How ‘good’ looks different in women

Clare Wildfire, technical principal at Mott MacDonald

As we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day this Sunday, Clare Wildfire looks at the different skills women bring to the workplace – and how management must change to take these into account.

As chair of Advance, Mott MacDonald’s equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) network, I have been involved in discussions about how to increase gender diversity at senior levels in both my own and other organisations in our industry. 

And I have increasingly boiled it down to a single soundbite: “Remember that good looks different in women”. Companies with predominantly male leadership instinctively look for their future leaders through a ‘male lens’ that picks up on traditionally male skillsets. However, women tend to bring a different skillset to the business, meaning subtle shifts in management and recruitment practices are needed to create a level playing field. Here are some examples of this different skillset, and how leaders can view things differently: 

1. Leadership

There is a move towards valuing styles of leadership that encourage employees to feel more empowered and engaged, with a positive effect on the bottom line. In fact, Business in the Community states that companies with inclusive leaders are 70% more likely to have captured a new market in the past 12 months and 45% more likely to increase market share. 

But what is ‘inclusive’ leadership and why is this relevant to the gender debate? The ability to listen, understand, motivate and empower staff is crucial, and this requires empathy, one of those ‘softer skills’ more often attributed to women and usually embedded in how girls are socialised in many cultures. Empathy is an essential and undervalued attribute for at least two reasons relevant to our industry:

  • Successful negotiation requires the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
  • Creating collaborative and supportive environments requires an understanding and appreciation of difference and diversity. 

2. The value of delegation and time management skills

The majority of part-time workers are women, and we should value the incredibly useful management skills that juggling work and life commitments brings. There is nothing like a daily deadline to encourage good time management, and nothing like a part-time remit to encourage a focus on desired outcomes. These skills are not given enough respect in their own right, and in my experience those with caring responsibilities are generally very efficient workers.  

Enabling part-time workers to perform at their best requires a shift from management of outputs to management of outcomes. This is not always easy. I remember a line manager who was hesitant to promote a part-time member of their team ahead of others who worked full-time. Despite acknowledging that the part-time worker was a star performer, the sticking point was “but they can’t be working as hard as those who are working five days a week”. 

However, I have seen many examples of good practice too, such as a manager who, understanding the stress that travel uncertainty brings to those rushing home to pick up children, suggested that a member of staff leave an hour earlier and finish off any work at home instead. 

3. A different attitude to risk . . . 

Research shows that men and women see risk and opportunity in different ways, and that they act differently as a result. I noticed from my early days as a project engineer that I was unusual in that when faced with a question where the answer was not immediately obvious I’d be more likely to say “I’ll get back to you” than my male counterparts, who would tend to make a more instant judgement. 

"Research shows that men and women see risk and opportunity in different ways and that they act differently as a result.The tendancy for women to be more willing to seek expert advice than men has been suggested as one of the reasons why companies with gender balanced boards are less likely to be sued."

In fact, a tendency for women to be more cautious in decision making and more willing to seek expert advice than men has been suggested as one of the reasons why companies with gender-balanced boards are less likely to be sued for breaching environmental laws. And in an increasingly disruptive world, where precedence is less and less likely to be a good barometer for the future, this is another attribute to be valued.  

4. . . . and to failure

Those who work with me know I’m no shrinking violet. However, I realised recently that I don’t put myself in positions where I could easily fail. And failure is good, right? From failure you learn to be better next time. The reason for my lack of risk-taking is partly due to the little voice in my head telling me that when I fail I’m letting the whole of my female engineering cohort down. I know from speaking to colleagues that many other women feel the same. Managers must be able to nurture their employees and recognise their potential, especially when they don’t naturally put themselves forward for new opportunities.

5. A more cautious approach to career development

Many will have heard the metric quoted that men typically apply for a role if they meet two thirds of stated requirements, whereas women tend to apply if they meet all or almost all aspects of the job description. This difference in confidence shows itself in the recruitment process and must be recognised to ensure a more gender-balanced candidate pool.  

A recent example of this comes to mind. A public sector acquaintance was recruiting for a senior position and made their contact details available for questions about the role. They noted that men tended to articulate what they were good at to find out if the role would suit them, whereas women generally focused on finding out about the job’s responsibilities and logistics, to check if they were suitable for the role. We mustn’t let this difference in approach result in a perception that those displaying more confidence are likely to be better candidates. 

6. The value of relationship building

I have never hugged as many people in my career as I have since becoming chair of Advance - from senior leaders to fellow diversity advocates and graduates. This outward and relatively immediate show of compassion seems to really strike a chord in people I meet and, for me, often forms a key part of relationship building. More generally, women can place a higher value on the social aspect of their jobs and the importance of interpersonal relationships, with physical interaction just one manifestation of this. This is another ‘soft skill’ women bring to our industry, where strong collaboration is key. 

The different skills and behaviours women bring to the workplace can be a real asset to any organisation. However, if managers are steeped in a male-majority culture they may overlook or ignore these skillsets in favour of behaviours they are more familiar with. This does a disservice to women – as well as to men who do not conform to these ‘types’ – meaning the organisation will struggle with diversity, innovati.on and growth as a result. Recognising the differences women bring will not only help them to progress, it will bring great benefits to the sector as the profession learns to make the most of its diverse workforce. 

Clare Wildfire is a technical principal at Mott MacDonald.