Challenging the industry

WSP Opus New Zealand Managing Director Ian Blair talks about how embracing diversity and inclusion has changed the culture of his firm.

What does diversity mean to you and why is it important to you personally?

For me, diversity is having an organisation or an industry that represents all parts of society – one that’s welcoming and embracing. It’s not just about being inclusive or tolerant; it’s creating an environment where people can bring their whole selves to work. That’s the best outcome.  By doing this we’ll have people in our organisation that are representative of the communities we design for. They look our clients and our clients’ customers. We start to think more like them and we become more creative and can come up with better solutions.

It’s not just because that seems fair and equitable and we want to treat everyone well that it’s important to me, it also delivers better business outcomes because we’re a smarter organisation.

What’s WSP Opus’s biggest diversity challenge?

It’s the same one the rest of the industry faces – the output from universities. If you look at gender as an example, women account for 20% of those coming  out of engineering schools. If we want to represent society, and have 50% of our workforce as women, the industry needs to change what we’re doing and start addressing the issue at the very early stages and in schools. Engineering New Zealand is doing a great job at that and the Diversity Agenda is a wonderful example, particularly the work they do in schools. All of us have to get behind those types of initiatives to encourage more, in this case women, to come into the workforce.

We also need to lift the numbers of Māori and Pasifika that are involved in the industry. One way we do this is through scholarships and cadetships and focus on bringing more Māori and Pasifika into the business.

“When I first joined Opus, it was a bit like an echo chamber – lots of people in the organisation looked and sounded like me. Creating an environment where other voices can be heard helps people feel free to speak and challenge us, which is really what starts to shift an organisation.”

What’s the biggest change that WSP Opus has made in the past year in the diversity space?

We’ve had a substantial shift in our approach to diversity and inclusion in the last couple of years. We’ve done some concrete things such as closing the 7.5% gender pay gap and put in place a progressive parenting policy that includes topping up the government-funded leave to 22 weeks and introduced two weeks Paid Partner Leave.

To keep up momentum we’ve created a Diversity and Inclusion Action Group which provides advice to the executive team and HR. They’re the pulse of the organisation and regularly speak to the different parts of the business, understand what the important issues are, and help us change those.

We’ve also seen an increase in women in leadership. 40% of my leadership team are women which is helpful in changing the way we think as an organisation. We’re also currently going for Rainbow Tick accreditation.  Whether we get there or not, I think we can still be doing a lot better, and this will provide a benchmark so we can understand the things we need to work on.

What little things do you think make the biggest difference in diversity and inclusion?

I think it’s the little shifts that make the biggest differences in diversity and inclusion. I’ve spoken before about some of the big policy changes, but it’s actually creating an environment where people can be themselves, and where that’s encouraged and supported. Picking up the language in some of those subtle shifts of languages.

When I first joined Opus, it was a bit like an echo chamber – lots of people in the organisation looked and sounded like me. Creating an environment where other voices can be heard helps people feel free to speak and challenge us, which is really what starts to shift an organisation.

“Diversity is also about embracing different people with different religions, cultures and sexual preferences. We need to educate ourselves and encourage people to come as they are.”

What changes do you see in WSP Opus from your last role?

WSP Opus is very different from financial services, as is engineering. About 50% of the workforce in financial services are women which means that diversity and inclusion is treated as an issue of higher importance. The organisation I worked with previously has the Rainbow tick and has progressive attitudes towards diversity and inclusion.

Some solutions will take a long period to implement, but I think there are really good minds focused on them now.

How have your staff reacted to changes?

Largely positively. I think when we first made changes, particularly surrounding the gender pay gap, there was some pushback. However, it wasn’t just women that received a pay rise. In a couple of cases, the only reason why we could figure why a few of our male employees were being underpaid was potentially because there was some discrimination there. That change caused some angst to a few people that were hanging on to the past – they weren’t happy that people were getting pay rises just because of their gender.

I wasn’t happy that people weren’t paid equally because of their gender. I’ve got two sons and two daughters, and I can’t think about living in a world where I have to explain to my daughters that they get paid less because of their gender, so things are shifting.

Are you seeing results that work, and how do you measure success?

We’ve seen some shifts in our workforce including more women in leadership. As I’ve mentioned, 40% of  my direct leadership team are women, including those facing the front lines. Often that statistic gets skewed by some of the more traditionally female professions, but two out of five of my client facing leaders are women, which sends a good signal.

Another key change is in our recruiting process to include more diversity – both in candidates and the interview panel. This is a way of tackling unconscious bias. We’re measuring and tracking all new initiatives, as well as talking to  people about it – so we’re really starting to see a shift in attitude.

What are your thoughts on companies that seem to be lagging behind or stagnating in terms of change?

I don’t want this to be a competitive advantage in the future. Those that aren’t looking at diversity and inclusion are putting their company at a disadvantage.  If your company isn’t inclusive, you won’t create the best product, or attract the best talent – which is critical. In our field, all we’ve got is the smarts of our people.

If you don’t focus on the environment that attracts that best talent, then you’re going to fall behind. I would ask these companies, why? What’s the hold up? If not now, when? And if not you, then who? Who’s going to make that change? When are you going to make that step? For the most part, it’s already happened, and you’re lagging behind. You’re putting your organisation at peril by not creating one that’s diverse and inclusive.

What changes do you see in the industry compared to 20 or 30 years ago?

It was very male dominated, and I’m pleased to see that changing, although there’s still a long way to go.

I think most of the organisations in our industry have increased their focus on diversity and inclusion. Some have the Rainbow Tick already, which is something that we aspire to. Beca is doing some great work, we are also doing some fantastic work. At an industry level, we need to talk about what we need to do, and to support the real inclusive push that Engineering New Zealand has.

How do we really engage people, and do you have any suggestions from your personal experience here at WSP Opus?

Engaging people is key because if it’s just something that’s being done at the top, then it won’t gain momentum. We’ve done a few things. I personally ran about 40 focus groups across the country, going to offices, speaking with people about diversity and inclusion, trying to understand the challenges we face and learning how people want us to address them.

On top of that, I talk about it all the time. I never do a strategy rollout without talking about diversity and inclusion. I’m proud when we do something like close the pay gap, or change our parenting policy, and I trumpet that. By doing this, WSP Opus is becoming an inclusive organisation. If that’s what you like, come and join us.

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