Big Interview: Mayurie Gunatilaka.

Arup, among the most recent signatories to the Accord, are designers, engineering and sustainability consultants operating in over 33 countries worldwide.

In this Big Interview, Arup’s New Zealand Country Leader Mayurie Gunatilaka explains her motivations to sign the Diversity Agenda Accord and details some of the mahi Arup are doing in Aotearoa that set the standard for their global operations.

Tell us a little about Arup, your role and where it intersects with the diversity and inclusion space.

I lead the New Zealand Arup Business. That means everything from the operational side of looking after our people, project delivery and through to making sure our clients are well looked after and we’re influential in the industry. An important part of the role is to ensure our people have the best environment to thrive in and our business culture supports that.

Have you noticed a change in the culture since you came on board two years ago?

Arup is a very strong values-led organisation. The founder, Ove Arup had six key values that are still lived today in the business, one of which is a ‘humane organisation’, which is a way of saying that we put our people and their lived experience in our business at the forefront. It goes hand in hand with another value of ‘reasonable prosperity’, and being an organisation that does “socially useful” work. We continue to challenge each other and ensure that we are living these values in the business.

What has compelled you to action in areas of diversity and inclusion? Why commit to a diverse and inclusive workforce?

Throughout my career I’ve always said it’s important we recognise, enable and empower talent. As I’ve worked through my career I’ve seen how some people find it easier for their talent to flourish, and others have a harder journey, but the talent is there nonetheless. So we really focus on making sure we create an environment where we have a strong diversity and inclusion focus in how we run our business. It allows us to provide the right platform so no one feels held back.

And is providing this platform a work in progress? How does it manifest itself at Arup in your initiatives?

We have a set of firm-wide inclusion commitments that really guide our approach. The strategy has three core initiatives. One is to interrogate our equal opportunity policy and approach to prevent and address any disrespectful behaviours. We’ve adopted an anti-racism approach which includes training for all our staff so they understand racism and what anti-racism and being anti-racist looks like.

We’ve also reviewed our people and our talent management policies and practices to ensure equity. So equity in pay and hiring, how people are selected for projects, and how people have been put into pathways to develop their careers.

We’re talking about educating current staff as well – how are they reacting to anti-racism education? Are people buying into it and what’s the impact on office culture?

It’s seen us shift into a place where we are now more consciously aware of these things, and that in turn brings a shift in culture. I think when I first started there wasn’t as strong a focus on D&I. It was getting attention, but we’ve said “actually this is really important and here are the reasons why. Let’s join the [Diversity Agenda] Accord.” It’s very much a part of that process to say we’re serious about this and we’re serious about our peers holding us accountable. I think all of that has created more confidence that this is important and it helps people understand what it means to them on a day-to-day level.

You mentioned the Accord, and being held accountable by your peers. What motivated you to sign the Accord?

One motivation to sign the Accord was that it holds us to account for positive and progressive change. Another was the united industry approach to change – ensuring we don’t only focus inside within our firms, but showing how as an industry we are uniting to change the industry for the better.

A groundswell of movement?

Yeah, actually that’s what this is. This is what we all stand for, and we all support one another as peers, united. The more support we can get for this across the industry, the more change we’ll see. I really want to learn from the other folks around me because there are many who are doing transformational things in their organisations and we would really benefit from learning from each other. Arup is doing some incredible things globally and I can bring that to the table, but if my peers are doing similar things, the opportunity to learn from each other, collaborate and create a greater good is a fabulous proposition offered by the Accord.

As much as this is Aotearoa-focused, are any D&I initiatives that have begun at Arup here that have been ‘exported’ to Arup’s other territories, or vice versa?

Compared to other countries around the world, we’re quite advanced in how we partner and engage with iwi. Our approach around Te Ao Māori in New Zealand is admired by our other territories, and it’s motivated them to consider how they are approaching their engagement with First Nations people and how we do business – it’s something we’re very proud of here. One of the results is a First Nations engagement element in all project designs. It’s considered a key operational issue, led by our Operational Executive across the Asia Pacific region.

From the outside-in, we’ve found a need to have consistency across our ecosystem. So we’ve brought most of the diversity and inclusion practices into our workplace permanently. They’re budgeted for, they’re must-haves, not nice-to-haves, and they’re led from the top.

The Diversity Agenda 2025 Strategy is live. Do you have any thoughts on our ambitions and strategy?

The Diversity Agenda strategy focuses on inclusive cultures, so not just getting the numbers right but also giving people the best employee experience in their firms across the industry. A lot of this happens through positive workplace behaviours and reminds us all of the joy of working in respectful and inclusive cultures.  

One of our actions is to assist all Accord signatories to have their own diversity and inclusion strategies in place. Do you think Arup will have a leading role in these discussions?

We’re driving these initiatives inside the organisation and we would love to bring that to the table and help drive the industry conversation – that would be absolutely my intention. Arup’s D&I strategy has evolved considerably over the last few years as our metrics show that whilst progress is being made, we, like most firms, need to accelerate the rate of change and be braver and bolder in our intention and actions. 

Are you making progress? Are there any statistics you’d like to share that our readers might be interested in that demonstrate some change in this area?

Measuring our diversity as well as how people feel in terms of inclusion is one of the firm wide inclusion commitments. Our approach is centred around having an even 40% each of male and female, with the remaining 20% open to all genders. Give or take a per cent, we’ve managed to achieve this goal across the Australasian region. Our focus now is to apply the same targets to women in leadership roles and shift from the current 27%. We want our leadership roles to reflect that diversity.

In addition to measuring the numbers, we’re also trying to measure inclusion through our engagement survey, the results of which were part of the drive for us to sign the Accord.

And what’s the employee sentiment like when they see these milestones reached?

Everyone buys into this work. It’s the way the business is set up – each and every person who works here is given a share ownership of the business when they walk in the door, which is handed back when they leave. It means that when we work in accordance with our organisational values that we adhere to, we see the greater success. That’s the result of diversity and inclusion. That’s what we’re striving for.


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

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