Modernise and inspire: diversity, recruitment and profitability
I’ve long been an advocate for promoting women in the construction industry. In one way or another, I’ve mentored schoolgirls, female undergraduates and young women professionals all of my working life.
But of course supporting women is just a part of the much larger campaign for equality, diversity and inclusion. Race, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, cultural or socio-economic background – they’re all equally important facets vulnerable to the biases that threaten our fair treatment in life.
Making the workplace attractive to everyone blends into the whole question of wellbeing and maintaining a healthy work-life balance, too. At a time when we are facing extreme labour and skills shortages, and companies have to compete hard for the best talent, there could hardly be a more important topic for the construction industry.
At a recent school reunion I bumped into my old careers adviser who had encouraged me to give the construction industry a try. I will always be grateful, and gave him a big hug to prove it. His advice had indeed been inspirational, but looking back I realize that he had been out of touch. He hadn’t been able to give me a full picture of the routes in or the wealth of opportunity open to me, or, indeed, of the highly pressurized, long-hours work culture that characterizes our sector.
I didn’t want to go down the ‘A’ level route to becoming an architect and had to work out the BTEC path by myself. I was fortunate – I had access to people in the business to steer me through – my dad and uncle. Not everyone is so lucky, and today’s school careers advisers are probably even more out of touch and poorly resourced than they were back then. That begs the question, “How will we recruit the construction workers of the future?”
The answer has to include appealing to women, and that means adjusting the more insidious aspects of the work culture that keeps women away, blocks their promotion or, worse, drives them away after they’ve qualified.
While I was still trying to complete my professional qualification, my employer Stride Treglown, whom I happily still work for, would sometimes ask me to go into schools to talk about architecture. Of course I was aware that this was because I was that comparatively rare thing – a woman architect – but mostly I thought it was just because I was had qualified by an unusual route. Sure, I’d been the only girl in my BTEC class but it didn’t strike me as worthy of note.
It was only later as I became more senior and extended my network through Women in Property (WiP) that that changed. By talking to my peers, many of whom had encountered uncomfortable moments where being female was the issue, I grew increasingly aware of the important professional and political need to look more closely at gender inequality.
WIP is undoubtedly fun and good for networking, but it is also part of an influential grass roots movement for gender equality in the workplace. This is especially relevant in the professions where the leadership was and, although things are changing, still is almost uniformly white, male, and of a certain age and background.
There is nothing wrong with people who meet that description, of course. Issues arise though when you realise that their point view is by definition narrow and blinkered. Consciously or otherwise, the collective impact of their decisions end up discriminating against or plain excluding different kinds of people from having a say.
Put like that, you can see how big a mistake it is. Having only one kind of person making decisions must mean that they regularly miss the mark, to the detriment of their staff and clients. This is especially insidious in a design discipline like architecture, where the decisions affect the whole of society. And sure enough, there is plenty of evidence, famously from a report by McKinsey & Company published in 2015, to show a positive correlation between more diversity in senior management and increased profitability.
I eventually became the Chair of the South West branch of WIP at the height of the #metoo campaign, when I addressed the Constructing Excellence conference on the issue of gender diversity. I also oversaw the Building a Better Workforce survey , exploring best practice in human resources management.
Just as gender equality, diversity and inclusion converges with the industry’s impending labour crisis, so it cannot be separated from issues of wellbeing in the workplace. The Gender Pay Gap reporting requirement was a wake-up call for us in Stride Treglown. Our first median score was a middling 28.7 %, and we knew we had to do better.
Since then, we’ve set up a diversity and inclusion group and written a strategy aligned to the Bristol Equality Charter to direct every aspect of our working practices. What’s interesting is how it benefits all staff, not just the minorities. Our recruitment interview panels have diverse representation, making sure our prejudices don’t blind us to talent. We are exploring anonymizing applications to avoid unconscious bias. We’ve adopted shared parental leave. Wanting our staff to be best they can be, we’ve instituted agile working and flexi-time. We’re exploring job-sharing to allow talented women architects, for example, to continue their career even when they want to spend time with their children.
Although slow going and nowhere near complete, it’s working: our latest Gender Pay Gap median score was 23.4 %. The job facing all of us now is to keep the momentum up. We need to make the workplace more equal, diverse and inclusive, banishing the industry’s brutal work culture. Apart from being morally good, this will unleash improved business performance, higher profits, and better staff recruitment and retention.
It’s not enough, though. All of us in the industry – men as well as women – also need to go out proactively into our schools and communities to inspire a new generation to join up. I’ve mentored and tried to role-model all my working life through membership groups like WiP, BCO, and the CITB. This is how I inspire and recruit. Will you join me?
Rachel Bell is a divisional director architect at Stride Treglown. You’ll often see Rachel who is a visible role model in the industry at both regional and national construction events which has taken her down an alternative path into the world of Business Development. She was nominated as one of 30 UK Construction Week role models in 2018/19 and was a finalist in the European Women in Construction and Engineering awards for mentoring in 2018 and Business Development in 2019 (results due on 21st May). As well as being nominated as the SW Property Personality of the year in October last year.
Stride Treglown is an employee-owned architectural practice. Over 300 people are based within a mixture of creative, expertise, innovative and service led studios, across 9 UK offices. We promote a new form of architecture. One that isn’t driven by ego. Instead, we focus on the needs of our clients and the people that use our projects, making spaces and places that people love to use for generations to come.
People are at the heart of everything we do. That’s why we take wellbeing so seriously. In 2015 we became the first UK organisation to achieve ‘Excellence’ in all 8 categories of the Workplace Wellbeing Charter, an initiative recognising business commitment to the health and wellbeing of their staff.