Diversity: ‘A small word with a big meaning’

5th March 2021
Dean McGrail
Managing Director - Property & Buildings
It is widely agreed that diverse workforces offer measurable benefits to any organisation but what do we really mean when we use the word diversity and how can we unlock the potential of inclusive workplace cultures?
In this episode WSP’s Managing Director – Property & Buildings, Dean McGrail is joined by Salma Aboul-ela from Emaar to explore the ideals of diversity, how they can translate into our workplaces and what we can do to champion progress.
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WSP Middle East · Diversity: ‘A small word with a big meaning’
Not able to listen? Take a look at the complete transcript below.

Dean McGrail: The initial idea that we were looking at was around the business case for inclusion and diversity and can we put a price on progress. You and I have known each other for a number of years now and we work in, what I would say historically is, quite an un-diverse industry, particularly within the Middle East region. All be it we are seeing progress, I know you’re at the forefront of trying to, push Emaar in terms of the diversity on sites and we are doing a lot of construction projects with you. So, what more do you think the industry can do to really push the diversity agenda and what do you think the benefits of doing that might be?

Salma:  I mean you really touched on the main point, in our industry specifically, it’s very un-diverse in so many ways and I just want to first explain my idea of diversity, it’s for different races, ethnicities, genders, ages, religions, disabilities, everything. So, it’s people with different education and personalities and skill sets and experiences, diversity is actually a very big, it’s a small word for a very big meaning.

Diversity covers everything. It’s just different people doing different things, with different mindsets and when we have different people in a room, you get different ideas, you innovate, you have different perspectives on life.

Dean: Well, I just think what you said there was absolutely perfect, a small word for a very very large topic. I mean when we talk about diversity a lot of people, get hung up on whether it’s gender diversity or ethnicity or cultural diversity or religious diversity, people don’t often speak about, (which you touched on which is quite interesting). I don’t necessarily talk about people of determination for example, but diversity covers everything. It’s just different people doing different things, with different mindsets, when we have different people in a room, you get different ideas, you innovate, you have different perspectives on life.
So, I think what you said there was a really powerful message it’s a small, very small word for a very very large topic.

Salma:  I think most of the struggle is actually getting people to understand how the differences between people are what makes them powerful and more innovative, more creative, and possibly even more productive because they challenge each other. They come from different backgrounds and have a different perspective on things and probably the best think tanks we’ve ever done in my workplace or on previous projects, are with people coming from different places in the world and different backgrounds, whether it’s a contractor or a consultant or a design person or even a marketing person, they would come in and they would have this totally different perspective that would throw everyone off the table and say,’ oh we didn’t think about that’. So, it’s really, a very powerful thing to have and it’s a great advantage for any workplace to have diversity there.

Dean: I agree, there’s research and it’s quite a bit of research. I do quite a lot of reading around this subject given my role within WSP. McKenzie, in particular, has done a lot of research and they’ve, looked at, high-performing companies and what they actually found is that, when you’ve got a company with a top quartile for diversity, they financially outperform the bottom quartile. So, they are 15% more likely to outperform when they’re gender diverse, and interestingly and again this is something which, can get overlooked is when they are ethnically diverse, they actually outperform by 35%. So, there is actual statistical information there that demonstrates very clearly, the power of a diverse team. I would be interested to get your perspective on this, probably without going into too much detail but when you look at some of the projects that you’re working on at the moment do you see, where you’ve got a diverse team, that those teams are higher performing? Can you see that because obviously, you could spread that across a number of different projects and you see a team which is, I’m assuming predominantly male, and then you’ve got a mixture of male/female and then a mixture of different cultures. So, do you see a difference in performance?

Salma: Ok, I’ll answer your question. Yes, I do see differences when it is more diverse, first of all, and unlike what people think, people coming from diverse backgrounds, try to be more culturally understanding and more accommodating to other people because they are always assuming that they don’t know where the other person is coming from and they have more willingness to listen; and therefore, I could see a more collaborative and supportive approach on certain projects which allowed people to actually work more tightly together and therefore perform better. In other ways, projects with diverse people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and genders create a slight competitiveness as well because every person wants to validate where they’re coming from and what they’ve learned in their countries or from their backgrounds. So, it’s quite interesting, people that are from the same culture specifically, sitting in the same working environment created the, create sometimes stagnant atmosphere or status quo because we all know that we’re all from the same region, we understand each other, we know where we come from. So, there are some questions that are never asked. Whereas people coming from different areas just ask the question and sometimes it’s the most obvious question ever, but nobody thinks about asking it and this is what diversity creates, this swirl in that stagnant pond.

Dean: The amount of projects I’ve sat on where people are using acronyms, for example, which will be very specific to a location or somewhere that they’ve been educated, and there are people in the room that probably never asked or understood what the acronym is.

Salma: That’s always me! [laughing]

Dean: You always ask, you always ask. It’s an interesting perspective because the people would listen and not ask the question. I think that does filter down to all aspects of a design process, all aspects of a construction process because things are done differently here. People tend to forget, this region, whilst it has challenges like in any industry, when you go on to a site in the UAE you are typically confronted by a multitude of different nationalities and cultures whilst we might be, slightly behind I think it’s fair to say on gender diversity, all be it we are making strides, that the cultural diversity on our sites is significant, without a doubt.

There must be more work done or awareness raised to promote inclusivity and diversity. Understanding that a human being is a human being regardless of what they look like, what’s their gender, what they believe in. It doesn’t really matter as long as your confident you can deliver, then you deliver that’s it.

Salma:  I mean we’re lucky we’re living in the UAE to be honest because I think cultural diversity specifically, is something that you just learn the minute you land in the country. You can’t get away from it because you are crossing paths with people from all over the world every single day and you learn very quickly how to deal with everybody and what are the initial questions and ‘do’s and don’ts’ in dealing with other people from other cultures. So, in some ways, it’s good that we live in a place that actually embraces all the different cultures in the same area and encourages companies to actually hire people based on their competencies, not based on where they come from or what was their background before they land in this country, as long as their competent for the job.

It’s interesting you touched on the gender, and on the gender differences as well, especially in the heavy projects, real estate, construction industry, where it’s really male-dominated and in many ways, I commend Emaar because since the minute I walked in, Emaar has always been a supporter of females, making sure that they are equal to males in every single way. They believe that females can deliver and I’m, I’m an example of that I was not, at any point held back because I was female. In fact, I always believed that they are a company that believed that females can deliver as well as men, obviously, within the construction sites themselves it’s a different mindset and a different perspective because the tiers of people you work with are not as educated or as exposed to the world as, obviously our working environment, when it comes to Emaar and WSP and how the cultures are inside our corporate environment and it’s a work in progress and I feel like it’s getting better. Not as fast as it should, and there must be more work done or awareness raised to promote inclusivity and diversity and understanding that a human being is a human being regardless of what they look like, what they are, what’s their gender, what they believe in. It doesn’t really matter as long as your confident you can deliver, then you deliver that’s it.

Dean: Agreed, and look,  you know of my respect for Emaar and you touched on there,  that there’s never been any indication, that the largest developer in the Middle East has no issue with saying, ”this person is absolutely capable of fulfilling that role’ and there’s been no differentiation or suggestion that, someone like yourself couldn’t go on-site and lead a project from the front. That sort of support and to see that someone like yourself coming on site the way that you do and, leading from the front sends a massive message all the way down, from the very top, from Emaar as the developer through to the Lead Consultant, through to the Contractors, through to everyone on-site. It comes from the top. It’s about leadership, it’s about developers in this region leading from the front and saying that this is how we’re going to run our projects and we see it in other regions where that doesn’t happen and that’s where I think the progress in the UAE, in particular, has really accelerated and will continue to accelerate and that’s why you’ll see much better performance in our industry going forward.
Emaar, in terms of developers in this region, taking a lead and leading from the front in terms of diversity, sends a really powerful message to the rest of our industry and it’s one that, a message I’m hoping that other developers in the region will pick up on and it does seem to be happening.

Salma: Dean, I have a question for you. From your perspective do companies that have higher diversity and inclusivity, have higher loyalty rates from their employees or less turnaround of employees even, what do you think about that?

Dean: It’s a very interesting question, I think that WSP has a very low turnover statistically. When we do our employee surveys we do see that we score quite highly on inclusivity and diversity. I think the most important thing is that we treat everyone the same and everyone can progress through WSP based on merit and that’s the most important thing and I think that’s very important in any company and you see it when you start looking at society if society has diversity woven into it in the workplace and it’s an environment where you want to go then you’re more likely to stay;  I think if you’re going into an environment that is not very pleasant or not very diverse or you are not going to succeed. Let’s just take a site for an example, when you walk into a site office and that site office is dirty, doesn’t look professional, the welfare facilities are not up to standard then it’s not somewhere that I would want to go. I’m sure that it’s not somewhere that you would want to go therefore it’s not somewhere where people would want to work so, I think that’s quite a bit of work that we need to do around site and welfare facilities as well, to make them more attuned to the different cultures and diversities that we want on our projects.

Salma: 100% agree, I’m glad that you touched on the point of health and safety and HSE, in general, has been something that is out there, we need to deal with it every single day and there’s a lot of resistance actually with regards to it. Everybody acknowledges it’s important but nobody wants to spend the money or want to do the effort actually to maintain a specific level of HSE, which obviously extends to the welfare of labour workers, I mean everybody that’s within the ecosystem of the, of our industry. It’s actually quite interesting because you guys really push a lot and specifically on this, and it’s always a question that I ask my team to ask themselves, would you want to live in that place? Would you want to work in that place? Or would you want to touch this without a glove? Would you want to do this activity without protection for your eyes or a helmet? Basically, think about your family think about your kids, would you want to go back home with an injury or dirty even? This is part of HSE as well cleanliness and housekeeping and all of it. So, it’s quite interesting that you mention that because this is another phase of diversity and that people need to put themselves in other people’s shoes in the different tiers of the industry, no matter how junior or a foreman or a labourer or how senior the person is, we’re all the same in terms of basic needs, cleanliness, and safety. So, it’s very important.

Dean: It’s an interesting analogy as well, 15, or 16 years ago when I arrived in the UAE, Health & Safety was not at the standard that it should be and there has been a lot of work from a lot of people in our industry that have really raised the level of health and safety on our sites. I met a Project Director from a well known contractor recently, he used a great story, he said to me that ‘Health and safety used to be my enemy and now it’s my friend’. What he was trying to articulate was the fact that when health and safety was first ‘imposed’ on him to use his words it slowed him down and, made him feel like he had to do a number of things that he didn’t need to do previously, now he saw it as an opportunity to plan things better. He made sure that materials are coming onto the site at the right time and he was actually looking ahead of the work that he needed to do. If I look at inclusivity and diversity, I hope that our industry will see it in the same way in years to come, that this is a friend, this is something that we need to do to improve productivity, improve the performance of our projects, improve the performance of our businesses so it’s seen as a friend and whilst I also don’t think that people in our industry necessarily see it as an enemy. There are certain people that are probably not as open to the idea as they should be if I’m being honest. So, I think there’s a lot that we can do to raise awareness, you touched on something previously, I think it was with Shell, could you just explain that, as I think it’s quite an interesting perspective that you were describing.

Salma:  So Shell have a DNI day, where they actually have a campaign of raising awareness about diversity and inclusivity, the do’s and don’ts, and how our differences make us a lot stronger; and then they bring the best examples from the different countries, the different offices and they actually have a reward system sometimes, where people who have made extraordinary efforts to include diversity or have a diverse team or exude understanding of a different situation that another person is going through in the team.

Dean: Do you think that we do enough on our projects, on our sites to really push the inclusivity of the people that we are working on them?

Salma:  Oh, that’s a tough question, I don’t think that we’re doing enough and to be honest, I would say that obviously there’s a privilege, for example of me understanding Arabic and therefore in some contexts where people are talking Arabic because that’s their national language of the country; of me understanding what these guys are saying. But I do see in many ways that we have to bring it up consciously in certain meetings where we say, ‘please switch to English because there are other people who can’t understand what we’re saying’ and you could see it in those little things that people are still, they don’t have this as a default setting in their head, there’s definitely a long way to go. In many other ways I could also see that there are good things, good practices, for example, I see part of actually practicing inclusivity is giving people a voice to say whatever they think is correct within the setup, so in our sites, I do see junior engineers in clients meetings where supposedly they should ‘zip it’ and not talk, they are actually given the opportunity to showcase what they believe is the right technical advice or the correct recommendation. Even if it’s against what we think we should do, but just being given that forum and that voice to express themselves, is also a good practice. I considered inclusivity as well, that we know you might know a bit less but that doesn’t discount your opinion or your thought process and this is definitely something that is a good practice on-site and we definitely need to do more of this.

Dean: Alright so a question, what does success look like for you in terms of our industry, inclusivity, and diversity? If you could look ahead 5 years into the future and, you and I were going to walk onto a project, what would success look like?

Salma: The perfect successful inclusive and diverse environment would be when you walk in and there is no age definition for seniority levels within the sites on the consultants and on the client’s side and even on the contractors’ staff and engineers’ side, it doesn’t matter if your 50 or your 20 as long as you have the right competencies to do your job then you can do it. I’d like to see more diversity in terms of ethnic origins for our labour, for our workforce, we started to have this, to be honest on some of our projects, which is really really good to see the mix of people together which is definitely something that should be pushed more and ultimately, I would love to see more women with boots on the ground. I think consultants have done a great job at including women in the design, in the technical and the supervision scopes and now women need to be pushed through as well, be in boots or construction-oriented, that would be really nice to see. So that would probably the 3 things that would create a successful and inclusive, diverse environment on any project in my opinion.

Dean: In this discussion – which has been really interesting to me, I think we probably covered every single type of inclusivity and diversity topic, we’ve had age, we’ve had ethnicity, we’ve had gender, we’ve had culture, we’ve had education and I’ve been in a few conversations around the subject and we tend to get stuck on one element and, gender is obviously quite high up on the agenda at the moment. But again, it’s about everything, I think if we start on a journey talking about gender and now it’s inclusivity and diversity and that it’s not just one aspect, I think the statistics from McKenzie really underscore that and the more diverse and inclusive you are the better you perform. So, it’s going to be interesting to see businesses, Emaar and WSP, and other consultants and developers over the years, how are they actually make the performance changes? Do they start performing better, I think they do, I mean I see it in my business, I’ve got very diverse teams that perform exceedingly well, then I’ve got less diverse teams that probably don’t perform as well which we’re trying to say to them, these are the reasons why. Because of confirmation bias and everyone just agreeing to the same things because you have got all the same opinions and you’ve all got the same perspectives. So, I think it’s going to be an interesting 15 years I think.

Salma:  100% agreed, it’s always one of those things that’s a ‘work in progress’ as well because just when you think that you have included everything, you have enough diversity in your team, there’s one more thing that pops in and there’s always one more faction of people who just appear and you look and your like, ‘oh this person is completely new to me.’ And that’s the beauty of the human race, we keep evolving ourselves and every time we include more there’s more to look at, again, like I said its really nice that we sit in a country where it really pushes you hard on this and definitely in the next 10-15 yrs. I’m expecting a lot of improvement and a lot of progress specifically in this area. I could already see it happening now with people being more aware and more conscious that they need to be inclusive and diverse in their teams and in the way, they work and the workplaces altogether.

Dean: Salma thank you very much. I think it was a really good discussion, very eye-opening for me and just the amount of subjects that we, that we covered I think it just goes to show that diversity is a very broad topic and I think that you said right from the very start, it’s a very small word but for a very large subject so you did an excellent job in discussing your perspective. Thank you very much and I’ll see you for a coffee soon!