Improved industry health and safety culture can help inform the diversity challenge

As the industry wrestles with how to make progress on improving diversity and inclusion, Kate Hillman looks at what can be learned from incorporating health and safety processes.

As many of us know, our industry is lacking diversity in the workforce and it’s becoming widely accepted that this is a problem we need to fix. The proportion of female engineering professionals in the UK currently stands at 8%, the lowest in Europe, and has remained largely static despite much industry and government attention attempting to encourage women into the industry. The story for other underrepresented groups is much the same. As we wrestle with how to make meaningful progress on improving diversity and inclusion in our industry and our organisations, we can look to our positive health and safety cultures to find some of the solutions.  

In over 20 years since the introduction of the Construction Design and Management (CDM) regulations, our industry has made huge strides in improving health and safety for workers. Although there is still progress to be made, a significant step change came in recognising that rules and procedures only go so far in creating a safe working environment. It’s the focus on culture that has made the biggest difference in recent years and which is still delivering improvements as the industry’s focus broadens to include wellbeing. 

Unfortunately, in the same 20-year period, efforts to increase diversity have not met with similar success. We know that a lack of diversity makes us less able to respond to the needs of an increasingly diverse society and hurts our competitiveness. Research also consistently shows that diverse teams are more efficient, productive and innovative, and report higher levels of job satisfaction. Yet still, some see diversity as a side issue rather than the business differentiator that it is.

Diversity can be a difficult subject for some, with grey areas around what is offensive or exclusionary and what isn’t. People often feel it’s easier to avoid discussions about diversity issues than to risk offending someone - and it’s here that leadership and culture change can make the difference. Just like with safety, rules and procedures aren’t enough to drive lasting meaningful transformation, so let’s look at what we can learn from what we’re already doing well.

A fundamental strength of a good safety culture is employee participation. This requires buy-in from staff at all levels, which can be a major challenge for diversity efforts. The solution starts with communicating the rationale for change in a clear and simple way, showing staff the business and personal benefits of increased diversity. The message needs to include a focus on individual responsibility; we need to help employees recognise that they are instrumental in creating, or hindering, a culture which is supportive of diversity. This should constantly be reinforced and backed up by senior leadership who visibly buy in to diversity strategies and make discussions about diversity part of their everyday roles. 

Encouraging open and honest conversations is vital to creating the right kind of culture but it’s also important to recognise that there is some nervousness on all sides when broaching diversity issues. Many companies now include ‘safety moments’ at the start of meetings to briefly discuss a relevant safety topic. A similar forum for diversity would begin to give employees guidance and confidence to raise diversity issues with each other and with management. The goal of initiating this dialogue is to make sure that colleagues feel comfortable challenging each other when attitudes or behaviour are exclusionary, and to help employees recognise where their own behaviour could make others uncomfortable.

As is this case for safety improvements, measurement and tracking is a significant asset, so another tool to consider is anonymous reporting systems. These systems provide data which can form part of a reporting instrument to highlight recurring issues and flag areas of improvement. They can also provide topics for discussion which could form part of toolbox talks or team meetings. A key feature is that they are not intended for disciplinary action and are usually anonymous. This allows people to feel comfortable reporting smaller issues without fear that they’re ‘getting HR involved’ or that there might be a backlash on themselves. These systems can also be used to highlight positive as well as negative behaviours, helping reduce the overall negative associations of reporting.

The good news is that much of the groundwork for developing a diverse and inclusive culture is already in place from the hard work that’s been done on health and safety. There is a growing appetite for real change in companies, industry bodies and from our clients. We have an opportunity now to make a meaningful difference and harness the value that diversity and inclusion could bring to our businesses and our own working environments.

On International Women in Engineering Day, as we reflect on the achievements of some of our great female role models, let’s be bold and put the development of a more diverse and inclusive culture right up there with our ambitions for safety. Let’s learn from our successes and act quickly - our people, our stakeholders and our future talent are counting on it.

Kate Hillman is senior structural engineer in Atkins' building design practice working on major projects within tranportation, energy and defence.