It’s harder to find women in engineering and infrastructure. But at AECOM, the CEO and head of human resources are both women – and gender diversity is top of the agenda.
Human resources director Helen Fraser has been through a big couple of years at AECOM. Fraser and her team have overseen a restructuring program that reduced headcount by about one-third; helped integrate staff and operations with another major business; and enabled CEO Lara Poloni’s commitment to gender diversity and pay equity.
In fact, the company was just recognised as the Most Outstanding Company in Gender Diversity by Engineers Australia – Women in Engineering.
Poloni, who joined the US-based multinational 22 years ago, was appointed to the role of CEO of operations in Australia and New Zealand in early 2014. AECOM is one of the largest professional services firms in the global infrastructure sector with more than 85,000 employees. Locally, the workforce is close to 4,000 strong.
Together Poloni and Fraser have been working to reshape the company and leave the turmoil of the past few years behind. For Poloni that’s meant tidying up some expensive loose ends she inherited such as the $1.8 billion claims against AECOM Australia for allegedly providing misleading traffic flow forecast for a Brisbane toll road that went bankrupt.
Meanwhile the downturn in the mining sector made a dent in overall revenues, although Poloni claims “given the diversity of our business, we didn’t feel it as hard as our peers who were over exposed to the resources sector.”
Nonetheless, it led to the retrenchment of more than 1000 employees over several years and a decision to rethink workforce planning. Previously, AECOM would hire extra permanent staff when demand increased rapidly but it now relies on a larger contingent workforce to smooth out the peaks and troughs.
Staff redeployment is also more likely today. “We’ve become better at being a truly multinational firm, moving our staff around to where the work is,” says Poloni.
It means the company benefits by retaining knowledge and expertise and the employee has a more diverse career, she says. Integrating the local operations of the US firm URS, following its US$4 billion acquisition in 2014, has also been a big job for Poloni and Fraser. This creates the largest environmental consultancy in Australia and gives AECOM a stronger presence in oil, gas and civil infrastructure. It also added another 800 employees, increasing AECOM’s workforce by 20 per cent.
Changing the conversation
Faced by challenging business conditions, Poloni’s approach since her appointment has been all about growth and evolution.
“I saw an opportunity to change the conversation in the organisation to one of opportunity and very considered growth. Yes, there will be pockets of ongoing market fluctuation, but we see tremendous opportunity to grow the business again.”
Poloni also saw an opportunity to revolutionise people management in the organisation, introducing a number of major programs including a stronger and more comprehensive approach to career development, flexible working hours and a move to improve gender diversity.
It truly gives human resources ‘a seat at the table’, says Fraser. “That comes from Lara seeing the people agenda as being critical to the success of the business. We are a people business; the only thing we sell is people’s time. We don’t have equipment, machinery or factories – just people. It means that as an HR person, it’s a great business to be in because you never have to have the argument that people are important,” Fraser says.
And, with a team of 50 human resources practitioners spread throughout Australia and New Zealand, HR becomes the eyes and ears of the business. As Poloni travels around the region, she checks in with human resources staff to keep up to date on any local concerns, says Fraser.
“All the human resources people know her personally and will be open with her about concerns or great ideas. It doesn’t all come through me, and I think that helps because it means there’s an array of ideas and feedback,” she says.
Gender diversity has been a major focus for AECOM and its work in that area earned it a Workplace Gender Equality Agency citation last year. [eds: 2015]
For Fraser and Poloni the citation acknowledges that the organisation is serious about gender diversity. “With both of us being so committed, it felt like we couldn’t take things slowly. We had to come up with things to do differently and just get on with it,” says Fraser.
Like other organisations in the sector, it’s a male-dominated workforce with just 30 per cent female employees. As a result, leadership positions are more often held by men.
But change is under way with an increase in the number of women on the senior leadership team. Today six of the team of 17 are women. Fraser says the shift in numbers makes a big difference, and it helps that the male senior leaders are also committed to gender equity.
“They encourage me to communicate really openly about this. Take our targets: when we were setting them, they pushed us to set a high target. They said we have to do significantly better; we can’t just create these targets that are going to be too easy to reach.
“And they pushed me to be brave. Sometimes you have to be brave to go out and talk transparently with people about this, because you will have people who are critical of it. So they’re really proud of our policy and want us to talk about it,” Fraser says.
Currently, 12.5 per cent of leadership positions are filled by women; the company aims to increase that to 15 per cent by the end of 2016 and 20 per cent by the end of 2020.
The company has also analysed salaries across the board to identify where women were being paid less for the same type of work and level of responsibility. It saw more than 100 women receive increased remuneration packages.
There’s also a close eye on the graduate intake. A target of 50 per cent female graduates wasn’t met last year because of the relatively low number of female applicants – only 30 per cent was achieved.
Fraser acknowledges it’s a problem faced by all employers taking on graduates from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees. “We are all competing for the same small group of women,” she says.
“It’s an industry problem and it needs a consolidated approach. But where we’re really putting in a lot of effort is connecting with student societies at universities and looking at how we can become more efficient and targeted in graduate recruitment.”
For Fraser, the 18 months or so of working with Poloni as CEO has been like a breath of fresh air. “It feels like a window has opened. With Lara committed to making changes, my job is to work out how we’re going to get there.
“Together we set the goals, and then it’s my job to work with the broader team to make sure we deliver.”
You can now set realistic gender targets in your organisation based on turnover and recruitment rates. AHRI members can access a toolkit for employers and other information on gender diversity via AHRI:ASSIST by clicking here.