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  • Writer's pictureTom Merritt

Diversity – Taking on the tight labor market challenge

For Editor’s Note: Tom has more than 35 years of proven leadership experience, in both the public and private sector, and is locally recognized as a regional expert in public policy implementation, consensus building and strategic planning. He exercises strong organizational and development skills and is committed to developing team and individual performances. He is a long-time AOE client and we appreciate him helping us celebrate Women in Construction week!

Women aren’t as good at science, technology, engineering or math

There aren’t enough qualified women for leadership roles

Women will leave their job to start a family

These are just a few of the common myths about women in the workforce that continue to prevail in our culture—contributing to, at the very least, underlying biases that impact women’s representation in many occupations including construction and engineering. According to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), less than 10 percent of the construction workforce are female. At the same time, as demand for construction services increases, we are challenged with a rising need for engineers, contractors, operators and maintenance staff. If we want to meet the growing personnel demand, we need to recognize that we have nurtured a long-standing culture built by and favoring white males. It is time for a change.

Tackling the challenge through diversity

Imagine what we could accomplish if we doubled the percentages of women entering construction-related fields. That could translate to a gain of tens of thousands of engineers, operations and project managers who are creative thinkers, innovators and problem-solvers ready to tackle global issues like climate change, providing clean water and renewable energy.

In addition to meeting the growing demand for engineers as well as other industry professionals, creating a more diverse and inclusive work environment leads to happier and more engaged employees. The public sector has embraced the concept of diversity and, as a result, has increased the number of women and minorities in leadership roles. Construction management firms that work with public sector service providers should commit to reflect the providers’ values and successes by doing the same. By mirroring the public sector’s commitment to building a more diverse workplace, we can remain competitive and create more relationship-building opportunities with our customer base.

Demonstrating the same commitment to diversity as your clients leads to direct benefits to your organization. In the construction field where teamwork and strong communication are key to success, developing more engaged team members and a collaborative environment are vital. As leaders, we must ask ourselves and our teams, “do we have a culture in which all of our employees feel comfortable, included and valued?” According to the Society of Women Engineers, 30 percent of women who left the engineering field cited organizational climate as the reason. Imagine how different the outcome would be if these women were encouraged instead of alienated.

Attracting top talent requires breaking down the barriers that women continue to experience in our industry. Removing biases starting with the interview process and hiring based on talents and skills will lead to lower turnover, higher employee satisfaction and greater productivity. When organizations broaden their pool of candidates to include those previously overlooked, they are increasing their ability to hire the most talented and qualified workers. Yet with the number of women graduating with degrees in engineering remaining disproportionate, organizations seeking to hire more women are competing against one another to attract these female graduates.

Building a gender-balanced business

As previously stated, industry competition for hiring females is fierce. How can an organization stand above the rest as a great place to work for the women they are recruiting? There are steps leaders can take to create a truly gender-balanced business that will attract the best talent and build a top-notch team. They include:

  • Creating a safe environment for every employee. This goes back to the basic concepts of value, respect and inclusion. If your employees feel that you value and respect them and that they are an integral contributor to your team, they will feel comfortable enough to step forward, give candid feedback and share new ideas.

  • Reject the “we’ve always done it this way” philosophy and, instead, taking a hard look at business practices that have, intentionally or not, contributed to gender bias. This can be challenging and anxiety producing as we look to abandon practices that are embedded in our culture. However, if we keep our focus on the end goal and open ourselves to new and divergent ideas, we can begin to create change within our organization that will lead to greater equality and a happier, more diverse workforce.

  • Creating more quality must go beyond a 50/50 balance of male and female employees. It is important to also look at the organization through a magnifying lens. While 50 percent of your team may be female, does your workplace policies, training programs and advancement opportunities equally support male and female employees? To effectively create a more diverse culture, we must focus our efforts on all aspects of the business.

  • Expanding the company’s benefit policies to include paid parental and family leave. According to the United States Congress Joint Economic Committee, businesses providing paid leave see an increase in productivity, higher levels of employee satisfaction and less turnover. Our organization works continuously to offer more benefits like these to our employees. We know that offering paid time off for new parents is also more likely to attract job candidates. A valuable tool when competing for top talent.

  • Providing each employee an assessment tool to gain insights into their individual personalities, communication preferences and key motivators. Everyone is unique and deserves to have their uniqueness acknowledged and respected. When leaders recognize these differences, the results will include improvements in individual performance, more collaborative teams and increased overall productivity.

Addressing workplace biases

As leaders, we must strive to debunk myths about women in the workforce and uncover our own underlying biases of which we may not even be aware. Not only our personal preconceptions, but those within the industry and our entire culture. We should be talking with employees, both men and women, about their personal experiences with equality, what could have been done to help them and how it shaped who they are today.

A woman in our industry recently shared her story with me. Not long ago she was informed that her advancement opportunities were limited because she had a young child at home and would likely have more children. Her manager was concerned that she would not be as committed to her job as a man would be—simply because she was a mother. How many of us have allowed an employee’s status as a mother to impact our decision about their career advancement? I doubt many of us question a man’s professional ability when he becomes a father.

Unfortunately, situations like these are common and we must recognize that, even today, they are seriously impacting women’s opportunities in the workplace. By listening to her story, I gained a better understanding of her experiences and how they have shaped her career. It also raised my awareness of a very real challenge women continue to face and ensured my commitment to never allow this bias to restrict anyone’s opportunities within my organization.

When we ask our employees about their experiences and what they think we can do to bring about change, we gain a better understanding of what gender bias is and how it affects not just the women who are impacted, but the team as a whole. We need to encourage dialog among our team members. By listening and acknowledging their experiences and concerns, we can begin to uncover biases within ourselves, our organization and the entire industry and remove barriers for all employees—leading to a greater likelihood that change will occur.

Winning through change

Enacting change will result in a more diverse and positive environment across the organization and encourage greater productivity, enhanced critical thinking and problem solving. Including individuals with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives lends itself to a greater sharing of ideas and points of view, leading to better decision making and innovation.

Valuing the uniqueness of each team member, consistently communicating the organization’s mission and demonstrating respect for others create an inclusive environment where employees are encouraged to collaborate, contribute and be the best they can be. By creating a culture that reflects the diversity within our society, we are building the foundation for success.

And if we want to attract—and keep—the best and brightest people, we must challenge the myths and recognize the value women bring to our field. When we do, we all win.


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