What drives you to be an advocate for gender balance and diversity?
My wife and I are from different countries and we have two young daughters that where born in the UAE, so gender balance and diversity are extremely personal to me. I want my daughters to grow up in a world that embraces inclusivity and diversity, a world where they do not feel held back or constrained due to their gender, their culture or their background. If this is the world that I want for my daughters, then I need to do my part by being an advocate for inclusivity in our industry.
Why do you think that narrowing the gender gap is essential in order for companies to thrive?
For companies to thrive they need to innovate and adapt. How can you innovate and adapt if everybody thinks the same? You can see it firsthand in meetings. If you attend a meeting where everyone is the same gender, they come from similar cultural backgrounds, and have worked together for some time then they will naturally be aligned in their way of thinking. If you bring somebody into this environment who is a different gender, for example, then you instantly have a different viewpoint and somebody with new ideas. Innovation, by definition, is about new ideas and new ways of doing things, therefore by narrowing the gender gap (or any gap in inclusivity in your business) you will drive innovation. As Steve Jobs said, “innovation is the only way to win”.
What do you think allows gender discrimination to exist in workplaces?
For me, it's business culture. A business that drives a culture of diversity and inclusion will not tolerate discrimination of any kind. Discrimination, like any bad behaviour, will only exist in a business if it’s allowed to.
What potential barriers to inclusion do we need to overcome?
There are numerous barriers that need to be overcome. Some of these barriers can be addressed by policies, but to enact real change you need to educate people that neurological barriers exist to inclusivity. Neurologically, we are drawn to people with similar ideas and similar approaches. In fact, when we meet people who are similar it makes us feel good. To overcome these unconscious neurological barriers to inclusivity we need our people to appreciate that they exist. Once we understand these barriers exist, then we can consciously address them. A quote by Stephen Frost sums this up: “unless you consciously include, you will unconsciously exclude”.
What would you identify as the main steps needed in order to implement change for equality?
You need to actively drive an inclusive culture, a culture which embraces fairness and equal opportunity for all your people.
What is WSP doing to challenge the status quo and spearhead the discussion around gender equality and diversity?
We recently released our new maternity policy, which I think is a big step towards challenging the status quo. I also touched on the neurological aspect of inclusivity earlier, which is something that we are looking to train, teach, and coach all our senior leadership team on. We are also aiming to challenge our leaders on what it is that our people need to do to be actively inclusive by outlining the trigger points of various contextual situations.
So, it's not just about trying to set lots of different policies to try and make our people inclusive. This is about our people understanding why they might not be inclusive. At WSP, we have really started off at the more neurological and social end of the spectrum rather than trying to apply policy to make people inclusive. You can create a policy, you can write it down, you can tape it to the wall, but for people to decisively adopt a policy they need to really believe in it. That’s why we're approaching this from the direction of understanding and education; exploring how our minds and our thinking can be adapted to enhance inclusivity in our working environments.
What is WSP doing to ensure inclusivity for site-based people?
There used to be, and still is in some circumstances, a one-size-fits-all approach to welfare facilities on site. However, this just doesn't work. A number of years ago we instigated regular Leadership Tours on our sites. These tours began as a way to drive improvements in Health & Safety, but now they encompass much more including engagement with our people around their experiences on site. I will typically visit a site as many times as I can, and part of these tours is to look at the welfare facilities on site and make sure that they are inclusive for our people. Through this, we make sure that the welfare facilities can cater for different types of cultures, people, and genders.
How is WSP engaging in discussion around its gender diversity and equality policies with clients, wider communities, and across industries?
There has always been a default position with members of our industry that ‘we don't have to do this’, ‘we've never done this before’, or ‘it's going to cost me more’. These same arguments were the barriers that we had to face around Health & Safety a number of years ago. When I first came to this region over 15 years ago, in some areas it was considered acceptable for people to walk around sites in flip flops. Could you go onto any site in Dubai now and see a person walking around in flip flops? It’s highly unlikely.
A similar semblance can be applied to evolving gender balance and diversity – we're at that same point in the equality journey now that the industry was at 15 years ago with Health & Safety.
At WSP, we drive messaging that outlines our expectations around gender diversity and equality in our proposals. In this way we outline our expectations at the very start of the project and we can engage in early conversations around the subject. In the same way, we have worked very hard to influence clients, contractors, and our partners around what we expect in terms of Health & Safety, we are now doing the same for inclusivity and gender equality.
Hopefully in another 15 years’ sitting in a fully inclusive, gender balanced meeting will be the norm, in the same way that people not wearing flip flops on site is now the norm from a Health & Safety perspective. I hope we will look back at the amazing ideas that have come to light because we have embraced our differences, our cultures, our mindsets, and ways of thinking—the industry will undoubtedly be better for it.
In your opinion, what needs to change for male colleagues to engage more positively in gender balance initiatives?
Male colleagues need to embrace change and not feel threatened by it. Any change is difficult for people. For example, if you've been working in an environment all your life and things have always been done a particular way, then suddenly trying to do things differently can feel threatening. It comes back to mindset; people need to understand why they might see change as a threat and also analyse and understand what the benefits of it will be.
It’s not just restricted to gender balance or inclusivity. For example, Health & Safety used to be seen as a threat in some areas of the industry. There were concerns it was going to slow things down, get in the way of progress and result in more costly projects. These attitudes towards Health & Safety have now changed, and in the same way are attitudes towards gender balance and inclusion will also change. People just need time to adapt and embrace it, and we'll all be better for it.
How would you feel if one of your friends, or your wife, husband, daughter or son was excluded from something? When it comes to gender balance and diversity, why should a female or someone from a different culture not be part of a discussion? Again, it's not about writing a policy or dictating to people about what they need to do; we have to take people on a journey and explain why this change is important both for them personally and for their industry.
How can we encourage industry leaders to become allies for females in the workplace?
It goes back to showcasing the benefits of inclusivity and gender balance. Different ideas drive different approaches, which in a business context potentially translates into higher profitability, better efficiency, or a greater degree of quality.
You cannot dictate change; people need to get there on merit, and that's important. But you can take people on a journey and lead a conversation that nurtures new perspectives and fresh understanding about change.
What does success look like for gender balance and diversity in the workplace?
From a personal perspective, success for me is my children not needing to talk about this subject in the future. Success is also my children not believing that there are barriers to anything that they want to do in life, and our industry becoming inherently inclusive. Ultimately, success is where accepting others becomes ingrained in everything we do. The fact that we're talking about it at the moment is needed because we collectively need to embody change. If we don't actively push the agenda now, the status quo will remain.