Big Interview: Ralph Fouche

Ralph Fouche

We sat down with Ralph Fouche, Country Manager for Stantec New Zealand, to talk about how his company have taken huge strides in improving diversity and inclusion, and what tips he can pass on to other firms.

Ralph’s a Water And Waste Water Engineer who came to New Zealand in 1995 from South Africa. He started working in Christchurch with what later became Stantec and has held several roles across the country and abroad since then. Last July Ralph was appointed Country Manager for Stantec New Zealand.

He’s passionate about diversity and inclusion and the important role that leaders play in this. He was also a recent attendee at our Share and Shape Workshop – flying down from Auckland specifically to take part.

How did you find your experience as a new arrival to New Zealand and working in the industry?

It’s not an easy transition to make. Having previously worked in the Philippines and in the UK, there’s a different energy that you bring to work that includes understanding New Zealand’s culture and learning new conditions and standards. I had to adapt to change and a different way of doing things.

When did Stantec really start to focus on diversity and inclusion?

It was always there but it wasn’t until eight years ago when we realised that diversity and inclusion needed more attention. Four years later our conversations became more serious at the management level, trying to understand what we could do, and so we started to measure it.

The biggest impetus of change was when the Diversity Agenda was set up. It highlighted that our issues weren’t unique but rather, it’s an industry-wide problem. We realised that we all needed to come together to determine what we can do.

How did you initially address the issues?

Initially we looked to see what other companies were doing and then asked ourselves, “let’s understand the problems.” We then hosted a series of informal, face-to-face confidential group conversations across the company with our female employees. We wanted to hear from our people and see what we could do before making improvements.

Things that came out of those conversations included a perception that men were being promoted quicker and being paid more. We also learned that our female employees didn’t feel safe wearing certain equipment because it was sized for men. The conversations bought to light around 20 issues that we’ve been able to correct.

“The first step is getting to the heart of the matter. Moving the needle and figuring out what we need to do, that’s phase two.”

How did you start rolling out the changes?

We decided to deal with the simple stuff first, the ‘quick wins’, like ordering gender-appropriate safety gear. After that we looked at our stats around promotions and pay gaps.

The first step is getting to the heart of the matter. Moving the needle and figuring out what we need to do, that’s phase two.

A few years ago, I recall sitting in my first meeting about salary set-ups. We looked at the gender split to see what percentage increases women were given and compared that to men at the same career levels. It was eye opening for me to discover no discrepancy. People were being promoted according to their expertise and skills, so we were able to talk about that and to communicate it back to the business. Our first step was to understand where we’re at and sort ourselves out. Now we’re moving into the second phase which is ongoing, and I don’t think it’ll ever stop. It’s about changing our behaviours and determining what we can do to make people understand that being a leader in diversity and inclusion comes in different forms. We all probably grew up with an engineering leader looking and saying things in a certain way. But the world’s a diverse place and there’s expertise and skills out there that we need to leverage more.

Has everyone taken it on board, or have you had to overcome things along the way?

I think everyone’s on board. The issue is plain, simple and visible.

Where do you think Stantec could still improve?

Something that we’re finding hard at the moment is retaining senior women. We have a fairly good ratio of diversity between early to mid-career levels and then it tapers off quickly, and that’s really concerning me.

Our employee engagement surveys tell us that we’re already a flexible organisation, but there’s still room for improvement. For example, people wanted to take extra leave, so we introduced a practice that allows people to buy an additional 4 weeks leave, on top of any extra unpaid leave.

We’ve also been deliberate about offering additional training, specifically targeted to women. We’ve spent the last few years sending at least two women on annual executive leadership training. This is to support their path into senior leadership and has so far given us great outcomes. And in our internal training we try to ensure that our classes have a 50-50 gender split even though we have only 30% women at certain career levels.

What is your favourite initiative at Stantec?

We have an extra leave allowance can people can apply for and it’s made a huge difference. We’ve seen a big uptake of people taking advantage of it, for various reasons.

Do you have diversity policies around recruitment?

We’re obviously hoping to attract a more diverse pool of applicants so around the same time we joined the Diversity Agenda we instructed recruitment agents to present us with a varied shortlist of applicants and introduced diverse interview panels.

Have you been on a personal journey yourself since joining Diversity Agenda?

Absolutely. There are heaps of things I’ve learnt about how minorities might feel. When certain terms are presented or in certain situations, I’m more conscious of it. I’m constantly learning.

What do you think we can all do individually to bring about change?

We need to address our behaviour and unconscious biases. People don’t like talking about unconscious bias, but I don’t mind talking about it because we all have it on some level. Being aware and understanding that, and being open to other ways of doing things, is a big thing for us all to accept.

Start with simple things like listening.

What tips would you give organisations that are just starting out to improve their diversity and inclusion?

First of all, measure it. You can’t improve something without a baseline. Get some numbers in front of you and try to manage those, whether it be around gender or cultural diversity.

Start with simple things like listening. Ask your people about the issues, listen to their responses and then live your values – every organisation has values that are important to them so encourage behaviours that align.

Helping people deal with the small problems goes a long way towards them understanding their role in effecting change and improving how diverse and inclusive your organisation is.

And finally, how do you think the Diversity Agenda can keep supporting firms?

By keeping up the engagement and having different forums where we can learn from each other. We heard about other firms’ activities [at the Share and Shape Workshop] and we’ve taken that on board and gone, “well that’ll work, won’t it?” I think that the Diversity Agenda presents an opportunity for us to share knowledge as an industry and to learn from it.

We really appreciate Ralph and other industry leaders taking the time to talk to us. The ‘top-down’ approach he’s taking at Stantec is changing the face of the industry.

If you have any great initiatives that you think would help others on their diversity and inclusion journey get in touch.  

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