Disappointing diversity statistics should not make us sigh and shrug – recognising that it simply isn’t good enough should spur us all to take effective action

Richard Threlfall

I’m writing this before seeing the results of Building’s latest survey into diversity in the construction industry (out on Friday). But I think it’s a safe bet that it is not going to surprise me, or you, with evidence of stupendous progress that’s been made in driving diversity in our industry. And that itself is telling, and depressing, isn’t it? We all care deeply about improving diversity in this industry, so we say, but we’ve got used to an apparent reality that whatever we say, the stats don’t seem to move. So we can predict the outcome of this survey before we see it. Are we really trying hard enough? 

We are just not taking the lack of diversity in our industry sufficiently seriously. If we were, we would have made more progress than we have

I mean diversity in its broadest sense. We know gender diversity is one of the construction industry’s biggest challenges, and that construction has materially worse gender diversity than any other UK industry, according to analysis of Office for National Statistics (ONS) data where UK construction’s 13% female workforce compares with 20% in transportation and 21% in energy and mining – the other two worst sectors. If we split out from construction the proportion of women in engineering, that is even worse, at only 11%, according to the Women’s Engineering Society and STEM Women. 

But diversity on other measures is not great either. At the last census, in 2011, 13% of the UK population identified as black, Asian or of an ethnic minority (BAME); ONS data suggests the percentage in UK construction is just over half that, at 7.4%; the CITB’s 2015 survey said 4%. And the 2018 OutNext / PwC Out to Succeed survey found construction had the third worst image of an industry as an LGBT+ employer. 

We are just not taking the lack of diversity in our industry sufficiently seriously. If we were, we would have made more progress than we have. We can all list initiatives that individuals and organisations are taking, but I’m measuring outcomes not inputs. And the outcomes tell us that our attempts to address diversity in our industry are failing. So what should we do? 

Delegation of promoting diversity away from the very top of a company just says one thing: relative to other stuff this doesn’t really matter

Treat diversity as an industry priority

And tackle it collectively, with targets. Many individual companies are trying hard, but the industry is not working together. If you think about the progress that has been made on safety in the industry, for example, you will see it has come not just from what businesses have done themselves, but also from standards, regulation and procurement requirements. Injuring employees has become completely unacceptable. What would we do together if we started from the premise that the lack of diversity in our industry is completely unacceptable?

Demand leadership from the very top

One of my observations is that if you look at who is championing the cause of women in the industry, it is mostly women. The cause of ethnic minorities is mostly led by individuals who identify as BAME and the cause of LGBT+ inclusion by individuals who identify as part of that community. So what does that tell us? A CEO doesn’t delegate responsibility for growth. Delegation away from the very top just says one thing – relative to other stuff this doesn’t really matter. The point is powerfully made in the Major Project Association’s (MPA) 2017 report “Gender balance interventions in major projects”, which says: “In male-dominated organisations, which are common within major projects, it is even more important to see male champions of change. Those champions need to be ‘playing on the pitch’ not just ‘cheering from the sidelines’”. I agree. 

Invest in people, not processes 

Laura Liswood, who I had the privilege to meet earlier this year, argues in her latest book The Loudest Duck, that society divides into dominant and non-dominant groups, and that non-dominant groups (in UK construction that is anyone who is not a white male) need to be proactively encouraged and supported by leaders who possess “heightened emotional intelligence, awareness, observation and listening skills” if a diverse business is to thrive. Her recommendations include ensuring fair and equal access to your time as a leader, and encouraging the silent to speak up. As someone who has chaired numerous conference calls where resounding silence is common, I have work to do on that myself. If you are an industry leader reading this, what do you need to work on?

Focus on what works

The same MPA report draws attention to BCG’s 2017 Global Gender Diversity Survey, and in particular its classification of diversity initiatives into “baseline”, “proven”, “overrated” and “hidden gems”. The last category includes the visibility of role models, promoting internal and external networks, and addressing unconscious bias. There is no shortage of reports, data and analysis – but there is a shortage of leaders in our industry, and others, taking notice and acting on it.

So as you finish reading this, and reflecting on the results of Building’s survey, what do you think? That next year you will be reading something that says the same again? Or that it’s about time we collectively do something?

Richard Threlfall is global head of infrastructure at KPMG

Read the results and analysis of Building’s survey into diversity in the construction industry on Friday

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