Diversity is a journey, says Atkins' head of HR

Senior buy-in has helped Atkins to create a solid diversity and inclusion strategy, says the company’s vice president for human resource, Jilly Calder.

A few years ago, we were in the position of having to convince our industry that diversity and inclusion was an area worth investing in. Today, it is almost a given. The skills shortage in engineering has made it an imperative for infrastructure businesses – we know if we continue to recruit only from the same pool we always have, we won’t tap into the full potential of the workforce. We also know this isn’t just about recruitment or attracting people into industry but keeping people there once they’re in. 

What I want to share here is the diversity and inclusion journey we’ve been on at Atkins in the hope that it encourages more sharing of what’s worked, and more importantly what’s next, across industry.  

The journey so far

When we first started looking at diversity and inclusion our immediate focus was addressing the gender imbalance – there were some stark numbers there we couldn’t ignore.  

At Atkins, the focus on recruiting more women into early careers’ programmes has paid off – in 2018 31% of our graduates were female and 26% of our apprentices. When I speak to people in other industries they aren’t always impressed by those numbers, but considering only 15% of undergraduate engineers are female, they are good figures. Increasing the number of women in engineering at the early career stage is essential if we want to get the gender balance right later on.

We have also started to see an increase in women in mid to senior level roles in the business due in part to initiatives like our award-winning women’s development programme and unconscious bias training. But as always with diversity and inclusion, there is more work to be done here. 

What I do find promising is that we’ve reached a point now where all our senior leaders at Atkins appreciate that a diverse and inclusive workplace is a must to deliver our growth and strategy. They see this not only from a commercial perspective, but from one of integrity - they recognise it is the right thing to do. This has been a real shift in the conversation, and in my view, a good one. 

This senior buy-in has helped us created a solid diversity and inclusion strategy that aligns with wider national and global plans, as well as our own business plans. It’s also given us the green light to appoint senior people, like Victoria Jones, head of talent and recruitment and David Jenkins, practice director, to hold us accountable and push our agenda forward. 

What’s next?

Over the past years, we’ve worked hard to address the gender imbalance, but we know our focus going forward needs to be much broader. Yes, there is an imbalance of women entering the work force, but there is also an imbalance of ethnicity, disability and age. We’ve also recognised that our diversity and inclusion plans shouldn’t just be aimed at leaders but at our whole organisation, empowering everyone to create a more diverse and inclusive work place.  

Our plan going forward focuses on three areas - recruitment, development and engagement. 

On recruitment, we’re launching a new campaign based on strengths. This is founded on our predictions of what the work force will look like in 10-20 years and the different kinds of qualifications and skillsets we’ll need to match that. A key part of this will be retaining our status as Gold Award Holders of the Defence Employer Recognition Scheme for serving or former members of the armed forces. We’ve also set ourselves stretching targets around diversity of intake – 40% female intake in early careers, as well as 30% BAME. 

For development, we’ve started a pilot that pairs senior sponsors with talented employees from under-represented groups to provide support and guidance to ensure they continue to progress and accelerate their careers. We’re also starting reverse mentoring schemes where senior leaders are mentored by people with a different background, whether that’s gender, ethnicity, age or skillset. We hope this will provide new insights for our existing and future leadership within the business. 

With engagement, our focus is on sharing great stories and identifying role models and raising their profile, recognising and reinforcing the right behaviours. We’re also trying to grow and support our staff networks around BAME, Disability and LGBT. We see our staff as the most important group we can engage with – consulting them when making decisions for the business will be critical. 

Still much work to do

So, while we’ve had some success, we recognise there is still much work to do.

We want to be more transparent with our employees around the realities of diversity in our business, sharing our data and targets with them. We want our employees to take ownership of this agenda and drive it forward, knowing that senior leadership is behind them. We also need a better understanding of the range of disabilities our employees have to create a better, more inclusive environment for them. 

Diversity and inclusion in the infrastructure sector can’t just be about gender; it’s a much broader issue. It needs to be about diversity of thinking as much as it is about diversity of people. And it needs to be about a continuing, collaborative journey to create a more diverse and inclusive work place, rather than a race to see how quickly we can get there. 

Jilly Calder is vice president human resource at Atkins.