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International Women’s Day: Challenging gender bias in engineering

8th March marks International Women’s Day, an annual celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. This year’s theme is “choose to challenge”, which hopes to encourage everyone to confront gender bias and take action for equality.

Recent research by the Royal Statistical Society found that there is still a “massive gender bias” in the UK workforce. Out of 108 economic sectors, 87 percent were found to favour men.

Women remain underrepresented in senior management roles. One of the driving factors behind this inequality is that women are routinely overlooked for recruitment and promotion opportunities. Reasons range from fewer women applying for top jobs to employers being more reluctant to hire women after they have children.

Gender disparity is an even bigger issue in engineering. Only 12% of all engineers in the UK are women. Drill down into building services and that number becomes even smaller, with women accounting for just 4.4 percent of all tradespeople (though that figure has roughly doubled in the past 10 years).

International Women’s Day: Integral employees choosing to challenge gender bias in engineering

The diversity challenge

Mark Kirby, head of private sector contracts for Integral, sums up the challenge succinctly. “We are a long-standing engineering business, so the majority of people who work for us are engineers,” he explains. “And like every engineering business, most people who choose engineering as a career path are men.”

The journey to challenge that dynamic has exposed some of those deep-seated biases. Laura Roxburgh, HR Director at Integral, remembers occasions in the past when male engineers were uncertain about female apprentices being in their vans. “It’s impossible to ignore that this mentality is still an issue in our industry,” she says.

For Lucie McPheat, a learning and development advisor for Integral, coming into Integral didn’t throw any real surprises. Almost 12 years ago, she had joined Heathrow Airport and had spent some time in its engineering division, which was another heavily male environment.

But Sonia Sotoudeh, talent acquisition lead at Integral, did get a bit of a culture shock when she joined the business three years ago. She had moved from a public sector organisation that felt diverse and where a lot of the leaders were women. “I didn’t know what I’d got myself into,” she says. “I felt that I had to work on my relationships with managers to grow that rapport and that respect.”

Creating change

Integral has set various targets to become a more diverse and inclusive employer. This year, the business aims to employ at least 30 percent of all new recruits from diverse backgrounds and 30 percent of all promotions into middle and senior management positions from diverse backgrounds, including gender and ethnicity.

Some of that work is already paying off. Kirby says that his private sector business, which is worth around £100m, had no female managers prior to 2020. Today, the share of women in management roles has risen to 25 percent.

Two women within the business that have worked their way up to performance management positions are Kelly Flack and Natasha Bill. But both began their time at Integral on the helpdesk, a role that didn’t always lead to management opportunities. “Previously, if you had a helpdesk background, contract management wasn’t seen as a legitimate pathway. You had to be an engineer, or you had to have a technical background,” Flack says. “So, it was quite difficult for people like myself and Natasha to progress into a management role.”

One of the factors behind this change was Integral’s decision to split management into two strands: contract delivery, a technical role, and service delivery, a more customer-facing role. “The business realised that the delivery managers need to be people persons with a customer service background,” Bill says. “That’s given more women within Integral the opportunity to progress.”

It’s a lesson that the business has carried over to recruitment too. Sotoudeh says that her team have begun to expand their search for talent beyond the traditional areas. They’re no longer just looking at competitors or for people with extensive engineering backgrounds. In one recent case, she was headhunting for a senior sales position and the manager wanted someone with at least five years’ experience. But Sotoudeh found someone with an advertising background, who also met the diversity criteria, and the appointment has gone down a storm.

More diverse teams will make you a much better company. Our clients are becoming more diverse and they want different things – having people who reflect their organisational population involved in the delivery of their contract with us, ensures we can align and build better relationships.

Laura Roxburgh HR Director

Transforming the culture

McPheat has led the launch of diversity and inclusion (D&I) training to help the business and its teams understand this new approach. “It’s really easy to recruit people who are like you,” she says. “We need to educate people about bias and get them thinking differently.”

Integral has launched a behavioural training programme that’s mandatory for managers and open to all other staff. The company also runs what it calls a shadow board of non-management staff, with a 50/50 split between men and women, which meets monthly to tackle all sorts of issues including D&I.

Kirby says that the business also invites a group of women sponsors each month to review its processes and communications. The aim is to ensure that everything from training to job ads appeal to women. When Bill moved into her roles as performance and cost manager, she had played a part in ensuring that the job description wasn’t written with a male bias.

More work to do

Roxburgh believes that creating a business that’s more inclusive of women isn’t just the right thing to do. “More diverse teams will make you a much better company,” she says. “Our clients are becoming more diverse and they want different things – having people who reflect their organisational population involved in the delivery of their contract with us, ensures we can align and build better relationships. If we become an engineering company that is truly inclusive – which no one has achieved yet – that’s where we win. That’s our competitive advantage.”

Performance manager Flack notes that there is still lots of work to get to that point. “Because women coming into management roles is still quite new, there is still this vague culture of white middle-aged men,” she says. “The leaders in the business need to understand that they are now working with a different group of people and that requires a change in leadership style.”

Just as this year’s theme for International Women’s Day makes clear, it’s everyone’s job to challenge to collectively create a more inclusive world.

Read time: 5:45 min.

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