Proven strategies to improve gender equity in Canada’s construction sector and today’s changing workplace

Nowadays, leaders are more interested in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) in the construction industry than ever before.

Photo by Mikael Blomkvist from Pexels

I started my career in Structural Engineering in the residential sector. While I was aware early on that engineering was a male-dominated profession, I had little preparation for the inequities I ultimately faced once I entered the workforce.

I was lucky to have a supportive community of mentors of all genders in my corner, but it wasn’t always sufficient to eliminate the gender biases and systemic barriers I was exposed to. For example, I once attended a coordination meeting with myself and the architect for a project where I was the lead Project Engineer. While I was conducting the meeting the lead architect entered the room and asked, “Why is there a landscape architect attending a structural coordination meeting?” That person had instantly assumed it wasn’t possible that I could be the structural engineer, and that I must be a professional from another specialty. They were incredibly apologetic once they realized their mistake, but it had shaken my confidence. This example may sound trivial, but it acted as a reminder that I didn’t fit the expectations of who a structural engineer was supposed to be. I faced many of these throughout my career.

The benefits of gender equity.

After the meeting, that person made a concerted effort to ensure my value was recognized. Around this time, I saw more, and more leaders asking important questions about Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) in the industry, and how they could implement more positive change. Today, through my work at The Thoughtful Co., I’m excited to see that leaders are more interested in EDI than ever. But what are the tangible benefits?

1. Improving Retention. Research shows that gender inclusive HR practices reduce levels of employee turnover (Catalyst), and turnover is an expensive and time-consuming problem. It can be approximately 50 to 200 per cent of an employees’ salary, including the cost of lost productivity, recruitment, and training (Gallup).

2. Building Engaged Workforces. More than 75 per cent of the workforce, regardless of gender, is signaling a willingness to walk away from employers that don’t have an EDI policy or fail to deal with gender-biased pay practices (Gallup). Additionally, experiences of inclusion explain 49 per cent of team problem solving. A 10 per cent increase in perceptions of inclusion improves absenteeism, adding nearly one day a year in work attendance per employee (Boston Consulting Group).

3. Increasing Profitability. Research shows that company profits and share price performance can be almost 50 per cent higher when women are well represented at the top of companies. (McKinsey & Company). Fortune 500 companies with just 3 female board members have a 60 per cent higher rate of return on capital investment (WWEST).

4. Increasing Innovation. A study of 1,700 companies found that diverse management teams were more innovative than less diverse teams. Companies that were more diverse reported a greater proportion of total revenue attributed to innovation (+19 per cent), and this advantage translated into overall better financial performance – EBIT margins were 9 per cent higher (Boston Consulting Group).

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Strategies to close the gap in the construction sector.

Now that we’ve outlined the value of gender equity, how can we actually build more inclusive workplaces and close the gap?

  1. Listen to your people. No two workplaces are the same and there is no one size fits all solution to achieving gender equity. Successful programs will be shaped by company culture, business operations, strategy, regional differences, and employees. Create a medium to solicit feedback and foster open communication with employees. Tip: Leveraging external advisors like The Thoughtful Co. to conduct focus groups can be an effective way to solicit unbiased feedback facilitated by an objective third party.
  2. Introduce objectivity into decision making. There is often a push for new hire interviews to be conversational. In theory this is great. It can allow them to be more casual and less intimidating to candidates, but it can also encourage biases in decision making. Introduce objective evaluation strategies to minimize the influence of bias. For example, create scoring matrices with preset evaluation criteria, diverse panel interviewers, or some standardized questions that all candidates are asked. This allows a consistent evaluation criterion that can minimize the effects of the similarity bias, where we see future potential in those like us, and baseline capability in those who are dissimilar. Tip: Scorecards should be used for promotional evaluations as well.
  3. Seek “culture add” instead of “culture fit.” We spend a lot of time at work and want to work with great people we get along with. However, the concept of “culture fit” can encourage hiring similar people which reduces the opportunity for diverse perspectives. Consider instead seeking perspectives that are missing. Who isn’t reflected and who’s experiences would be complimentary to our culture? Tip: Include “culture add” explicitly in hiring documentation to encourage diverse perspectives. This can refer to identity, work experience, academic background, communication styles, and more.
  4. Leverage sponsorship. Sponsorship is often considered the second step to mentorship. Mentorship can be referred to as showing someone the door, and sponsorship is opening it for them. Sponsorship is incredibly important for access to senior positions and career progression. The similarity bias, defined above, can influence who has access to it. Developing a formal sponsorship program can ensure equitable access to sponsorship and improve gender equity in senior positions. Tip: This is also an effective strategy for helping to close the gender pay gap because it provides equitable access to higher paid senior positions.
  5. Empower Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Women’s ERGs are the front line to achieving gender equity in the workplace. Who better to seek solutions than those who have that lived experience? Successful ERGs must have strong communication with Senior Leadership and the HR team to ensure alignment. ERGs can accomplish real change when their programs are integrated into broader company initiatives, and they are provided the support needed to implement impactful programs. Tip: Implementing both an Advocacy Group (Policy Focused) and Support Group (Community Focused) ERG is the gold standard for inclusive practices.
  6. Educate leaders on the importance of EDI. Employees look to leaders to model what is considered successful. When leaders champion the value of EDI, it signals to the broader workforce that this is important for everyone to participate in. This is where we see real changing happening. Tip: Include EDI evaluation criteria on scorecards for senior leaders.
Photo by Mikael Blomkvist from Pexels

EDI is a journey.

Change in our industry won’t happen overnight, but small strategies can be implemented tomorrow that have real impact. It doesn’t need to be a daunting task. It can be a series of exciting and positive changes that build a more engaged, productive, and inclusive workforce. The Thoughtful Co. creates EDI Action Plans for organizations seeking to build a framework for their EDI journey. Book a call with us today to learn how you can build a more sustainable workplace.

Sophie Warwick is co-founder of The Thoughtful Co., a Canadian consultancy that supports women in negotiating their compensation and advises employers on improving gender equity in the workplace. Sophie has a Master’s of Structural and Earthquake Engineering and practiced structural engineering consulting for over seven years. In 2018, she co-founded Women in Consulting Engineering (WCE) Vancouver and was named a SME Diversity & Inclusion Award Nominee (2022).


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