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How you can deliver gender equality in major projects

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Gender equality is the United Nation’s fifth Sustainable Development Goal, and project professionals can help us to get there – by the 2030 deadline. So, when it comes to delivering gender equality interventions, what is it that we have we learnt so far? We conducted research commissioned by the Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce (STAT) to find out.

Access the full Government report from the Department for Transport here

Major projects have both the power and resource to disrupt the status-quo. They are able to drive forward new ways-of-working across vast supply networks, raising national standards and expectations of practice. In such a manner, the London 2012 Olympic Games celebrated unprecedented success as the most inclusive delivery of a UK major project and Games internationally; the central tenant of their project bid was to deliver an ‘Olympic Games for everyone’. Stephen Frost, CEO of Included and former Head of Diversity and Inclusion for London 2012, describes how delivering an inclusive project requires “an ability to ‘let go’. It requires an appetite for measured risk and for putting out fires when people, newly empowered, mess up. It is bound to happen from time to time. This requires having some tolerance for imperfection.” (Frost, 2015, p273).

Inspiring pioneers, such as the London 2012 Olympic Games, have led the UK’s major project profession to deliver equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) interventions as an important workstream in their own right. By drawing on best practice on-the-ground and supporting academic evidence, we recommend the following performance framework so you can improve the delivery of EDI interventions in major projects:

  • Manage interventions as a change management programme
    Consistent messaging is needed to clearly communicate the ‘who, what, when, why and how’ of the EDI interventions driving organisational change.
  • Collect, monitor and report both numerical and non-numerical data
    EDI data can be a valuable tool to direct focus and stimulate deeper enquiry (in honour of the popular adage, ‘what gets measured, gets managed’).
  • Build systems for performance management
    Mechanisms to monitor accountability can be built into day-to-day activities to keep both policy makers and practitioners engaged with the task at hand.
  • Overhaul mechanisms for evaluation in recruitment and progression
    Recruitment and progression opportunities are allocated on the merit of competing candidates. Contrary to popular belief, merit is not an absolute measure, but rather a subjective determination of what matters; merit is a value judgement.
  • Introduce mentoring programmes
    Mentoring can help people to defy negative stereotypes, raise their aspirations, and improve their career prospects.
  • Carve-out opportunities for reflective dialogue and constructive learning
    Proposing and debating contested new-ways-of-working can be a challenging experience for both policy makers and practitioners. When such changes relate to EDI, holding these debates can be avoided all together.

Our research suggests three emerging challenges and opportunities project practitioners face when implementing gender equality interventions:

  • As more women secure positions in major project sectors, there are growing concerns of positive discrimination ie, the use of preferential selection to advance the position of minority groups. This suggests a need to better engage with the workforce to re-evaluate what makes one person more worthy of a job than another.
  • Individuals with the responsibility of championing gender equality can risk becoming under-resourced, overburdened and ‘burnt-out’. We must be cautious to avoid inadvertently setting people up to fail, and rather, empower them to succeed.
  • There is growing interest in the interplay amongst the different social identities we hold at any one point. To give you an example, my experiences as a white woman will most likely differ from those of a woman of colour. We now have the opportunity to analyse these differences and re-design interventions to relieve potential for compounding disadvantage.

As you can see, delivering equality, diversity and inclusion interventions is difficult, but it’s something projects cannot afford to neglect and there are ways forward. I highly recommend that you get your hands on Professor Iris Bohnet’s evidence-led book on What Works: Gender Equality by Design (2016). Here you will find easy-to-implement, simple and cost-effective interventions towards gender equality. To reflect the significance of this mission, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority have integrated gender considerations throughout their international Project Development Routemap, steering the project profession towards value-laden practice in alignment with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

In summary, you can deliver gender equality in projects by treating EDI interventions as a serious change management programme. To do so, we must educate ourselves on societal inequalities and experiment with how to change the project environment. We may not have all of the answers, but by collecting data we can measure our impact and re-strategise our approach. We need to find out what works best for our own project, and that may not be what works best for another.

You may also be interested in:

Bohnet, I. (2016) What works: Gender equality by design, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Frost, S. (2015) The inclusion imperative: How real inclusion creates better business and builds better societies, Kogan Page, London.


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