Not so long ago, I was on site preparing for strengthening works on a converted Victorian house when the contractors started making jokes and trying to get into the photos I was taking.
Pretty soon the jokes became derogatory comments that I couldn’t ignore. As a woman I am used to this sort of behaviour, but it made me feel uneasy. This led me to reflect on the how women are still treated in the workplace/on site, what measures could be introduced to prevent discriminatory behaviour such as that noted above and what support employers have in place to make sure that we are creating a safe place to work.
I’m a Chartered Engineer with 25 years in the construction industry and with my own small but fast-growing consultancy in Bristol. I realised that I could either do something to make sure that I and my employees don’t find themselves in a similar situation or ignore the incident, as we are often pressured to do, and turn my attention to my work within the rest of my practice.
I decided to talk to my client, without any real expectations of him to being able to do anything about this specific incident. However, I wanted to make him aware of what happened so that he could take appropriate steps to make sure that the behaviour doesn’t continue.
His reaction was all I needed to know: he was dismissive. I was in the wrong industry if I couldn’t take it, he told me. My discomfort turned to anger. Knowing that I needed to remain professional I finished the job before explaining to the client politely and firmly why we would not be working together again. I understand that I am lucky to be in the position where I can make such decisions about who we work with, as this is not something that most employees are able to do and will consequently often find themselves working in an environment in which they are not fully comfortable.
Talking about my experience made me quickly realise that I wasn’t on my own, jokes are usual on site and to a degree are also targeted towards male engineers.
All of which is damaging to our confidence, enthusiasm and desire to work within the industry. It is explicitly clear that if the workforce of any industry is made more diverse, then there is a direct, consequential fall in discriminatory behaviour (including age, sexual orientation, gender, relationship status, mental and physical difference, educational background, race, nationality, religion, etc). Additionally, numerous studies have shown that a more diverse workforce increases productivity, enables faster problem solving and creativity – by diversifying the perspectives brought to tasks – and enhances relationships with clients. Diversification and inclusivity enable people to engage in conversations, to adapt our ways of working so that everyone has the opportunity to challenge the status quo and to own and improve the environment that we are working in. By reducing the discriminatory behaviour of individuals in one place (eg in the design office or on site) there will be a consequential and automatic reduction in discriminatory behaviour by those individuals in other areas of their professional and personal lives.
Here are some ideas we have tried at RISE Structures to see if we can make a difference.
Miss, Mrs and Ms and personal pronouns
Where I come from (Europe), this is now prohibited: your marital status should not be given in any form. We agree with that, so we have stopped using these titles. When new employees are starting, our office manager asks them the name and personal pronoun they want us to use and they are then introduced using their preferences. We do not assume based on the person’s appearance or demeanor. This encourages the employee to feel comfortable being themselves in the workplace and reduces the potential for awkwardness or offense amongst colleagues.
We tend to use “we” to show that we collaborate as a team. When we use “we”, everyone has responsibility. With “they, he or she”, the team is divided. We are all part of the same business. Therefore, as far as our clients are concerned, every part of the business is responsible collectively for the decisions each of us make.
Make diversity part of hiring
We make sure we hire from different recruitment pools in order to get varied candidates. At first, we frequently used LinkedIn but that meant we ended up hiring people who were a lot like our current employees. So now we use it along with other means such as recruiters, local universities, websites and our internal contacts.
Subconscious bias can enter into the hiring selection process. One way to mitigate this is to remove name and gender from CVs before they are reviewed.
Educate employees – including managers
Understanding diversity is not just for employees – managers must also understand what it means to be diverse, the benefits it brings and how diversity can be introduced or enhanced. It should not be assumed that any employee, regardless of their position in the hierarchy, has a full grasp of diversity and its implications. And always remember that diversity initiatives should be led by those at the very top of any organisation and those top executives should be seen to be personally supporting the diversity drive.
It is vital that managers and executives recognise that there is a diversity problem and do not simply ignore the issue in favour of the status quo through their own insensitivity or fear of causing disruption and conflict.
Courses on diversity, subconscious bias and cultural/ sensitivity training can help raise awareness and understanding. It may be necessary to repeat these courses for new employees and so that the understanding remains current and relevant for all.
Respect cultural diversity
Diversity is not limited to gender. Respecting cultural diversity – whether nationality, region, language or religion – is just as important and requires active promotion to ensure it is taken on board. This can be demonstrated by permitting employees to take time off for religious or other cultural festivals and traditions that may not be officially observed in your country. Those who do not have the same first language as the people of the country in which they work can be assisted by offering training courses, translation apps and other support.
Employees will feel more comfortable when non-discriminatory language is used. This is not simply the avoidance of explicitly derogatory terms, but a willingness to use, for instance, non-gendered pronouns or change the traditional ‘chairman’ to ‘chair'.
Visual communications should also reflect the diversity of your organisation. This will improve relations with staff and clients who will see posters, slides, social media, brochures and other visual aids that represent who you are rather than imagery that does not.
Word selection can be vital in ensuring that, for instance, vacancies are written to appeal to all genders. There is agentic and communal language and behaviour: agentic means to be confident and decisive; communal means to be helpful and caring. Society still perceives men as more agentic and women as more communal.
To encourage engagement from all genders, try to have a balance in the use of these words in company emails, promotional material, job adverts, etc to ensure that one gender or another is not excluded.
The gender pay gap
The construction industry has one of the highest gender pay gaps of any industry. It starts at graduate level and by the time it reaches director level it is as high as 25% for salaries and 160% for bonuses. At RISE, we use a salary scale related to an engineer’s experience, which means that sometimes we need to tell people they are not asking for enough. Yes, it does happen! The leaders of the business, supported by the managers, should recognise the harm that can be caused when an employee is paid at a lower rate than their colleagues. Even if they don’t know it.
Our office manager is the contact point for any grievances. We have found that it works better to have this person do this role rather than the managers. It means employees can speak freely and in confidence. They can discuss what has happened, what support they need and what we can do to avoid the situation occurring again. When an employee has a grievance, it will be emotionally charged. Therefore, it is important to disassociate the emotions with the grievance. Here, we aim to create a safe and private place to deal with these emotions while we are openly and publicly changing our processes so we resolve the issue.
We help people to work remotely, and we can be flexible about working hours to enable our employees to have an effective work-life balance. Employees take ownership of their calendars. That means we know in advance everyone’s working hours, their meetings (in and out of the office) and their time in the office. All online meetings have an office background, so employees do not have to worry about that their bookshelves look like.
We are in the process of undertaking staff shadowing so that we can understand more about each other’s roles. With larger companies that could be done by staff assignments or secondees in different international /regional offices which will also help in understanding each other’s cultures.
Actually do it
There is no point in enacting diversity policies if they are then locked in a cupboard or saved on a server and forgotten. To improve the situation we need to take proactive, concerted action – and the first step is to keep our own promises. Develop diversity practices, with the input of your employees, and ensure these policies are adhered to for all employees at all times.
There is a better way
These are the processes we put in place so that it doesn’t matter where we work from, where we live, or where we are in our career. And it means we can talk openly and offer each other support.
Emotions always come into it. So, it is critical to welcome feedback no matter how it comes, and deal with the emotions in a supportive way while being able to quickly change the way we work.
The more we talk about discrimination while encouraging diversity, the more we can do to change the status quo which will then lead to a greater understanding on both issues.
I, for one, am looking forward to how we can grow as individuals, as an industry – and as a society.
Who to contact if you have been affected by the issues raised in this article
Report it: If you’re experiencing negative issues to do with EDI in the workplace, report the matter to your line manager and if you have one, the HR team too – in writing and verbally. If it’s with a contractor or supplier, report it to a manager so that it is on the record to be remedied.
Stress and mental health: If the issues are causing stress, then online or phone services can help, such as MIND or Support Line.
Training and development: These are essential to help people understand EDI. There are organisations that can help including the CIPD – their factsheet helps explain EDI, and is good for sharing with colleagues.
Our Code of Conduct: Our Code of Conduct makes it clear the standards expected of a member. Our guidance notes contain a specific section on EDI – point 9 where we say “Members should be aware of and have a commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the performance of their professional duties. In doing so, members will engender a positive and supportive culture, free of bullying, harassment, victimisation and unlawful discrimination and where respect for all colleagues and clients is upheld.”