Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Engineering a 50/50 gender split

Firm's effort is attracting more women to a male-dominated field, writes Helen Twose
Lara Poloni, Aecom chief executive Australia and New Zealand, and 
Craig Davidson, Aecom managing director.
Lara Poloni, Aecom chief executive Australia and New Zealand, and Craig Davidson, Aecom managing director.

For the first time ever, next year's graduate intake at engineering giant Aecom will reflect society's 50/50 gender split.

It took a concerted effort by the global firm's Australian and New Zealand businesses to hit this target, especially given that many of the company's specialisations still don't attract large numbers of women at tertiary level.

Lara Poloni, chief executive of Aecom Australia and New Zealand, says it meant taking a different approach to graduate recruitment, including starting its on-campus recruitment a lot earlier in order to grab talent ahead of other firms.

It's a world away from when Poloni joined the firm 22 years ago, in an office of 120 people with only two other women - one of whom was the tea lady - but it is a sign of progress in a diversity strategy that kicked off two years ago when she was appointed to lead the business.

Masses of reputable research was pointing to the strong business benefits of diversity in the workplace, she says.

"We know that ourselves through having diverse teams - it's not just gender diversity but cultural diversity, diversity of working experience - it makes for a more successful project, drives innovation and it really brings different perspectives together, so we've been having a lot of conversations and understanding that for quite some time."

Poloni says what changed when she stepped into her new role alongside a fresh executive team was an acknowledgement that there had been a lot going on in the marketplace and that meant diversity hadn't been getting the attention it deserved as a key driver of the business strategy.

"Like many organisations, we were focused on the market, focused on projects and we needed to put diversity back on the table."

The key pieces to the strategy, she says, were ensuring a pipeline of women moving into senior leadership roles and taking a good look at pay scales to understand whether there were any gaps.

"Our strategy really demonstrates that it takes a lot of hard work, leadership commitment and financial commitment to give this the priority it deserves."

Aecom was clear that it needed to set solid goals around getting more women in leadership positions, believing it was critical to ensuring it was a "workplace of choice" among women in a male dominated industry.

Our strategy really demonstrates that it takes a lot of hard work, leadership commitment and financial commitment to give this the priority it deserves.

By the end of the year it plans to have women filling 15 per cent of its director-level roles across Australia and New Zealand.

By the end of 2018, 17 per cent of senior leadership positions will be women, rising to 20 per cent by the end of 2020.

That is well above the industry average of 12.6 per cent of senior leadership roles that are held by women, according to figures from the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ).

Accelerating the pipeline to leadership meant the firm has looked outside the business to bring high calibre women into senior roles.

Aecom's New Zealand boss, Craig Davidson, says in his previous role heading the company's local buildings business, he deliberately went out and identified and attracted some "fantastic" female leaders into the division.

"Those females that have come in have really transformed the leadership team.
"They've been hugely successful and to be honest, a large catalyst for my success."

Davidson says a commitment to equality in gender pay has shone a light on an unjustifiable gap between men and women holding similar roles.

"Work has been done to fix those areas where we simply weren't treating people with fairness and equality," he says.

Poloni says after years in the firm and seeing men and women start as graduates on equal pay, she'd assumed pay equity wasn't an issue.

Work has been done to fix those areas where we simply weren't treating people with fairness and equality.

It's only when you lift the lid and look at every single job and every single classification and commit to setting aside real dollars that you understand the extent of the problem, she says.

Aecom tagged 5 per cent of its salary budget last year to making additional adjustments on top of end-of-year merit increases for 11 per cent of its female New Zealand workforce.

Significantly, 68 per cent of the gender pay adjustments were allocated to women in professional roles forming the pipeline of future leaders within the business.

Steps taken included ensuring women on maternity leave don't miss annual pay reviews, and when men are hired from outside the firm, there is an analysis of their starting salary against comparable roles, specifically those held by women.

"That's one of the very tangible ways that we've identified that we can ensure that equality of pay," she says.

Training and support was focused on staff in middle management, particularly in addressing unconscious bias, because it's those people who are key to accelerating the strategy, says Poloni.

"They're the managers that have the power.

"They hold the power in terms of performance assessments, promotions, pay scales and hiring decisions."

I think we've done that well by highlighting the very clear areas where there is inequality.

Occasionally, Poloni will hear from a younger woman in the firm who, while feeling supported in her career, is concerned about chatter that she only got a particular role because she was a woman.

"You've got to say to these people that this is a framework for equality; it's the right thing to do."

It was fair to say the leadership team "got it" faster in terms of the benefits to the business and attracting the best talent, says Davidson.

"It is a really complex subject and it is important to walk people through the journey.

"I think we've done that well by highlighting the very clear areas where there is inequality." Davidson says as a father of two girls, seeing a change in the industry is hugely satisfying and being part of the changes is even more so.

"This is a journey," says Poloni.

"We've made a really promising start.

"I think it's been welcomed by our staff.

"It's definitely been an employment attractor for a lot of the young generation to know that this is an important business imperative for us and it is quite simply the right thing to do, but it has some demonstrable benefits in terms of the engagement of our employees.

"I've been pleasantly surprised by the number of our clients who have actually reached out to us and said 'can you come in and actually help us and talk to our senior managers about how you embark upon this journey, how did you do it?' and that then leads to a conversation where they say: 'we want to do business with firms that share similar values to us, whether it's a commitment to corporate responsibility or a commitment to gender equality, let's have that conversation over and above the project stuff that we talk about'."

Getting to equality

Aecom's three-pronged approach

• Creating a culture that embraces flexibility for all staff
• Increasing gender diversity across the workforce and leadership teams
• Becoming industry leaders in attracting, developing and managing a diverse workforce

- NZ Herald

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