A sector that looks more like today’s UK will serve it better

Published: 1 Sep 2020

By: Julia Prescot

Portrait image of Julia Prescot

“Create a diverse, inclusive workplace that is representative of the public we serve – and  ensure that infrastructure planning, decision-making and implementation reflects the needs of the entire population.”

Walking into a conference hall containing some of the key decision makers in infrastructure investment a few years ago, I was struck by the similarity of many of the participants and the lack of diversity in gender, age and ethnicity. Of around 100 attendees, four were women and four from ethnic minorities.

Indeed, I was so unsettled by this distribution and the potential narrowness of thought that could well result that I was convinced that a different approach was required. I went on to co-found the Women Leaders in Infrastructure group, a network connecting women decision makers at senior levels in the public and private sector who could come together and ensure that different perspectives were applied to infrastructure development.

For several years, this group promoted the inclusion of all into decision making as well as encouraging a strong focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues in infrastructure – now a key feature in making infrastructure decisions. The networked strength of this group allowed more female voices to be heard.

Infrastructure provides services that are used by all the population and should reflect and include the needs of members of society.  Whilst many thoughtful decision makers were in that conference hall, it was not clear that, for example, the gender impacts on infrastructure of different safety needs, different usage patterns and different perspectives on investment decisions were being taken into account. For example, transport as a profession is highly dominated by men, and male rather than female patterns of transport use tend to be the focus of thinking.

In many areas – from accessibility on public transport, to measures to support vulnerable energy customers – infrastructure providers have made much progress in recent years to help make their services more inclusive.

But we should not be complacent. Infrastructure is central to our daily lives, and we must continue to strive to ensure that the environments and services we create fully meet the needs of all potential users.

The best way of achieving that is to embed diversity and inclusion in every stage of project development through concept, design and implementation. This can be done by making it an integral part of the process, with regular consultation of user groups at every stage – but also by ensuring those making the decisions are representative of the society we serve.

Currently, women make up 23.3 per cent of employees in the water and energy sectors, while those sectors have just 7.1 per cent Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) employees. This is some way short of the 12.9 per cent of the economically active UK workforce who identify with ethnicities categorised as BAME.

When we look at career progression, the situation looks even worse. Just 5 five per cent of manager/director roles in the water and energy sectors are currently held by women – that figure is only 2.1 per cent in the construction sector.

If we want to design and build infrastructure that meets the needs of a changing society, boosting economic growth and improving quality of life for all, then we need to address the lack of diversity in our sector’s workforce.

As the official body set up to advise government independently on infrastructure strategy, the National Infrastructure Commission should lead the way in these endeavours.

That’s why we have set out our plans and aspirations in this area in a Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, published today.

The strategy outlines the steps we will take to build a more inclusive and diverse organisation, working with colleagues within HM Treasury and beyond to ensure that our recruitment, retention and promotion processes are genuinely inclusive and work to overcome structural barriers which may have hampered progress in the past. And while appointments to the Commission itself are the responsibility of ministers, we will seek to work with government to diversify our composition over time.

Our ambition extends beyond the Commission. We know we can play a part within the wider sector, convening discussions, providing constructive challenge and sharing good practice.

By sharing examples of what works – both for improving workforce diversity, and for providing inclusive services – we hope to raise the bar and actively support the positive engagement many across related sectors have shown in recent years.

Neither the Commission itself, nor the infrastructure sector, will every be able to consider this as finished business. It will be a process of continual improvement. But that is no excuse not to heed repeated calls for our sectors to deliver a step change in the representativeness of our teams, and the business importance we place on delivering truly inclusive products and services.

On behalf of the Commission, I am pleased to express our commitment to playing our part in this challenge – which will lead to national infrastructure which better reflects the needs and aspirations of all who use it.

Julia Prescot is lead Commissioner for Diversity and Inclusion.

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