Paul Hodgkinson wants 50% of Simons Group employees to be female by 2011. Here's why
simons group has set an unusual target, one that, in the macho world of construction and property development, is regarded as rather loony at best, and suicidal at worst. It is to increase the percentage of women in our company to 50% over the next 10 years. So why have we embarked on this course of action? I have to admit that this idea came about as a result of my wife and I hiring a male au pair to look after our two boys. What became obvious very quickly was that although they were having a great time playing every sport imaginable – rugby, football, ice hockey, tennis – with their new big brother, they were bathing less often and the laundry never got taken upstairs! After this experience, I started to look at Simons and wonder whether the male/female mix could not be part of the reason that we sometimes struggle to really deliver what clients, consultants and we ourselves want to achieve. Too many clients, professionals and contractors are happy to spend hours working on the design and contractual/technical delivery of projects, but no time on the team dynamic that will deliver.

Our clients all want better communication, zero-defects projects, consensual and partnering relationships and 360° awareness about all client and stakeholder group interests. At Simons, we think that the chances of achieving these aims will increase significantly if we increase the number of women in project teams. This is because women tend to be better at finishing things off, at juggling lots of different issues, and at helping the team to work better as a whole.

All projects involve teamwork. The team includes everyone from our construction and development staff to consultants, clients, funds and agents. As an extra tool, we use Belbin profiles on teams to look not at the skills of the team, but at how the team will interact. Professor Meredith Belbin has extended his team working observations to cover the difference between the sexes. When a group of men get together, they tend to be competitive, physical, loud and sometimes ugly. They can achieve single direction objectives, but tend to steamroller objectors and weaker members. Put in a more liberal mix of women, and the men will change their behaviour towards a more "normal" style.

We at Simons want to find ways to increase the statistical chance of projects being successful. If this means altering the gender balance of the company, why should this be so radical? Because it's one thing to be logical, analytical and rational, but it's another thing to deliver on that analysis – as the construction industry knows only too well.

Women tend to be better at finishing things off, juggling lots of different issues and helping the team to work better

Out of 1000 employees in our group, only 135 are female. Most are in administrative and support functions, though we have a few contracts managers and site agents/craftswomen. Within our consultancy business areas, the male/female mix is much better. Our only female director – of one of our associated companies, environmental consultant QDS – recently returned to the USA so we can no longer claim to have senior-level female focus. We need to close the knowing-doing gap. We know what the problem or opportunity is, but how do we put action into place to correct and adjust our business results? Positive action is the answer. What does that mean? We are not allowed to discriminate, even if it has a good effect. We can't advertise for teamworking women to join a male-dominated world, so we have to send out messages to all parts of the company, mainly via the human resources function and line managers, that this target is likely to produce a positive cultural change and that we think that's a good idea.

Of course, we don't want to hire women who are not as good as men just because we want to change the balance. To complicate matters further, the supply of female candidates for jobs in all parts of the industry is short. For every 100 site managers applying for a job, we would be lucky to find two female applicants. So when we do find them, we need to support, coach and encourage them more than the men.

This can be seen as preferential treatment, but I am convinced that if we adjust the balance in our company, the end result will be better-balanced teams. As if to reinforce the point, the male au pair has gone home and we have reverted to a female helper. The laundry now gets taken upstairs, the homework is done and the boys smell better, but they are still doing sports.