Closing the gender gap

Diversity enhances problem solving in the design and construction sectors
Bruce G. Matthews
November 28, 2018
By Bruce G. Matthews
Bruce G. Matthews is the CEO at Consulting Engineers of Ontario.
Bruce G. Matthews is the CEO at Consulting Engineers of Ontario.
It has become almost trite to say that diversity is important in the context of collaboration and decision making. We pretty much take that fact for granted now, but we seem to be at a point where we pay lip service to it rather than take action to benefit from it. I believe it’s time for a new approach and a new attitude towards diversity, especially as it relates to the design and construction sectors.

With regard to innovation, problem solving and decision making, the benefit of diversity comes from the spectrum of experiences and perspectives of those around the table. The best decisions are made when a problem is examined from a variety of perspectives; those perspectives being derived from the diverse experiences and backgrounds of the problem solvers.  The best form of diversity can’t be assessed visually – you have to know more about the individuals assigned to collaborate on a project.

I am reminded of a time in my late teens in Mississauga, Ont. when my circle of friends in high school would have looked like the poster child for diversity. There was a reasonable balance of males and females, and roughly half of them would have been identified as “visible minorities.” However, every one of them was born in Canada, grew up in a suburban, middle-class socioeconomic environment, came through a common education system and was roughly the same age. The depth of the diversity of that group was not as great as it might have appeared on the surface.

In the engineering, design and construction sectors, gender diversity alone is a significant challenge. For the past 30 years, women have made up slightly more than half of the Canadian population and currently represent about 48 per cent of the workforce. Yet, only 13 per cent of the licensed professional engineers in Canada are women. Despite science, engineering and technology programs and campaigns targeting girls in public school and high school, or young women in university, only 17 per cent of new professional engineering licences issued last year went to women. The situation is even more bleak in the skilled trades, where a 2017 report stated that women make up less than 5 per cent of the workforce.

It’s clear that there needs to be a major shift in the mindset, attitudes and the corporate culture of organizations in the design and construction sector if there is to be any meaningful progress towards leveraging real diversity.  The focus has to be on the outcomes – better decisions, more innovation, more creative solutions to the challenges that face our organizations and our industries. Directors and senior management within our organizations need to view this as a strategic and existential imperative. If your competitor begins to embrace real diversity and experiences the benefits of better problem solving, where will that leave your organization?

Change is required. Change is rarely easy. You may not like change, but you’ll like irrelevance and insolvency even less. The design and construction sector is a competitive environment where only those who demonstrate innovation, creativity and keen problem solving are going to thrive – all of those things are enhanced by having diverse perspectives on the team.  

Labour market analysts talk about a “skills gap” between the needs of industry and the available work force. Within your organization, ask yourself if you have a “perspectives gap” when it comes to decision making and problem solving, and then do the work to leverage real diversity to bridge that gap. Don’t view it as an opportunity, view it as a necessity.


Bruce G. Matthews, P.Eng., is the CEO at Consulting Engineers of Ontario.

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