Fostering diversity and inclusion at Woodard & Curran is central to our mission and core values. By putting our people first, we seek to create a positive and safe work environment in which everyone has the opportunity to bring their full, authentic selves to work. However, we know as a company and key player in the A/E/C industry, we have more work to do to ensure the industry is an attractive place to work for a diverse population.
In 2018, the Design Professionals Coalition surveyed member firms to establish an industry baseline for diversity and inclusion. The results showed that entry-level positions in the industry include approximately 32 percent women and 26 percent minority populations. However, those numbers drop drastically at the executive level with only 18 percent women and 4 percent minority populations. While not entirely surprising, these statistics moved me and the leaders of VHB and RS&H to spearhead the formation of DPC’s Diversity and Inclusion Working Group (DIWG) in 2019, which now includes representatives from 22 of the industry’s largest firms. In March, the DIWG published an in-depth report that will hopefully be the catalyst for change across the industry.
It Takes Courage
As America reckoned with the murder of George Floyd and the national protests thereafter, Woodard & Curran joined the millions on social media to take a stand against racial inequity and injustice. In my public statement on June 3, I said the ideal of social justice won’t happen without the work for social justice, and we need to put our collective efforts forward to work for change. Since the formation of our own diversity and inclusion (D&I) program six years ago, Woodard & Curran has made strides to improve our inclusion initiatives, develop employee resource groups, drive greater diversity through our hiring and engagement practices, and open the lines of communication. By tracking key metrics, we continue to assess our progress and identify the most effective approach.
As a business leader, it is important for me to ask for employee input and listen to what employees have to say. Even more important is hearing criticism and adjusting accordingly. As part of a message to employees, I called myself “somewhat privileged,” because I grew up in a middle-class family and worked my way through college. Some employees expressed to me that “somewhat” was an understatement. In hindsight, I realized what I considered “somewhat,” others viewed as “very.” Through these conversations, I came to better understand word choice is critical and having open, transparent dialogue strengthens us as individuals and as a firm. These discussions helped me reflect more deeply on the concept of white privilege. While we all have challenges and struggles to work through, my life challenges have had nothing to do with the color of my skin or my gender. My white, male privilege means I have never wondered if the job I didn’t land or the part on a team I wasn’t offered had something to do with my race, and I have never had to think about the way I dress or talk to ‘fit the part’ at a male-dominated job site or conference room because of my gender. I am privileged, period. I have navigated life without experiencing first-hand systematic racism or unfair stereotypes. Recognizing this has been a profound learning experience, and I share this lesson on the importance of word choice as we work to foster conversations that are inclusive and develop safe spaces for all our employees.
These safe spaces at Woodard & Curran include the formation of seven employee resource groups (ERGs), which focus on race, ethnicity, and culture; LGBTQIA+; women; ascending professionals; disabled professionals; veterans; and parents and care givers. In the Spring 2020 Engineering Inc. article “Expanding the Conversation” about the DIWG’s effort to promote industry-wide progress, I tell leaders that they are in the position to create change. It is not just about checking a box, but really creating a culture in which people are given a voice and leadership listens. As the DIWG report states, ERGs create a forum where employees feel comfortable discussing company policies and, in turn, help firms realize what changes are needed to overcome diversity and inclusion hurdles.
A Cultural Shift
The DIWG cites a report from Deloitte Insights in which it states organizations with inclusive cultures are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial goals and eight times as likely to achieve better business outcomes. However, it is not just about expanding recruitment to a wider, more diverse pool of applicants. Companies in the industry must embrace a cultural shift that recognizes the benefits of a diverse, inclusive workforce. This includes careful attention to behavior that may otherwise go unnoticed, such as if someone is not given the opportunity to voice an opinion during meetings or people are passed over to lead projects.
This starts with building awareness and transparency with employees and expanding ways to include all employees in activities from project teams to board meetings. For example, our Board of Directors invites two non-management employees – one with about five years of experience and one with about 10 years of experience – who also represent more diversity to our annual January retreat to gain valuable insight from their perspectives on critical issues the company is trying to address. We also began conducting internal bias assessments for pay rates, raises, and promotions, and hired an external firm to conduct a pay equity analysis. In both cases, we made an upfront commitment to implement changes to address any gaps identified. Each year, our staff is required to complete an extensive workplace harassment and discrimination training to educate individuals on their rights and how to speak out if or when harassment or discrimination is seen or suspected in the workplace. Our unconscious bias training started at the executive level and then with senior principals before we rolled it out to all employees. Our recruiting staff and managers are also required to complete unconscious bias training. These are all steps that were discussed during a recent company-wide update from our D&I program leaders, and we always work to keep these matters at the forefront of our conversations.
As the DIWG report suggests, the most successful D&I programs are ones in which executive leaders, such as myself, set the tone clearly and that tone is reflected by the board of directors and senior leadership. When these individuals with decision-making power participate in training to build competency and align their values with D&I goals, they set the example for the organization’s managers. These leaders are then responsible for raising awareness throughout the organization and when welcoming new employees. While each company will develop its own unique programs, it is my hope Woodard & Curran and the other firms involved in the DIWG will help set an industry-wide example to effect further change.
Lastly, while I am proud of the changes we have made to drive diversity and build an inclusive culture, this is not yet represented in our employee demographics. One might ask why I’m writing on this topic if we have yet to meet our aspirations, but I have learned that waiting to arrive at perfection is not how you drive change. It is my belief that fostering ongoing conversations, listening to our employees, and taking action advances our goals. By sharing our journey toward improving diversity and inclusion with our employees, clients, communities, and stakeholders, we are making a public commitment to better the industry.