‘Collaboration will improve diversity in engineering and the built environment’

Dr Sarah Prichard picture courtesy of Buro Happold

The new chair of the board of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) says it has been “wonderful” to see the significant increase in diversity throughout her 20-year career in the construction industry.

Speaking on International Women in Engineering Day, Dr Sarah Prichard said that when she started her career as a graduate engineer, there were very few women in leadership positions.

Whilst she admits there is still a long way to go, Dr Prichard says there is now a significant number of senior women in the industry to act as role models for women joining the industry, with two out of six people on the ACE group board being women.

Dr Prichard, who is also UK managing director of Buro Happold, also points to the fact that the firm now has 11 female partners – including seven in the UK – as evidence that there is something of a sea change occurring in the industry, which she believes stands to significantly benefit from having more diverse teams. 

“It is well known and proven that diverse leadership teams lead to better business outcomes, a decrease in group-think, and have a more inclusive leadership ethos,” she says.

“It should therefore be a no-brainer for firms across the sector to look to increase the diversity of their leadership.”

According to Dr Prichard, diverse teams are also more marketable, as she believes clients are increasingly diverse in their leadership and are looking for this to be mirrored in their consultant teams.

“If we are to succeed in our bidding and search for work as consultants, we need to field strong, capable diverse teams to match that of our clients,” she says, adding perceptions of the diverse array of careers in construction and engineering are also changing.  

“The historic understanding of construction as a mucky career is now the exception rather than the rule,” she says.

“This should certainly not be allowed to put anyone off.”

Dr Prichard said it was important to promote careers in engineering and STEM to girls at a young age, with schools, parents and other adults all having a role to play, as people who can strongly influence career choices – even at an early age. 

“All members of the construction industry can find ways to be influential in this area, and should be encouraged to lean in,” she adds.

Dr Prichard added there was undoubtedly a need to “increase diversity in all its guises” as equity, diversity and inclusion for the sector “goes well beyond the male-female debate”.

“We need to increase diversity in all of its guises, whilst not disenfranchising our colleagues already in the sector,” she said.

“We need to help them be allies and advocates for a more inclusive and diverse workforce which will have positive benefits for us all.”

Dr Prichard admits it can sometimes feel like change is happening at a frustratingly slow pace, but it was important for industry leaders to keep plugging away and working together to make a difference.

“We have all been working on this subject for a number of years and it’s not easy - and sometimes it feels as if we aren’t moving the dial quickly enough,” she says. 

“We must not despair and put it in the ‘too hard’ box, but engage with peers and collaborators and share stories and experiences. 

“Through working together, we are more likely to succeed more quickly.”

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