Embedding diversity in an organisation’s DNA

Leadership is crucial to changing the culture of the engineering profession to embrace more gender diversity, according to one of the country's top engineers.

Greg Steele is CEO of Arcadis Australia Pacific and a Male Champion of Change. He says he got involved in that program through Consult Australia’s Champions of Change for Gender Diversity.

“We started that about four years ago, for which I was the inaugural chairman,” he says.

“We got so far with that and then investigated joining the Male Champions of Change, which is not just the engineering profession, it’s a much broader organisation. There are set guidelines on how they go about things and I think, more than anything, it provides a discipline and a transparency, and an accountability to do what you say you are going to do as far as gender diversity goes.”

Steele says he could see their clients changing to include more women in senior positions and knew that a more diverse industry would open the door to more talent.

“For me, a diverse team will always come up with a better decision or solution than one that is not so diverse and I have lots of personal experience in that regard,” he says.

“So it just seemed a sensible thing to do to create a more diverse organisation. You have got to start somewhere and it was gender we chose. If you can’t get gender diversity right, it’s going to be pretty hard to get all the other sections of diversity right!”

Steele says they are trying a number of approaches to increase gender diversity within the company. One is to set clear targets, making them specific and personal, and holding managers to account like they do with their financial returns, client outcomes or health and safety.

“We have 20 business units, so there are 20 targets,” he says. “Each of those managers has to have a plan for the year and we check in on that quarterly to see how they are going. And, if it’s not going so well, what actions are they going to take? So it’s just a good, robust management approach.”

He is pleased with their progress to date. When they started the process four years ago they were sitting on around 20 per cent of women in the organisation.

“Our target this year was 30 per cent and we hit 29 per cent,” he says. “We set a target of 50 per cent graduate intake and this year, we have 15 out of 32, so we are pretty close to 50 per cent. In a leadership sense, at a very senior level we were trying to get to 25 per cent and last year we hit that target. So all in all, pretty good.”

Increasing the flexibility of the workplace is another approach they are taking, allowing for work from home, flexible hours and a paperless office.

“We analysed when our females were leaving the organisation,” he says.

“It’s obviously the mid years when they’re having young families. We’ve tried to create a very flexible organisation that can cater for young mums coming back to work. In fact our two biggest business units are led by women who are both on four days a week as they have young families.”

Arcadis runs training on unconscious bias and educating mid-level managers on gender diversity. They set aside a portion of pay increases each year to tackle the gender gap. And they are trying to take mentoring to a new level with sponsoring.

“What I mean by sponsoring as opposed to mentoring is, with mentoring you talk to a person and you hold a conversation that is generally confidential,” Steele says.

“When you’re sponsoring, you do that plus you talk about the person to others. So in fact, you are promoting to a degree as well.”

And, appropriately for an engineering company, they have engaged an approach called Balance Now where they take a more analytical look at gender diversity.

“We are going through that right at the moment, surveying all of our staff in different areas,” he says.

“We look at eight key elements in a woman’s career. How we are dealing with those eight and then really try and peel back the onion as to what’s the culture, what are we doing? Where are our strengths and weaknesses? We will probably tackle the three weakest areas initially.”

Steele says it was difficult at first, driving change in this area, but they are getting some momentum now and he believes it has a lot to do with leadership.

“The top table has to be behind this and leading from the front. There is no place for what I call passive leadership in this, nodding the heads and saying ‘yeah, we are right behind it’ and then not doing too much about it,” he says.

“We are trying to move from winning the minds, which everyone knows is a good idea, to winning the hearts, which is a little bit more difficult. And that’s where we are right now, trying to embed this in our culture, and make it part of our DNA.”


Engineers Australia will be hosting three International Women’s Day events this year: in Melbourne on 7 March; in Brisbane on 8 March; and in Sydney on 9 March. The guest speaker will be Naomi Simson, founder of RedBalloon and judge/investor on Shark Tank. More details at engineersaustraliaiwd.com.au

[Arcadis Australia Pacific CEO Greg Steele]