Eye on the target

Laing O'Rourke Thinking series
7 min read

As a company in which just 25% of global staff are women, Laing O’Rourke’s recent announcement that it’s planning to achieve equal numbers of men and women among its 5,500 global staff by 2033 is hugely ambitious.

Since the company made the announcement as part of its new sustainability strategy, it has been asked why it decided to set a target – by its own employees and by external stakeholders. This article will answer that question and explain how the company hopes to achieve the target.

The company’s commitment to investing in diversity isn’t just a quota or a box to be ticked. It’s about accelerating fundamental change to the business to ensure it becomes a more balanced, thoughtful, and innovative organisation. This requires a shift in thinking and behaviour across the business – in its operations and all its support functions – setting a target helps focus people on achieving this.

It’s also about more than gender, because it will mean the company builds a pool of talent with broader experiences, different educational backgrounds and professional training, and wider ranging cultural and social reference points. The plan will bring them together in an inclusive environment and a more collaborative way of working to ensure better decisions are made.

Quote icon

We have decided to set specific targets, beginning with gender, because promises to try harder don’t work.

Madeleina Loughrey-Grant Group Legal Director and Chair of the Group Sustainability Committee

Madeleina goes on to explain that creating an inclusive working environment, where the experience people have within the organisation will shape whether they thrive and stay, or struggle and leave.

Creating inclusivity

The business understands that creating an inclusive environment requires its teams to be better balanced, more diverse and to have tangible goals to work towards. The Europe Hub drew upon the experience of Australian colleagues, where as part of a gender action plan a focus was placed on increasing the pipeline of women in project leadership roles.

Helen Fraser, General Manager of the People function within Australia explains that the catalyst for change was the realisation three years ago that the influential project leadership roles remained almost exclusively held by men and, as she says “it just didn’t seem right. If we truly want to change this business, they’re [project leadership] very important, powerful roles and we knew it had to shift.”

The goal was set to build female representation in that cohort from 10.5% to 15% by the end of 2020, and today it sits at 16%. Helen acknowledges this is still too low, but proffers that it is making a significant difference on projects and providing the basis for ongoing change.

Designing for change

The newly formed Technical function has made great strides in establishing a diverse team make-up. Australia and Europe hubs are both led by female Technical Directors, Sarah Crennan and Jo Vezey respectively. Jo, who is Technical Director in Europe, believes that a better gender balance is vital, but that it must be part of a wider diversity strategy.

A civil engineer by background, she has worked around the globe on projects across various sectors and has previously led the Human Capital (now known as the People) function at Laing O’Rourke. Jo firmly believes that you establish a more innovative and productive team if diversity runs through it – and by that she means diversity of thought as well as of protected characteristics.

Quote icon

It’s not just about gender. It’s also about wider experiences. For example, you need a team which is made up of people from different ethnic, and social backgrounds, different nationalities who bring a wide range of professional experiences gleaned from different sectors.

Jo Vezey Technical Director, Europe

She continues: “If you have a much greater breadth of experience it means there is not just one way of working. You go a long way towards creating a culture of understanding and collaboration. You hear fewer people saying, ‘We’re doing it this way because that’s the way we have always done it’, so different voices allow different approaches.”

Jo brought this philosophy to life by working closely with the company’s executive search partners to fill technical leader and project technical leader roles. Together they achieved change by challenging the status quo in the company’s recruitment process; pushing for balanced shortlists, creating diverse interview panels and putting role models with contrasting backgrounds forward. She explains; “I wanted us to find a more diverse range of people who would get the job on merit, not to fulfil a quota.”

The Technical leadership team within the Europe Hub has made great strides, currently split 55% male to 45% female.

Jo goes on to explain: “We need to develop a clear training and career path, so that people can see how their role will develop over time. We also need to work out the best approach to a more balanced pipeline of talent at all levels – is it through apprentices, graduates, returners or other ways?”

Dynamic working

Underpinning this approach must be a willingness to shape roles more flexibly. Too many talented and experienced women leave the industry in the middle of their career because there are not enough options that allow them to combine their job with the demands of family life. That “mid-career revolving door” will only be removed if employers and employees allow flexibility, and Laing O’Rourke is currently trialling and piloting dynamic and hybrid working models, shaped by the changes people have had to make to their working lives during the pandemic.

“We have been in lockdown, with many people working remotely while others have been required to continue travelling to their projects – all in a time of great uncertainty. It’s strengthened our trust in one another to get the job done, rather than rely on presenteeism. It has been said by many people, but experiments in dynamic working that may have taken a generation have been thrust upon us – and we’ve made it work. We’ve learned so much,” says Jo.

She accepts that there are those who question targets, but stresses that the main aim should be to recruit people from as wide a pool of talent as possible, based on merit and that means recruiting more women.

Jo concludes: “Different voices do ensure different approaches. An openness and a willingness to listen is vital. Diversity in leadership also leads to a more diverse workforce as they look for a wider range of qualities in recruitment and act as mentors to those who work for them.

“The central purpose of greater diversity and equality has to be the creation of a better business, with a highly-skilled workforce that mirrors Laing O’Rourke’s ambition to transform itself and the wider construction sector. Greater gender diversity will be an enabler of our mission to be the recognised leader for innovation and excellence.”