Women are finally making inroads into the industry and challenging infrastructure's 'boys' club' reputation.

Ensuring more women are involved in infrastructure will benefit all New Zealanders, says the head of a recently launched organisation focused on getting more women into the traditionally male-dominated industry.

Margaret Devlin, who is chair of the Women's Infrastructure Network (WIN), maintains "with more women in the industry, we see diversity living up to all the statistics that prove it does add value".

However, for diversity to become truly present in the workforce, men must be on board too.


"The reality is that you can't just say we'll have our own infrastructure network group, and that's going to make all of the change," says Devlin. "You actually have to engage with everyone, and everyone has to see the value proposition."

WIN was launched in 2016, with the goal of increasing the number of women in leadership roles, growing the visibility of women in the industry and providing networking tools and opportunities.

The group now has five national chapters in Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Wellington and Christchurch, with another planned for Otago. With nearly 1000 members in New Zealand, the group is also well-connected to a larger global WIN network in the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia.

Though the infrastructure sector is perceived by many as an old boys' network, a survey undertaken by WIN found the industry is aware of its shortcomings: those surveyed see lacking female representation as a problem, and many organisations are taking steps to address it.

The industry has had some improvement in recent years, and several notable female CEOs have been promoted, including Transpower's Alison Andrew and Chorus's Kate McKenzie.

Yet despite these high-profile hires at the top, in the past decade the rate of female participation in the industry has still only increased from 10 per cent to 17 per cent. In fact, engineering remains one of the most male-dominated fields in the country, surpassed only by labour-intensive industries such as forestry and building trades.

Margaret Devlin chairwoman of Harrison Grierson Consultancy.
Margaret Devlin chairwoman of Harrison Grierson Consultancy.

Devlin says progress is slow as firms often do not know how to approach the problem.

WIN was set up in New Zealand to help give organisations assistance in this regard.

"If I look at the Women in Infrastructure network, one of our objectives is to normalise diversity in the sector," Devlin says, "It's about how do we actually make that happen and how do we share those practises that we're currently using — such as employment practices, revising the traditional nine to five roles — to actually make a difference?"

Though networks such as WIN are a useful support for women already in the industry, the reality is that gender stereotyping — a large contributor to male dominance — stems from a young age and continues through education.

Gender stereotypes often help determine the subjects and industries women are expected to be interested in, and result in a severe gap between the number of women and men studying STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects.

About 60 per cent of Bachelor of Science students are female. But women make up only a quarter of engineering graduates. Consequently, regardless of attitudes during recruitment and the desire to hire women, the number available to interview is typically lower than for men, a disparity that worsens as careers progress.

Hannah Woods is a recent graduate keen to belie that trend.

Now in her fourth year working for Fletcher Construction, including on major projects such as the Christchurch Rebuild and the Waikato Expressway, Woods was a nominee at the recent National Women in Construction (NAWIC) Awards.

Though out-and-out bias against female candidates is rare, Devlin says unconscious bias is still an issue. These constraints must be addressed by ensuring women are on recruitment boards, the value of diversity is conveyed to men, and diversity is put front and centre, in the same way health and safety is viewed in the industry.

For Devlin, diversity needs to not be "something out of the norm" but "business as usual".

Role models play a crucial role in this transition. The statement "you cannot be what you cannot see" rings strongly true for Devlin. She notes that one of the main benefits of the network has been profiling leaders across the industry to show women there are others like them to look up to. By sharing experiences and opportunities women can gain more confidence, she says.

Another way WIN drives change in the industry is through partnerships with large corporates. One such major partner is Kensington Swan. Several of its employees are involved with the organisation.

Senior Associate Ariana Stuart, who works on construction and other infrastructure deals inside the firm, is on the WIN national advisory board, and other employees are involved in local chapters. Stuart says Kensington Swan's involvement is a fantastic way to help drive change in the industry from within and underpin its own commitment to fair gender representation.

Devlin is quick to note that we should also focus on successes in diversity, and there has been progress on some fronts. At this year's Infrastructure New Zealand symposium, over 30 per cent of attendees are female.

WIN has grown rapidly in the past two years, with its events consistently well-attended and carrying a huge amount of energy that excites Devlin. Ultimately she hopes young women will step into the industry and not be afraid to use the support networks available.
Though Devlin's outlook is positive, to her the drive to solve the industry's representation issues remains important: "Infrastructure in New Zealand is one of our biggest investments for many years to come, and we need to ensure we have the best people possible in all our roles."