Jordan Marshall speaks to Faithful & Gould’s diversity and inclusion lead Dara Jafari about what it takes
To kick things off, what do you think is one of the keys to attracting and retaining a diverse workforce?
Dara Jafari (DJ): I feel like I cannot understate the importance of role models. In our business, we’ve recently increased the number of diverse hires and our retention numbers have been really positive. So, the EDI lead for Atkins approached me and said: “Hey what is it you’re doing differently this year, your targets are good? And you’re doing really well in terms of your hiring? What is it you think you’re doing right?” I would have loved to have gone back with, “It’s because of this diverse hiring panel that we’ve got, or because we’ve approached X Y, Z in this manner.” But genuinely, I think the shift within our company has been the rise of internal role models and those role models being really visible externally and talking about their roles and how much they enjoy it.
I know certainly growing up myself, I always thought that being in the construction industry, or being in this field was just a means for me to earn a living. I didn’t really see that I could reach highs and be a leader in a business. I look back and I am that person now, which still surprises me, but what I love is that I’ve become a role model and that’s so humbling.
If you’re from a diverse background and underrepresented group and you’re in the construction sector, you’re a role model. Whatever position you’re in, you are a role model to some extent, because you represent a very small minority of the construction industry, meaning you’ve had to overcome barriers to get there and you’re still overcoming them now.
That makes perfect sense but for firms who are struggling, how do you go about addressing that? Because if you don’t have those role models, how do you go about getting that into the business?
DJ: I think that the answer isn’t, ‘let’s just make some diverse hires’ at senior leadership levels, I don’t think that’s the answer. If you can do that in a non-biased way, then great. But if you’re having issues that suggests to me, you’re probably not able to do that, for whatever reason. It’s going take time as a firm, but you need to start at grass roots, and really cast a wide net. You need to think about what would make the firm appealing to a diverse range of people, really think about the audience and the content that you’re putting out.
It can’t just constantly be about putting out content about technical expertise and professionalism, because for the new generation of people, that’s not as important to them - they can learn all that in a second. What’s important to people now is cultures and values.
Once you’ve identified that you’ve got a diverse talent pipeline, you really need to have good structures in place to make sure that that talent is being nurtured and in the right way, and it’s not too in your face. It can’t be ‘I’m going to nurture this talent, because you’re from a diverse background’. It needs to be that if they’re good at their job make sure they’re getting the right attention, the right training and that they’ve got the appetite as well.
It is going to take time and I’m talking years, but you will start seeing more talented people from diverse backgrounds in senior roles eventually and once you’ve got that, and you’re demonstrating it, shout about it. That’s how we’re in the position that we are.
On that nurturing talent piece, what do you think are some of the other challenges to retention of people from underrepresented backgrounds?
DJ: If I look around me at the director level, there are really not many other people that are, strictly speaking, from an ethnic minority background. I think for myself, I grew up sort of code switching, which is not the best way to be, but I grew up being able to be half English and half Iranian. So, I find that okay. But certainly, for other people that would be quite a lonely place, I imagine, and I can imagine that’s the reason why they would look at different industries let alone different companies. And again, it’s going to take time, isn’t it?
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Do you think we are getting to grips with the scale of the challenge the industry faces from an equality and diversity perspective?
DJ: That’s a problem in itself. There is research being done on ethnic minorities and women, because that’s the data that’s collected. I really think that once you start collecting it from other groups, that might start painting something that is certainly not a good picture. So to truly get to grips with this we need to start collecting data. And we have to be honest.
We must tell people why we’re collecting this data. Because if you’re in an industry that’s completely non-diverse, let’s be frank, you’d be really paranoid about why they want this information. Why do they want to know my sexuality or if I’ve got disability? Because if they look around the office or the construction site there’s not going to be many other people that they can associate with. So, the best way to do it is to be honest and say the reason for collecting it is because we’ve been terrible about getting diverse workforces. We need to identify how many numbers we have, so we can work towards something and benchmark and know that we’re doing better or worse.
So, do you think that is sort of like an industry wide approach that could be taken? And how would that sort of look?
DJ: I’ve really been thinking about it hard recently because I’ve seen different bodies publishing about what we need to do on diversity. But it’d be good if one or two of those bodies were to get together. I think doing it on a company basis isn’t the most productive way. I mean, fortunately, in the EDI space, people tend to collaborate when it comes to this. But obviously, it’s always better if you have an overarching body come in.
I would love to see someone like the Royal Institute of Charteres Surveyors start actually enforcing it, saying “You know what, if you want to have your accreditation on our website, then we need to know you’ve got X, Y, and Z”. I would say that as a minimum, you’d want to know that they’re collecting the data, that they’ve got EDI policies in place and that they’re willing to learn about EDI. That’d be amazing. We’ve all got insurance hoops and professional qualification hoops to jump through, why not have something with equality, diversity and inclusion as well?
That would be really interesting. How would you this is set up? Would they be hard and fast targets, or would there be an intermediary stage?
DJ: I think there’s always going to be a period of you needing to demonstrate that you’re working towards this, that you’re working towards putting these policies in place. That’s why I mentioned willing to learn, you need to be willing to demonstrate you want to cooperate in the space and be upskilled and your staff are working towards this.
There has to be one or two professional bodies coming together, I think to really take a hold of it. And then eventually we can have firm requirements in place, even if that sounds drastic now. That might be say having 30% or 40% of women on your senior leadership team and 20% ethnic minorities. That sounds drastic saying that but 50% of society is women, isn’t it? And with a firm in central London for example, some areas have 40% ethnic minorities. But firms don’t have anybody in your leadership teams that are women or ethnic minority and you’re out there building and designing the structures in those areas. To me, that doesn’t make sense.
On that point, how does EDI interplay with the idea of social value?
DJ: At a lot of firms the buzzword at the minute is social value. And we need to look at how we are doing that, how that can tie into diversifying our industry. We need to go into areas and schools that we know have high levels of ethnic minority populations, as an example, and talk to them about the construction industry. And we need to try to not send three white men to those panels, we need to try to think of different people to send.
We could also be asking the people in question. We can do surveys of people in schools, but I think there needs to be a far-reaching, focused effort to engage with 14–15-year-olds in schools and say: “Do you know what the construction industry is? Is there anything about it that you like? What would attract you to an industry?” We should do that; I don’t think that’s ever been done.
To wrap things up, do you think as an industry there is an appetite for change?
DJ: Well 18 months ago, when I started in this role, if there was something that I didn’t agree with, I would never speak up about it, I would just ping an email around or maybe just casually suggest a change. But I think there’s so much momentum, especially because of the pandemic and the state of the economy, about things just needing to be more equal and fairer. That’s really driven me to want to speak up more.
I went to an awards show a couple of months ago and I was on stage presenting an award about ED&I, and I looked around and there’s just a sea of white men at the front. And I called it out while I was on stage, I had a script to stick to but I called it out saying that our construction industry needs to do a lot better. I said people needed to look around the room and think about who they’ve invited and why. It could have been other people in your company that came there. And I got a clap. I thought I was going to get dead silence.
I mean that probably shows that there is at least some propensity for change and that there is appetite for it? Even if it is happening slowly.
DJ: I would have said a couple of years ago the appetite for change wasn’t there, but I think the noise and the momentum from employees and so many young people coming into the industry now is that they want these things to happen. So, I think there is now a call for senior leaders to have a look at their company and look within themselves to try to really gauge, do they really want this change? Because I see a lot of policies out there but I don’t see a lot of change. Let’s just hope we really are turning a corner.