Our company has a lot to be proud about. We have an employee engagement score of 80%. We are a Sunday Times ‘Best Company to Work For’ and we pride ourselves on our fair and inclusive employment practices. Yet still just one in five of our employees is female?

This is something that I thought long and hard about when I was asked to lead Willmott Dixon’s gender diversity work at the beginning of 2016.

Before we beat ourselves up too much, I should just add that our 21.4% figure is somewhat better than the industry average, and that improving gender diversity is particularly challenging in an industry considered by many to be unsuitable for women.

We know that poor gender diversity is a sector-wide issue and we are working with a number of organisations to address misconceptions and attract the next generation of young women – and men – into this fantastic industry.

Engaging with our people

But there’s more to improving gender diversity than recruitment. As an industry we need to get better at retaining, developing and promoting women.

Over the last couple of years, we have been looking at our business through a “gender lens”. We’ve carried out a huge company-wide engagement exercise, to try and understand the impact (good and bad) of our current workplace culture and practices. We’ve been raising awareness among our managers of the role that unconscious bias plays in everyone’s decision-making, we’ve challenged the way we’ve always done things and we’re making changes.

This is not box-ticking. And we’re not about to implement positive discrimination (something both men and women in our company feel very uncomfortable about – if you get a promotion, you need to know that you have earned it!).

How have our people responded? Well, interestingly, the old-school die-hards are nowhere near as numerous as the industry stereotype might suggest. We are finding that male and female employees alike are benefitting from, and appreciating, more modern, flexible working practices. Many are actively involved in helping to improve gender diversity: construction people are practical people who like nothing better than a problem to solve! So we are now seeing a range of initiatives springing up in our local offices, which are designed to attract more women in the industry – such as targeting careers events in girls’ schools and focusing work experience activities on young women.

Our people are motivated because they understand the ‘why’.

Skills shortage

Our industry faces a significant skills shortage – particularly in traditional construction roles. It makes sense to fish in as wide a pool of talent as possible and working practices which recognise that people have lives outside of work are giving us the edge when it comes to recruiting good people.

But it’s about more than just plugging the gaps. Our continued success is dependent on us embracing the diverse talents of people with a range of different life-experiences.

Our industry is changing. We are seeing exciting opportunities to develop and grow, through technologies like BIM, virtual reality and off-site manufacturing. With these opportunities come new roles – some we haven’t ever thought of – and a growing need for innovation. There is overwhelming evidence from across the globe that diverse teams are more agile, make better decisions and are better able to embrace change.

We know that we are only beginning our journey. Diversity is about much more than gender. It extends from protected characteristics (race, sexual orientation and disability, for example) all the way through to different thinking preferences. But our work on gender has started the conversation. It’s making us consciously competent. And it’s helping everyone to realise the benefits that difference can bring.

Julia Barrett is Director of Re-Thinking the Willmott Dixon Sustainability Team. A chemical engineer by background, she took the Green Leadership trophy at the 2017 Women in Construction awards. She is Chair of the Willmott Dixon Gender Diversity Steering Group.