Working together for a more inclusive industry: diversity in the supply chain

Construction has long had a challenge with its image when it comes to hiring women. Some of the big progressive construction firms have not only been trying to challenge stereotyped views of the industry, but have been changing their work cultures to make them more inclusive.  One such company, Willmott Dixon, has a more ambitious aim: it is seeking to encourage ripples of change through its supply chain.



Sally Cleaver, Group HR and Diversity Manager at Willmott Dixon, says the company has been running its own local academies with supply chain partners to spread best practice. That includes Diversity and Inclusion initiatives. It held regional D & I workshops earlier this year in recognition of the common challenges faced across the sector. From this summer its Respect in the Workplace film and toolkit will be rolled out to any new supply chain partners working on site.

Willmott Dixon has set a 50/50 male/female aim at all grades of the business by 2030.

Stephen Watson, the company’s Supply Chain Director, says  it is important that SMEs in Willmott Dixon’s supply chain share its values. “We have been talking about diversity and equality for a number of years. It was therefore “a natural progression” to talk about what we are doing to our supply chain,” he says.

Diversity and inclusion workshops

It’s a big priority for Willmott Dixon, which this year won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for Promoting Opportunity.

The company has around 100 supply chain partners in every one of the six regions it operates in across the UK and Watson says feedback from the workshops has been very positive.

“We like to do things face to face and to learn from our supply chain,” he says. “Not just to send an email about our new policy and a film. Emails don’t change anything.”

He recognises that partners face different challenges. Some are bigger than others and have, for instance, their own HR teams and tools. Others are very small and lack resources.

The workshops addressed gender stereotypes and the business benefits of diversity, but also highlighted genuine challenges, for instance, around getting enough female applicants for jobs.

Watson says supply chain partners often learn from each other about the benefits of challenging gender stereotypes. “It’s not just about us talking to them. We don’t want to come across like a headmaster, telling them how to do diversity,” he adds.

He says he is proud of what Willmott Dixon is doing in terms of investing not only money but time to promote the benefits of diversity.

The company also turns away potential supply chain partners if they don’t share its values. Watson says: “We choose our partners based on attitude and behaviour first and expertise second. We believe we can work together to get the expertise right.”

He meets potential partners and asks them about their business, what is important to them, how many women are in the company and so forth. Some of them don’t get it, but others like the idea of having a positive social impact. Willmott Dixon is currently reducing its supply chain and those with a poor attitude with regard to issues such as diversity are likely to be cut first, leaving those who share the company’s values with a bigger slice of the pie.

Watson adds that the business case is made stronger by the fact that its emphasis on diversity is in keeping with what many of its customers want.

Addressing bias

Design Coordinator Rebecca Collier took part in the D & I workshop for the construction office in Hitchin. She is passionate about getting more women into construction. She herself went into construction as a trainee at 19, doing her degree alongside her day job in part because her family were in the industry.  “I would never have gone into the industry if I had not had that family connection,” she says.

She wants to change perceptions that construction is a trade rather than a profession.

She spoke about unconscious bias at the workshop earlier this summer and is a member of Hitchin’s D & I action group. She began with a riddle which highlighted unconscious bias and gender assumptions.

Collier says the event aimed to make people think about what diversity means to them and what they are doing as a business. Like Watson, she says  it’s not about preaching. “It becomes a discussion in an open environment,” she says.

She knows of supply chain partners who have gone into schools with Willmott Dixon people to promote women in construction and of how women at Willmott Dixon are acting as role models for the sector. “The more we as big contractors can do the more we will change the culture in the industry. Willmott Dixon has a very positive culture,” she says

That culture includes agile working as well as the current emphasis on diversity – there are, for instance, questions on D & I and agile working in the employee survey.

Collier is expecting her second child and works compressed hours from Tuesday to Friday from 7am to 4pm. On Mondays she works from 7.30 to 12.30 from home. “That flexibility makes it all possible,” she says, “and it makes me want to stay at Willmott Dixon.” She adds that the company also provides a return to work pack for those on parental leave “to soften the landing”, including information on any people and organisational changes. To illustrate the kind of support she feels she gets from the company, she mentions that her manager asked her to ask if she wanted to work from home as she in the latter stages of pregnancy.

She is aware, however, that more work needs to be done to boost the number of women in the construction industry.

School outreach work

Jayne Greaves, Community Manager at Construction Manchester, works with schools to change attitudes to construction. The company has a suite of activities for students that are matched to the school curriculum. They talk to the students and their teachers about all the different roles in construction, challenging stereotypes that it is for boys or that it is for people who are not academic.

Over the last year, the community teams have gone into schools with supply chain partners to show children how electrical circuits work. The work they do with primary schools is about “planting a seed”, she says. At secondary schools they are changing perceptions. One girl said she wanted to be a bricklayer after doing an activity so the team got her on site. Other activities include building a bird house and a bug house. Jayne says the aim is to highlight the range of issues that people in the construction industry have to know about and take into account, including environmental ones.

She adds that supply chain partners like to be involved and to feel they are doing something positive to change perceptions about the industry. “They probably wouldn’t have the resources to do it on their own and it is very interactive,” says Jayne, adding that Willmott Dixon staff have also attended the Teen Tech conference with supply chain partners.

In addition, when Willmott Dixon builds a new school it does community work in the area, for instance, it might hold an Enterprise Day targeted specifically at girls where they have to design their own school to a budget and figure out what to prioritise if that budget is cut.

The company recognises that changing entrenched attitudes about who works in construction and what construction involves will take time, but by extending its work on D & I to its supply chain it hopes to have a broader impact. “Everyone in the industry  struggles to get female candidates as the pool is small,” says Sally Cleaver. “There is a recognition that we need to work together to tackle this industry-wide issue.”

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