Getting more women into major projects

Ashridge Business School

Last week I was invited to attend an interesting event at Ashridge Business School, where visiting research fellow Sue Pritchard launched a new 12 month research programme aimed at encouraging more women to go into major project leadership. At the same time the Major Projects Association announced that it would be putting together a list of ten key steps to improve gender balance on major projects. So why are these initiatives important?

“Major projects are the vehicle through which government delivers ninety percent of its critical policy intentions,” said Pritchard pointing to the government’s £489bn project portfoilio. “We know that major and complex projects face particular delivery challenges and that improved leadership is critical to delivery. We also know that more diverse boards and more diverse teams will lead to better delivery and better outcomes,” said Pritchard.

Development director at the MPA, Manon Bradley pointed to research from McKinsey published in January that shows that a 10% increase in women on senior executive teams corresponded to a 3.5% increase in earnings. “This is really important. If you have 10 women in an executive team you only need one more and that is really powerful,” said Bradley.

But the research also shows a lot more: “Companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians,” said the McKinsey report. “More diverse companies, we believe, are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making, and all that leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns. This in turn suggests that other kinds of diversity—for example, in age, sexual orientation, and experience (such as a global mind-set and cultural fluency)—are also likely to bring some level of competitive advantage for companies that can attract and retain such diverse talent.”

For the engineering sector the challenge is even greater with only 6 percent of the workforce consisting of female staff. The need to diversify is being acknowledged purely because the industry is facing a massive skills shortage. Boosting staff numbers means widening the appeal of the industry and retaining people. Companies that have managed to make cultural changes that enable this are seeing the benefits. Many firms are now reporting rising numbers of female graduates with 25-30% a common figure. The challenge for these firms in the future will be keeping hold of their professionals as retention is one of the areas that lets engineering companies down. Many lack the flexibility and support that working parents, retirees or those with other external commitments need – forgetting that children don’t stay babies forever and that skills can be retained for much longer than might have been common in the past. Laments such as “I felt like I wasn’t really part of the team because I leave early,” or “I work five days in four: but get paid for four” are common. This is a shame. Where are the 30 hour contracts? or 20 hours? For many firms having great people and less utilisation pressure would be a good thing.

But achieving this requires cultural change. One brilliant anecdote from the event concerned a full time job role advertised where candidates were informed that job sharing was not being considered. Two applicants therefore applied as a single person and proved that a job share could work. They won the role because they forced the employer to think differently, and a bit more of this is what is needed.

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