Big Interview: Charlotte Downes.

Charlotte Downs

Having led the DEI programme at Air New Zealand and the mahi in people experience at Auckland Transport, Charlotte Downes, our Programme Director, knows a thing or two about building strong foundations and growing momentum in the diversity and inclusion space.

We sat down with Charlotte to find out about what’s planned for the future of the Diversity Agenda and what gets her moving.  

How did you first get into diversity and inclusion and why are you passionate about making change in this space?

I’ve had various jobs over the years, from working at ITV in London recruiting set dressers and script editors on Coronation Street and Emmerdale, to working for Action for Employment helping ex-offenders and people termed ‘hardest to help’ find employment. My most recent job overseas was at The Walt Disney company in Shanghai where we recruited Foreign Trainers to teach kids English, the Disney way – working for the mouse was certainly a career highlight.

Why share all this? I’ve worked in and led diverse teams over the years, and hand on heart can say diverse teams make the best teams. Not only from an innovation and creative thinking perspective but most importantly from a cultural perspective. The comradery and learnings we can achieve from making personal connections with people from different backgrounds, helps shape how we see the world.

When I landed my first official Diversity and Inclusion role at Air New Zealand, it felt like coming home. It gave me a strong purpose to make a difference in the people’s lives who worked for the airline, I was hooked. I had felt purpose in jobs before, but this time was different, this was the opportunity I had been waiting for – the chance to create positive change at an organisational level and see everyone thrive because of it.

Being at the helm of The Diversity Agenda is super exciting. It’s the chance to not only change one organisation for the better, but whole professions. I’m super excited for what’s in store as we launch our 2025 strategy and move to action.

What have been your observations of the Diversity Agenda? What makes us different to other initiatives out there?

The Diversity Agenda is unique – I have met many people out there doing this work and been to lots of conferences around the world – you don’t come across many movements like this one.

There are loads of passionate people doing amazing work in this space within their organisations and that’s great, but what sets the Diversity Agenda apart is that as professions across Engineering and Architecture we’re combining forces and coming together to create change – it doesn’t get more powerful than that.

Well, actually – it does get more powerful. The Accord was born out of a desire to do more, measure more and for firms to be held personally accountable for the diversity of their organisations.

I admire the fact the Diversity Agenda has grown a movement of over 150 Diversity Agenda member firms and when that didn’t seem enough, the Accord was created as the next step forward. Now, over 55 signatories have made the ultimate commitment to do more to achieve our goals to create diverse and inclusive industries.

The Diversity Agenda and Accord are the result of a strong desire to want to make change and a motivation to take action – that’s what sets us apart, I’m super proud to be part of the future of this – we’ve laid some strong foundations which will set us up for success as we move forward with our 2025 strategy.

What has been your take on where we’ve come from and how we’re progressing?

If we look back at the history, the first women in engineering group ‘the Women’s Engineering Society’ in Britain was set up in 1918. It was set up to encourage girls to take up engineering and help access education. More than a century later, we’re still trying to increase representation of women in our industries. We’re still seeing only around 20% of women graduating in Engineering in New Zealand.

Women make up around 50% of the graduating university population in Architecture but only 22% become registered architects.  

The average representation of women engineers in firms who responded to the Diversity Agenda survey is 25.4% – this drops to 19.5% of women in leadership roles.

We continue to see low entry and high attrition with women leaving the industry at a higher rate than their male counterparts, due to various factors including dissatisfaction with pay and promotional opportunities, as well as experiencing gender stereotyping and lacking role models at the leadership table.

The statistics of Māori represented in the industry are even more alarming at 2%, with these same statistics mirrored for Pacific peoples.

If we look at the New Zealand population data, all major ethnic groups have increased since the 2013 census, with Māori the fastest growing population, followed closely by Asian and Pacific peoples. Almost one in four New Zealanders identify as having a disability and we’re expected to have 1.2 million people aged over 65 by 2034.

This means the talent entering our organisations is going to be different. We need to ensure our organisational practices, cultures and leadership are set up to include everyone so the world we help create is as diverse and inspiring as the people in it.

It’s been a busy first few months on the job – what have been your biggest priorities?

I’ve spent the last few months working with our industry-led Steering Committee to set a strategy for the Diversity Agenda, to give us clear direction for the future to ensure we’re focussing on the things that will have the biggest impact for people.

To develop our strategy, we’ve been consulting with our Accord signatories to understand their experience being part of the Diversity Agenda and Accord and what we need to be focussing on to turn the dial for our professions. We’ve spoken to 75% of our signatories and the feedback has enabled us to evolve our 2025 Diversity Agenda strategy.

I heard many themes coming through, but one consistent theme that struck a chord with me was the need to get creative to build our workforces for the future. Maybe it’s one of those examples where you can take the girl out of recruitment, but it got me thinking about how as an industry we can widen the talent pool, as opposed to narrowing skill sets, by being more open minded in our hiring approaches.

During one of our consultation interviews, one of our signatories posed the question: do we really need a qualified engineer, or do we just need people with excellent people skills and high learning agility?

I’ve enjoyed getting to know our members and what keeps them awake at night, but also hearing these questions and challenges. It’s been refreshing to hear the high levels of motivation and appetite to think differently about how we solve the challenge of attracting diverse talent within our firms and industries.

Our priority now is to launch our strategy to our Diversity Agenda members and start tackling the exciting challenges that lie ahead to change the game and carve out the future we want for our professions in terms of who we hire, how we work and the culture we create for our people to thrive.

Can you give us a sneak peek into the biggest focus areas for the strategy?

I’m excited to share that after consulting with many of our signatories, partners in the industry and working with our industry-led steering group we have landed on our vision, strategic objectives and deliverables to lead us into the future.

While getting the strategy right is super important, what’s equally important is how we bring it to life for our members and keep it alive as we dive into our deliverables for next year.

Through the consultation period, we heard that people want more opportunities for connection and learning from their industry peers and beyond, more access to tools and resources and connection to other support providers and initiatives, to ensure we’re capitalising on what’s already available.

Our Accord signatories also told us that Te Tiriti o Waitangi should be a clear and empowering dimension of the strategy and that we need to be authentic in how we approach initiatives. We have the opportunity to move the conversation in industry from being a Diversity and Inclusion programme to being human-centred and remembering everything we do is about people.

We’ve listened and incorporated this feedback into our 2025 strategy which we’re launching to our Diversity Agenda members and whānau next week [8 November 2022].

It’ll be an amazing event featuring exciting talks, great kai, plenty of opportunities to meet others committed to the movement, and of course the launch of our new Strategy which will guide our mahi through to 2025 and beyond.

Where do you see the Diversity Agenda in 5–10 years’ time?  

As trail blazers with aspirations to change entire professions, I see us growing the movement within the next five years beyond New Zealand to have success creating positive change on a global scale.

My aspiration is that in 10 years we look back at the Diversity Agenda and Accord and reminisce about the good old days when we needed a movement to create positive change. It would be great to get to a point in time where our work is done; we have diversity at all levels of our organisations, we have equal pay for equal work, we have inclusive cultures where – regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or ability – everyone feels included and is thriving at all levels of our organisations and across our professions.

It will be at that point we can reflect on the last 100 or more years in history and hand on heart say we contributed to that – we made it better, together. That’ll be a special moment.

Any advice for businesses wondering about joining as Diversity Agenda members or Accord signatories? What’s the value for them?  

If you’re thinking about making the ultimate commitment of becoming an Accord signatory, now’s the time.

Here are a couple of good reasons why your organisation should join us:

  • We’ll give you support and tools to empower you to bring change to your organization.
  • You’ll join a network of organisations from across the country who are all seeking the same goal. Let’s share our knowledge so we can all get there faster.
  • Show your current and prospective employees that you mean business when it comes to being a diverse and inclusive organisation.
  • We want our engineering and architecture professions here in New Zealand to show the world what can be achieved. Help us by helping yourself.

Get in touch to learn more. We’d love to hear from you.


If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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