Case studies

How Willmott Dixon is working towards gender parity among its workforce

27 May 2021 By Eleanor Whitehouse

The construction firm is embarking on various change initiatives to achieve its ambitious goal by 2030

Historically, the construction industry hasn’t been best known for its gender diversity. Analysis of official figures in 2019 by union GMB found the sector’s workforce was just 12.5 per cent female – and with this number having increased by 2.1 percentage points, equivalent to just 60,000 workers, during the preceding decade, at the same rate it would take nearly two centuries to achieve gender parity.

But some firms are doing everything they can to reach the holy grail of 50/50 gender representation far quicker than 200 years; in particular, construction and property services company Willmott Dixon plans to do so in just nine. The organisation – which has 3,000 employees as well as a regular supply chain of 7,000 – has already reached more than double the industry average, with a 27 per cent female workforce, and has ambitious plans to reach a 50/50 split. The industry has, in the past, explains chief people officer Rick Lee, “not been particularly attractive” for women, although that is set to change, with the rest of the sector slowly coming on board. “The industry has a skills gap – but if 48 per cent of the available workforce is female, and we’ve only got 12.5 per cent, then we’re missing a trick,” he says.

For Lee, treating the target as a piece of organisational change work has been key to reaching the company’s goal. For example, defining the language used to articulate the case was important to help the workforce relate to it, so the work was presented in line with one of the company’s core values of having complimentary teams.

And following making the case for the change came actually embedding it. As well as a national gender diversity steering group covering the entire firm, Willmott Dixon also created several local steering groups within its regional businesses to drive the change at a more granular level. Finding the right people to champion the change, says Lee, was “absolutely key”. He recruited people to the steering groups who ticked two boxes: they were passionate about wanting to attract more women to the industry, and influential within the company. “These people are respected within the organisation – hierarchy is irrelevant,” he explains. 

Trying to market the career opportunities in construction to the female workforce meant starting at the very beginning. Having previously found that careers advisers in schools were actively putting young girls off this path, Lee and his team implemented a plan to “influence the influencers”, and now host open days specifically for careers advisers to promote the range of options on offer in the industry. “They’ve told us their thinking has been transformed,” he says. “And they’ll now actively encourage young girls to choose STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] careers.”

The company is also focusing on several specific groups of the workforce to target those with the right skills but who may have previously not considered construction, including Armed Forces leavers and those returning to work after a career break, the latter of which has seen a number of women join the firm from sectors including financial services, banking and retail. “We’re looking to attract women who are good leaders, good with people and good project managers,” explains Lee.

But with the industry notorious for its unsociable working hours, key to engagement for all staff, not just women, was better agile and flexible working – further accelerated by the Covid pandemic. Following a successful trial at one of its sites – in which the team’s working week was reduced from 52 hours to 45 by allowing flexible finish times and standardising meeting times, resulting in the project being completed seven weeks ahead of schedule – the company rolled out agile working across its entire workforce, and also introduced a home working allowance. Eighty-nine per cent of employees now say they are supported to work in an agile or flexible way.  

Willmott Dixon’s focus on achieving gender parity (it’s the “biggest area of disparity”, explains Lee) does also not mean other areas of inclusion and diversity are neglected. “There’s a universal need for people to feel a sense of belonging and appreciation at work, and that’s what inclusion and diversity is all about,” says Lee. The firm’s local businesses have got involved in nearby Pride events in recent years, and Lee says another focus is to expand the representation of ethnic minorities among the workforce. The company also ensures sites are inclusive, with outside cabins offering prayer rooms, toilets equipped with sanitary products and extra support for disabled visitors. It is also a Disability Confident accredited employer.

And the firm’s work to improve gender diversity and other measures of inclusion are clearly being appreciated internally – 91 per cent of its staff agree they are working in a fully inclusive environment, and 100 per cent say they feel proud to work for Willmott Dixon. But the number of external accolades also speaks for itself. It recently made it on to The Times Top 50 Employers for Women list for the third year running, is the highest-placed construction firm on the Financial Times Diversity Leaders Index, and has been in the top five Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For for two years. But for Lee, just being chosen isn’t the end goal: “Over time, we’re going to see more and more construction companies on those lists and, for us, that’s the really important thing.”

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