Waikato women work for equality

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At the current rate of women gaining parity with men in the workplace, it will take 278 years before full equality is reached.

The recently established Women’s Infrastructure Network Waikato, with Eloise Lonnberg-Shaw as its chair, would like to see that timeframe shortened considerably.

Lonnberg-Shaw, a senior planner with Hamilton-based Kinetic Environmental Consulting Ltd, says this depressing figure comes from a speech given by Women’s Infrastructure Network’s (WIN) board chairwoman Margaret Devlin at Government House in November.

“She pointed out that we’ve come a pretty long way in New Zealand in terms of equal gender opportunities, but that if we’re going to carry on at the rate we are currently going, it will take something like 278 years to reach the point where we are fully equal,” Lonnberg-Shaw said. 

“These types of initiatives [WIN] are aimed at progressing that journey a little faster.”

WIN was launched at Infrastructure NZ’s Building Nations Symposium in October 2016 and membership has quickly grown to more than 1200 members across several chapters, including Waikato. 

The Waikato chapter has held three events since it was launched in May 2018, and has further events planned for 2019, starting in February, along with the establishment of a mentoring scheme.

In taking that step, it is partly responding to feedback from a WIN survey of women in the infrastructure industry, which takes in a wide variety of professions, including engineers, planners, surveyors, lawyers, accountants and bankers.

“What people want is someone they can ask questions of, check in with in terms of career advice, or just someone to bounce ideas off – particularly the younger ones who are just starting out,” Lonnberg-Shaw said. 

“That’s also largely what our members prefer our events to be focused on – they want to hear about people’s personal stories and what they’ve gone through, what they’ve learned, how to network etc.”

The 2018 survey had 207 respondents, almost half of whom were engineering professionals. It showed most organisations promoted flexible working arrangements, and most respondents felt they had good or excellent career growth opportunities.

The three main barriers to progress were identified as the industry being male-dominated, unconscious bias and lack of role models. These were followed by company culture and women leaving for children.

The survey report said key ways highlighted by respondents to improve diversity were early stage career advice, mentoring, networking, planning and developing emotional resilience.

The responses suggest that solutions to inequality are not straightforward. When it comes to infrastructure, it’s partly about encouraging women to join the sector and partly about encouraging those who choose it to remain, as well as getting more women in leadership roles. 

Lonnberg-Shaw said there could be a variety of reasons why a woman chooses to leave the industry, but lack of support was one that could be rectified.

She said WIN wants to help grow the visibility of women in the sector: “There might be a small number of women in your particular organisation, but by linking us all together, you quickly realise that you are not alone.

“We want to hear from the people who are dealing with this day-to-day, and understand more about what challenges they are facing, if any, and what we can do as a united group to overcome those, as well as learn from each other’s journeys.

“I think it also depends on your role in the sector. Many of our members are project managers, for example, who are often out on site and a lot of those women have shared stories and similar experiences. Construction sites are mostly male dominated, and if a woman, sometimes a young woman, comes along to call the shots – it might not necessarily be that well received. I think we’re definitely making headway, as we’re getting more used to seeing women in those roles. Even so, helping those women feel more supported, and not just by men but also by other women, is partly the role of WIN.”

Lonnberg-Shaw has her own experiences, as a lawyer as well as a planner, to draw on. She can sympathise with those women who either automatically volunteer to take the notes of a meeting or feel obligated to – she has been there.

“The thing I’ve learned, having been in male-dominated environments for a long time, is that as a woman you should trust that you know as much as men do. I think self-doubt can be quite a limiting factor, for young women in particular, because it can be a bit daunting when you first join the workforce. But once you’ve been in it a while, you realise that your voice is just as important and valuable as that of the men, whether you are senior or junior.”

Women’s Infrastructure Network is far from being alone as an organisation, Lonnberg-Shaw says. There is also the National Association of Women in Construction and she has made contact with the Waikato branch of Women in Property to see if they can run a shared event this year.

“It’s a labour of love that we’re all doing, and it’s exciting to be part of,” she said. “I personally believe there’s a lot of movement in this area now – it’s like we’ve reached a bit of a turning point when it comes to not just gender diversity, but diversity in general.”

Success would not necessarily mean every workplace having a 50-50 gender balance, but would be about providing equal opportunity irrespective of gender. It would be about women not feeling that their gender is holding them back and getting rid of unconscious bias.

“That’s success in my mind.”

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