HomeDiversityAccelerating gender balance and diversity with HS2

Accelerating gender balance and diversity with HS2

Listen to this article

WSP Rail’s managing director, Darren Reed, and equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) manager, Abi Frost, discuss how HS2 is helping the business and the industry tackle one of its most endemic challenges

For WSP, breaking down the barriers that prevent the best people from contributing to our talent pool is simply good for business. Research and common sense tell us a more inclusive, and therefore diverse, workforce has more interesting debates; it can respond better to changing markets and improve business performance. 

HS2 is accelerating our progress as an industry, upping the stakes with its own exacting EDI targets and demanding unprecedented levels of commitment from its supply chain to help address the under-representation of many groups within the rail and construction sectors, among them women, BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic), LGBT+ and disabled people, and the long-term workless. 

A foundation built on solid data

For HS2, WSP is helping to set new standards for EDI and skills, employment and education (SEE) across 11 active contracts comprising well over 1,000 people. WSP has worked collaboratively with the workforce and the supply chain to support HS2’s ambitious agenda, which has included the launch of a multi-cultural network, a ‘blind auditioning’ recruitment model and various actions aligned with the WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) campaign. Through a dedicated EDI and SEE manager, we have provided an integrated reporting suite that captures the protected characteristics of our employees and those of our supply chain working across HS2 – an innovation which has since been adopted by other contractors on this project. 

Only with reliable data can honest conversations happen and meaningful decisions be made. For example, we know 25 per cent of WSP’s workforce working across all HS2 contracts is female (vs. 17 per cent in the infrastructure sector). We also know, on each contract, the percentage of WSP staff of BAME origin is either equal to the infrastructure sector’s six per cent or greater – on Phase 2a, for example, it’s over 40 per cent. There is much room for improvement; and, armed with detailed data, we can measure our progress and the efficacy of our actions; for example, more clearly gauging the impact of advertising vacancies on diversity job boards.  

Students at the National College for High Speed Rail benefit from practical classroom learning. Photo: WSP.

Top-down reform

Industry must accept that a cultural shift driven from the top is the only way to effectively address gender balance and diversity issues. It is why WSP adopted Avivah Wittenberg-Cox’s pioneering 20-first approach, which moves away from assuming today’s gender imbalance is caused by something women lack (i.e. skill, will, or background), instead embracing the diversity of experience and ways of working that women bring to the workforce. Through our dedicated Gender Balance Action Group, we have equipped our leaders to be convincing gender balance advocates, with a 20-first trained executive leadership team, and further face-to-face training underway for over 600 UK senior managers. Unconscious bias training and third-party consultation with organisations like Business in the Community, WISE, Stonewall and Women in Transportation have helped embed diversity into the business. 

This practical approach to promoting a more representative workforce has enabled us to grow as a business and align with the EDI aspirations of some of our largest clients, including HS2. This is an investment we know is working: with a 29 per cent female workforce already, we are set to comfortably meet our strategic growth target of a 30 per cent female workforce by 2021. In fact, we are now striving to meet HS2’s industry-leading figure of a 35 per cent female workforce.

Celebrating strong role models, smashing stereotypes

Like HS2, we recognise that the historical over-representation of men in rail and construction means there is a greater concentration of men at the executive level. While this is a deep-rooted societal issue, it’s not enough to simply have more women in the workforce, we also need to ensure those women are represented at the leadership level. That is why it’s so important to celebrate and raise the profile of those women who are already leading our industry. Women like Carol Stitchman, design manager of HS2 Curzon Street station, whose trailblazing path challenges the gender stereotypes that constrained the aspirations of many of her generation. Or Dr Nike Folayan, who has worked on the project for over five years as design lead for telecoms and control on multiple HS2 contracts including the station design at Old Oak Common, Curzon Street and Euston stations. 

Shaking up gender stereotypes at school, where very few girls over 16 choose physics for further education, is a big part of the gender balance issue.  Liaising with the North West College of London and HS2, and taking part in the City & Islington Employability Day, we are working to raise awareness of apprenticeship and work opportunities at WSP. Our ecologists have taken part in ThinkTank’s ‘Meet the Expert’ event, and our engineers have volunteered at a targeted programme of STEM events with schools along the HS2 route, including the Big Bang Fair and the Science Museum‘s We Are Engineers Family Festival, an event which reached around 450 children and 300 adults. And our award-winning apprentice and graduate programmes are making a difference. For example, females accounted for 66 per cent of our 2019 apprentice intake, following year-on-year increases since 2015.

Carol Stitchman (below), WSP design manager (HS2 Curzon Street), grew up in a coal-mining community: “where most of my female friends and peers considered engineering to be for men only; projects like HS2 capture the imaginations of the next generation of female, BAME or otherwise under-represented talent”.

Photo: WSP.

A viable option for returners

All too often women who choose to have children and temporarily disappear from the talent pool find they have to lower their expectations and ambitions when they return to work. This is wrong, but by flexing our thinking and our business model, we can find ways to accommodate the modern career path. Promoting inclusive behaviours to support a more flexible workplace is not difficult. Even simple things like not organising team meetings when parents are ‘on the school run’, or making it easier to work from home via Skype, have proven to be extremely effective.

When HS2 skills manager Ambrose Quashie invited WSP to support Women into Construction, a cross-industry initiative sponsored by Camden Borough Council, we were keen to take part. The event saw senior people from HS2’s supply chain conducting speed interviews with female candidates hoping to return to work following long absences. Genevieve Edwards, senior requirement manager, HS2 rail systems support contract, was impressed by the women’s enthusiasm: “Many were not from project management or engineering backgrounds, but they still wanted to be part of HS2 and leave a legacy that will affect the place where they live for generations to come”.  Through this one event, WSP has provided over 500 days of work placement opportunities on HS2’s Old Oak Common and Curzon Street stations, and on Phase 2B. 

Making gender balance easier 

It is not just about inspiring women, it is just as important to make it easier for men to challenge the gender stereotype. For example, a more progressive policy on paternity leave has helped new fathers, like Tom Wood, sustainability manager, Old Oak Common, to become ‘stay-at-home-Dads’. In Tom’s case he can now balance his family commitments and career with those of his wife’s. Clearly, as more women join the engineering workforce, we can expect shared parental leave to become far more common. This will benefit projects like HS2 through the retention of experience and skills, but it will also benefit people’s hard-earned career paths and their families. 

As an opportunity to change the skills landscape, HS2 is special: its construction alone will create over 30,000 jobs and 2,000 apprenticeships; another 3,000 will operate it, and it’s estimated new HS2 stations will create a further 100,000 jobs. By any measure, HS2 is a game-changer for underrepresented and disadvantaged groups and every effort should be made to optimise this unprecedented opportunity. Critically, this is the clarion call HS2’s partners and suppliers are rallying behind.