23 Oct 2017

Simply being a female chartered structural engineer automatically makes you stand out from the crowd in our industry. Last week I was delighted to be announced winner of the Women Leaders award of the Environment and Engineering Category – but it’s made me think about how we encourage greater diversity more generally too.

Women leaders awards | Royal HaskoningDHV

Earlier this year I attended an NCE100 event where the topic of diversity was explored, and a number of speakers at the event shared various statistics which demonstrate the scale of the problem in the industry.

Each employee adds value

In the UK, just under 32% of our workforce is female. We need to help women realise that they add value to our business – they don’t need to fulfil a particular stereotype.

At the start of my career, I always felt that I had to be better than my male colleagues in order to prove myself. But I learnt at a very early stage that I just had to be myself. And as a result, I’ve progressed very quickly throughout my career.

But over recent years I have also come to realise that the topic of diversity doesn’t just relate to women. It can cover race, faith, sexuality – any number of factors can set us apart from our peers.

Encouraging diversity

According to McKinsey’s report Diversity Matters, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

Statistics like these highlight the importance of dialogue across all levels of the organisation. In order to encourage diversity, we need to ensure that we’re cultivating effective conversation between senior management and grass-roots level employees. Only then can we create a more open culture which will champion creativity, innovation and inspire employees to be themselves.

Begin at an early age

It’s essential that we start changing mindsets as early as possible – even at primary school age. How many of us were unconsciously given dolls or a mini kitchen to play with, rather than Lego to build and create? And did our parents automatically opt for pink rather than blue?

I know that I certainly commandeered my brother’s Lego when we were little – and my taste for all things science began at an early age. If we can begin encouraging more and more children to embrace and challenge diversity from an early age, I have no doubt that we will reap the benefits in the next generation of engineers.

So how do we do that?

We need to go beyond simply monitoring diversity levels. Recruitment is a key issue where diversity comes into play and companies traditionally put a lot of effort into encouraging diversity at this early stage of the process with employees.

But it’s important that we focus on changing the state of play too. Recruitment is not the only stage at which diversity must be recognised.

We need to be going one step further – it’s about who we choose to put in a project team, or who we involve in activities going on in the office on a daily basis. Unconscious bias is unfortunately far too prevalent in society today, and when it comes to project work in particular, we should be selecting our colleagues based on the value of their work, not because of their gender or ethnicity.

Earlier this year, I would have said I had an interest in the topic of diversity. Now, I’m determined to see what more we can do as a company in the UK to make sure that more of our employees feel involved and valued, regardless of our differences.

Woman leaders | Royal HaskoningDHV

Melissa is a finalist in two categories in the Women Leaders Awards: ‘Science & Technology, Environment & Engineering’ and ‘Emerging Leader’.

The event is all about celebrating the hard work and achievement of women who have contributed to the growth of their industry sector, the organisation within which they are employed, or the ongoing success of the city of Peterborough.

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Melissa Hipwell

Director Advisory Group

Peterborough, UK

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