More organizations need to recognize that diversity of perspectives in the engineering and design profession leads to more creative and innovative solutions to challenges and ultimately better decisions and outcomes, says the chief executive officer of Consulting Engineers of Ontario (CEO).
“In my perspective, it’s almost become somewhat trite to say that diversity is important in the context of collaboration and decision making,” said Bruce Matthews, adding one of his goals as CEO is to work with various levels of government and industry to foster greater diversity.
“My concern is that there is a lot of lip service being paid to this but I’m not necessarily certain that there is a great deal of action.
“I think there needs to be a change in the mindset and the attitudes and the corporate culture of the organizations that are involved in the engineering, design and construction sector if there is going to be any meaningful progress toward leveraging real diversity.”
The benefit of diversity comes from the spectrum of experiences of those who are around the table, he noted.
“Ultimately, the best decisions are made when a problem is examined from a variety of different perspectives and those perspectives are being derived from the diverse experiences and backgrounds of the actual problem solvers who are around the table,” Matthews said. “The best form of diversity really can’t be assessed simply visually. You really have to know what is it about your people that is going to bring that diversity of perspectives. It’s a little bit of an extra effort to understand and decide who is going to be there making decisions and trying to leverage those opportunities when they present themselves.”
As an example, he explained his group of friends in high school seemed like the poster children for diversity.
You need to obviously make change and change is never easy…but you’re going to like irrelevance and insolvency even less
— Bruce Matthews
Consulting Engineers of Ontario
“If you look a little deeper, every one of those people was born in Canada, grew up in a suburban middle class socio economic environment, came through a common education system and we were all roughly the same age, so the depth of diversity that group actually had was probably not as great as it actually appeared on the surface,” said Matthews.
He said there seems to be a perspectives gap that exists with respect to the decision-making and problem solving within organizations.
“The way that we view a skills gap, we need to view this idea of a perspectives gap,” said Matthews. “There is a need to look at, are you able to leverage real diversity? Do you have folks around the table at a decision-making point, and this would be all levels of an organization, that you are actually getting the diversity of perspectives that you need to get the best decisions?”
Gender diversity is a significant challenge in the engineering, design and construction sectors, Matthews noted. While women make up slightly more than half of the Canadian population and represent about 48 per cent of the workforce, only 13 per cent of the licensed professional engineers in Canada are women.
“Despite various programs that try to emphasize science and engineering and technology targeting girls in public schools and high school or even young women in university, only 17 per cent of newly licensed professional engineers last year were women,” Matthews pointed out.
He added CEO is co-operating with engineering regulator Professional Engineers Ontario, part of Engineers Canada, which has a program in place called 30 by 30 with the goal to have 30 per cent of newly licensed engineers in the year 2030 be women. Sometimes women need to make those decisions as early as when they are entering high school and it’s important that they know the benefits of the career, he said.
Leadership needs to be on board as well, said Matthews, adding those who do not adapt risk getting left behind. CEO as an organization has diversity as one of its core values and it tries to instil the benefits of diversity in its member firms and any organizations it works with.
“The directors and senior management within our organizations need to view this frankly as a strategic and existential imperative,” he said. “If the competitor of a firm begins to embrace real diversity and experiences the benefits in terms of better problem solving, where is that going to leave your own organization? You need to obviously make change and change is never easy…but you’re going to like irrelevance and insolvency even less.”