Big Interview: Paul Evans, Chief Executive, ACE New Zealand.

Paul Evans

Sean Barker from the Diversity Agenda chatted with Paul about ACE New Zealand’s recent survey results, why it’s so important firms don’t drop the ball in light of Covid-19, Māori and Pasifika representation within the sector, and the hopes for a more diverse and inclusive future.

So let’s start with your recent ACE New Zealand survey, where you proactively included questions around diversity and inclusion – who did the survey go to and what were the results?

For a bit of context, we do an annual personnel survey. It goes to the managing directors of our 218 member firms, so we can understand broader trends happening in the industry. This includes the size of firms, employee locations, makeup between technical and non-technical staff, gender diversity, and age profiles of the personnel. So, in terms of gender diversity – 25% of technical staff are women and 75% are men. We know that in terms of age of personnel – 47% are 35 or younger, so on and so forth.

We also dive into more detail and tying in with our commitment to the Diversity Agenda and Accord. We asked “how are you creating a diverse and an inclusive workforce?”

From our perspective, we’re keen to ensure that our sector is inclusive for all – whether you’re in the frontline or a supporting role. We want people to feel they belong, and that the consulting and engineering workforce is reflective of the communities that we support. Diversity and inclusion matter because we provide solutions for a range of clients and communities, and if we don’t understand these communities, how can we ensure that solutions are fit for purpose?

Diversity and inclusion matter because we provide solutions for a range of clients and communities, and if we don’t understand these communities, how can we ensure that solutions are fit for purpose?

Paul Evans

There’s a growing awareness of the need to proactively and positively address diversity and inclusion. However, there are significant opportunities for our members to do that in a more structured and impactful way.

What were some of the most interesting findings from the survey?

One of the key figures that stood out for me was 71% of firms thought diversity and inclusion were essential considerations. There are two things there – firstly, 71% thought it was important – that’s good! But, on the flip side, almost a third of firms thought that diversity and inclusion weren’t essential. This shows us we’ve got more work to do, to help people understand why this matters to their business.

Secondly, although 71% of firms said it was essential, only 19% of them had a formal diversity and inclusion policy in place. So a lot of firms still need to put in the work in terms of the policy, and what they’re doing to improve. We also asked people what areas of diversity and inclusion their organisation is actively working on – the two strongest were gender, and culture and ethnicity.

When we looked at gender, only 8% of firms have specific gender targets around the recruitment of graduates. Only 8% of firms have specific gender targets for leadership positions. So while gender is a priority for many firms, most don’t have formal measures or actions in place yet. We know we’re at a point where firms are aware of the issue and they need to do something, but they haven’t yet formalised it. Interestingly, 22% of firms measured the gender pay gap or pay equity gap in their organisation.

In terms of ethnicity, only 18% of firms measure the ethnic diversity of their workforce. So while ethnic diversity was the second strongest concern, once again, how can you work on that effectively if you don’t have baseline data? Another interesting finding was around accessibility – 37% of firms measured the accessibility needs of their employees.

I think it’s important to say that some of our firms are doing an outstanding job and we can learn a lot from them. Through ACE, Engineering New Zealand, and the Diversity Agenda, we need to use these outstanding consulting and engineering firms as exemplars. There’s a lot we need to do to help firms that don’t realise there are issues, understand why diversity and inclusion are so important and why it should matter to their business. For the rest of the firms who understand it’s criticality, but haven’t yet put a policy in place, we can provide additional support to help them on that journey.

To those who don’t feel diversity and inclusion is important – do you think that’s because they don’t know how to effectively improve diversity inclusion, or is it because they don’t know what the benefit is?

I’ve had people comment to me “Oh, this is PC gone mad…” And you know what? It’s not about PC gone mad. This is a critical business issue. We’re in Aotearoa, and engineering and architecture consultancies are talent-constrained markets. There are a bunch of sectors we’re competing against and we want to get the top talent! Talent who are going to provide the very best outcomes for our clients and communities. We’re not going to be able to attract those people unless we actively work at creating diverse and inclusive professions. So for these people who say, “Oh, you know, ACE, this isn’t a business issue. Why are you focusing on this?” Well, it’s a fundamental business issue, and it’s about the future fitness of our sector in general.

So for these people who say, “Oh, you know, ACE, this isn’t a business issue. Why are you focusing on this?” Well, its a fundamental business issue, and it’s about the future fitness of our sector in general.

Paul Evans

So it’s a long term solution, but if you don’t start now, at some point, your business is going to suffer?

Absolutely. In the consulting game, organisations are good at poaching amazing staff. If you create a culture where people feel valued and comfortable to be who they are, then talented people are going to seek you out. If you’re a firm that doesn’t do that and doesn’t value its people, then you face a risk of losing people you’ve invested heavily into. But also, business issues aside, why wouldn’t you want to make people feel welcome and accepted and happy to be themselves? I think it ties in well when we talk about diversity and inclusion, and wellness.

In our survey, we had some questions around wellness. A lot more people have wellness policies, but those two are inextricably linked, particularly if you think about the mental health and wellbeing of people. If they’re not confident and comfortable being themselves if they don’t feel supported in their workplace, how’s their wellness going to be? They’re not going to be performing at their best.

Given the current Covid-19 situation and the recovery with the spend on infrastructure and shovel-ready projects, one of the worries is that diversity and inclusion will go out the window as a “nice to have.” What would you say to firms, to stress the importance of not dropping the ball now?

I have this challenge with a bunch of areas, diversity and inclusion and environmental, people think of these as being “nice to haves” but I liken it to health and safety. Just because we’re in a challenging financial situation, we don’t stop health and safety! Why? Because it’s critical to the success of our business and gaining future work.

I have this challenge with a bunch of areas, diversity and inclusion and environmental, people think of these as being “nice to haves” but I liken it to health and safety. Just because we’re in a challenging financial situation, we don’t stop health and safety! Why? Because it’s critical to the success of our business and gaining future work.

Paul Evans

If you think about government clients, a whole lot of them now are embedding broader outcome frameworks such as, how you address diversity and inclusion; how you work with Māori and Pasifika; how do you create training and development pathways. So, if firms aren’t working on this now, they’re jeopardising their future pipeline of work. If we look at this post-Covid-19, the private sector is challenged right now, but where there is going to significant investment, is from the government sector. And this is going to be something that the government sector will deem essential.

The other thing is, it doesn’t cost a lot, right? We’re not asking people to make massive investments into this. It can be really simple. The first thing is to get a policy in place. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars writing that. We’ve just written one for ACE New Zealand, which we’re going to make available to our members so they can adapt and amend it as they see fit. Then set yourself some targets, monitor those things, and keep going forward.

Let’s talk a little bit about some the businesses that are doing well. What are they doing, why is it positive, and what results have they seen?

Some firms are doing amazing stuff. Aurecon was the first firm to get Rainbow Tick Accredited, and WSP has followed. That’s been an incredibly positive, and what’s been great, is they haven’t kept it to themselves as a competitive advantage. They’ve said, “This is what we did, and this is how you can do it too,” because they’ve seen rather than it being a competitive advantage, they’ll recruit people from other firms, from the broader sector. We want to create an industry culture where everyone is valued so that when people come into an organisation you don’t have to train them the ‘Aurecon’ or ‘WSP’ way, instead, it’s just the way we do things in our sector.

It’s also around ensuring that we meet the needs and expectations of our clients. I went to a Women in Urbanism event, and they were talking about women’s use of public transport and how women are greater users of public transport, but in the evenings that drops off, because there’s a perception of a safety issue. I’d never considered that because I’m a middle-aged man. I think that’s the challenge. When you’ve got a whole bunch of people like me who are middle-aged men developing solutions, we’re not wilfully ignorant, but we don’t have the lived experience, and that’s why we need that diversity of voices within our organisations to challenge whether its the right approach.

When you’ve got a whole bunch of people like me who are middle-aged men developing solutions, we’re not wilfully ignorant, but we don’t have the lived experience, and that’s why we need that diversity of voices within our organisations to challenge whether its the right approach.

Paul Evans

It’s not just about gender, and it’s not just about ethnicity. There’s so much more to diversity, such as including a disability perspective. Bridget Burdett from MRCagney recently told me how people with disabilities find our transport system the hardest navigate, but we seldom engage with them. If we did, we would’ve addressed not only their issues, but also issues for most other groups.

Sometimes when we talk about D&I or racism, people think we’re saying they’re being actively racist or exclusive. But no, we’re not saying that at all. We’re saying, most often you’re just not aware. So what you need to do is engage with communities in a meaningful way, so you are aware. Or better, have those people within your organisation, so your whole organisation gets smarter as a result.

Moving to the Black Lives Matter movement. More people are now aware of the issues that affect people of colour. Here in Aotearoa and concerning our professions, we need to improve Māori participation in engineering and architecture and the importance of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. What’s your thoughts on this?

I read an interesting article that said less than 1% of professional engineering students in Aotearoa come from Decile 1 schools – which tend to have a higher proportion of Māori and Pasifika students. So we’re missing out on a whole bunch of people who could contribute significantly to our sector, bringing new, innovative ways of thinking. Specifically, in terms of the Treaty, the whole basis of New Zealand, our modern society, is based on the Treaty, which embeds a bicultural approach, Māori and the Crown.

That’s a key part of decision-making and engagement that’s not going away. It’s going to be an enduring part of our nation. For us to do service to that, we need to not only engage with Māori effectively but have Māori working within our organisations.

Tell me about ACE’s commitment to the Diversity Agenda and your hopes for the future?

We’re firmly committed and encourage our members to participate on an ongoing basis. Our Board has also adopted a diversity and inclusion policy. We’ve developed a whole range of specific measures, so we can look at things like event attendees, and perhaps see 25% of our technical staff are women, but when we come to physical events, a smaller percentage attend. Then we can ask, “why is that? Is it because of the type of content that we’re providing? Or because of the environment?”

Of course, diversity isn’t just about gender. It’s not just about ethnicity. We often provide events, and they are at five o’clock on a weeknight. Many people have to get home and look after the kids, or have broader family commitments and can’t make those times. We want them to be active participants in our sector and to hear their voice, so we need to explore how can we provide more flexible options, so we’re more inclusive? A lot of the things that we’ve done previously have been built around old fashioned views that the wife will be home looking after the kids, so the man can go off freely. But it’s patently untrue now. So we’re excluding people in our industry and we need to work to address that.

Lastly, is there anything else we haven’t covered?

My challenge is to people like me – middle-aged men. I always feel a little bit uncomfortable talking about diversity and inclusion. Not because I don’t think it’s really important, but people already hear from people like me a lot. I’ve got plenty of platforms already.

So, my challenge to ACE, Engineering New Zealand, NZIA, all of our members, is to actively champion and put forward different people and different voice. People who challenge stereotypes. To hold those people up as exemplars. There’s something really powerful in that and I’ll speak about it from a political context.

Putting politics aside, the incredible power of having Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister, the impact that’s had on my ten-year-old daughter, because she can look at her and see a young woman. She goes, “That’s somebody like me and I can be Prime Minister.” In the past, despite me encouraging her along the way, I’m not convinced that she would have believed that. But that visual representation, somebody like them, my daughter now has the belief that she can be Prime Minister, and that’s important.

It’s the same thing with Māori and Pasifika. They’re a small percentage of the engineering and consulting sector, disproportionately small. They should be much higher in terms of percentage of the population. So what we need to do is actively champion and show those people that there’s a genuine pathway for people to become that.

It’s the same thing with Māori and Pasifika. They’re a small percentage of the engineering and consulting sector, disproportionately small. They should be much higher in terms of percentage of the population. So what we need to do is actively champion and show those people that there’s a genuine pathway for people to become that.

Paul Evans

Looking broader, in some circles there’s still an insistence on meritocracy and “well, we may not have many Māori but if they’re good enough, they get there.” But stats show that hasn’t happened…

No, this whole broader idea of social mobility is a load of crap. It doesn’t work. Essentially, the article I referred to earlier said, if you want to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer don’t grow up poor, because you won’t be. That’s not to say that you’re any less smart or capable. It’s just, there aren’t the support mechanisms in place for that to occur. There’s a whole bunch of reasons and it’s complicated.

I think that’s the other thing we need to think about – what broader influence we can have. If we’re just trying to influence things when recruiting grads, we can make some change, but we’re just fiddling around on the margins. We need to look more broadly, and that’s why things like the Wonder Project are important. We need to ignite passion and belief. Show those exemplars from earlier on, so we have a greater pool of people to choose from.

And my last one thing is this whole idea of people going, “we don’t recruit based on gender or those sorts of things, we pick the best possible person.” No one’s saying hire somebody who can’t do the job! We’re saying, be aware of these broader considerations. Think in a more holistic way around what skills and competencies you need, and in the future, as much as engineers and consultants don’t like to hear this stuff, a lot of the technical stuff that we’ll do will become automated or we’ll have AI. The things that won’t ever go away is that ability to interact and understand clients. We need people that are reflective of our society to be able to do that well.

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

Share
Scroll to Top