to lean into the difficult facts. For some businesses this will be recognising they have a huge gap in female staff, for others it might be around inappropriate behaviour or toxic working cultures. The only way to change something is to be open to seeing the 'uncomfortable truth’ and in having the courage to lean into difficult conversations. At Willmott Dixon Interiors the rolling out of unconscious bias training has helped everyone in the business to start to think about the biases we all have, and how we as individuals can stay open and challenge that thinking. It has also helped us in our recruitment processes, to recognise our biases and challenge recruitment decisions. The first act of allyship is being conscious to our own biases, facing our own uncomfortable truths and having the leadership to think and act differently.
2. Culture, culture, culture – over the years I have had the chance to work with many talented colleagues to develop an array of awareness raising campaigns to help people to become aware of their unconscious biases and the barriers specific communities face (gender, LGBT+, race and religion, disability and social mobility). I realised however, that we need to go even deeper to embed diversity into everyday business practices. It wasn’t enough to have one off campaigns. We needed to create the right environment. Senior leads must have the courage to embed a culture of inclusivity into its everyday business practices. This includes defining the types of behaviours a business might expect from its people and developing working environments that support people’s diverse needs. Whilst we still have a way to go, at Willmott Dixon Interiors we have started to embed diverse thinking into our business through HBDI training, and aligned our behaviours, Courage, Open and Respect to our mission to deliver everything with pride. We also recognised the need to create a more inclusive working environment – physically- and in the way we operate through agile and flexible working practices. The second act of allyship is to develop a culture where diversity is embedded into everyday business.
3. Leadership – Last year I attended Pride for the first time. I was moved to see so many leaders walking side by side to demonstrate their support for friends and colleagues from LGBT+ communities. The visual demonstrations of allyship demonstrated active engagement. Active allyship is also demonstrated when leaders are willing to vocally stand up and tackle inequalities head on. I remember recently being inspired by a male colleague, who noticed a female colleague was spoken over during a meeting. The colleague had the courage to call it out, helping to ally with the individual and empower her with the chance to speak. This is the level of leadership we need. The third act of allyship is to actively challenge discrimination and demonstrate positive leadership and support.
Be a good human
If the business case is not enough to inspire you to become an ally, then current world affairs are a stark reminder of the work we need to do to make this world a better place
In the UK alone the impact of COVID-19 has laid bare a range of social inequalities, from rises in domestic abuse, higher deaths tolls for BAME communities, and concerns that there has been a regression in gender balance.
Overseas, civil unrest after the shocking and quite frankly disgusting murder of George Floyd has unleashed anger world-wide. Many communities have united in protests to raise awareness on the social injustices faced by black communities.
The world needs more allies.
This year's Pride campaign #YouMeUsWe campaign is an urgent call to every human being to reach out and understand one another to be better allies within our communities and tackle social injustices and inequalities.
Details on how to support Pride this year
For further details on ways you can get involved and be an ally click below:
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