Analysis

Diversity - why theory differs from practice

At an individual level women are not incentivised to promote other women argues Manon Bradley, development director at the Major Projects Association, and Founder, The Portrait Club - a group aimed at trying to increase diversity in major projects.

I work in the area of major projects – big change projects, infrastructure – rail, road – that sort of thing.  The public projects delivered by the government are amongst the most ambitious and important in the country.  They include: major infrastructure, for example Crossrail or Thameslink; connecting the nation through broadband; building hospitals and schools and many more.

"These are women who from the age of 16 have been in the minority – in school, college and university.  They have learnt to tolerate a much higher degree of difference that the norm.  These women, unlike their male counterparts, do not feel the same social need to be surrounded by other women."

When I started working in this field I would see about one woman for every ten men.  My key measure of this has always been the seating plan for our annual dinner.  With over 150 guests seated at tables of 10 we would start the seating plan by allocating the a women to each table.  In the past 10 years never, ever have we had more than 20 women in the room.  And I began to scratch my head over this.  Why are so few women in senior positions in this field?  And why hasn’t the situation changed in the past 10 years. 

There have been initiatives to encourage more women into these fields for decades particularly in the fields of science, technology and engineering which are often the starting points for a career in major projects:  Women in Science, Technology and Engineering (WISE) has been leading the way on this for 25 years.  But still according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency only 15% of UK engineering graduates are women.  And at a professional level this figure halves with the IET finding that just 7 per cent of the total UK workforce in this area are female. 

Yet we all agree that this cannot be allowed to continue – the UK is facing a skills crisis. We also know that greater diversity in our teams leads to better decisions. So why so little change?  My belief is simple – the benefits which come from employing and promoting more women are all project benefits, and company benefits.  When you look to the level of the individual there are competing pressures taking place. 

In the first instance, on the level of the individual, women are discouraged from entering male dominated professions in the first place.  In female dominated professions women have a greater chance of being appointed and promoted; they have more opportunities which lead to senior leadership roles and they get paid more.  Individually, we can all be heavily influenced by unconscious bias in favour of men in recruitment and selection decisions as well as in awarding salary increases and investing in ongoing progression.

There are also the social pressures of wanting to be with “people like me”.  Most of us are more comfortable around others like us whether this be race, ethnicity or gender.  So individual men in male dominated professions prefer it like this and seek to continue this pattern by appointing and promoting “people like them”  Within the professions the individual-level pressures accentuate and increase the male dominance due to the cultural need for sameness  without, I would suggest, a similarly balancing need of those women who are already there. 

For the women who already work in male dominated STEM professions there is an opposite social pressure.  These are women who from the age of 16 have been in the minority – in school, college and university.  They have learnt to tolerate a much higher degree of difference that the norm.  These women, unlike their male counterparts, do not feel the same social need to be surrounded by other women.  In fact their singularity can be their stand-out feature.  At the level of the individual, there is less of a cultural pressure for them to recruit and promote other women.

So, whilst collectively, we talk about the importance of increasing the number of women in these typically male dominated professions, the pressures at the level of individual fight against us.  In theory diversity is good for us, in practice our individual needs and preferences mean that it doesn’t happen.  Is it any wonder that little has changed?

This article first appeared on the Guardian Public Leaders network which can be viewed here 

All views are authors own and not representative of the MPA