Jason Saundalkar talks to Grant Porter about the D&I Business Network’s signing of the UN WEPs and what that means for the firm going forward
In 2016, SNC-Lavalin’s Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Business Network programme was launched globally to increase the percentage of women in technical and management positions to 20% by 2020. The programme drives the firm’s diversity and inclusion targets and is said to work through “proactive employee and local community engagement initiatives, trainings and awareness campaigns”.
In February 2019, SNC-Lavalin’s Middle East Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Business Network was launched, and in March it signed up to the United Nation’s Women’s Empowerment Principles (UN WEPs). The UN WEPs are said to align with the firm’s ongoing efforts to create an inclusive culture that promotes gender equality and supports the professional development, skills and knowledge of its staff.
According to its website (www.empowerwomen.org), the WEP is “dedicated to empowering women to achieve their full economic potential by inspiring both women and men to become advocates, change makers and leaders in their community”.
In the Middle East, the D&I Business Network is chaired by Grant Porter, Atkins’ CEO of Engineering, Design and Project Management in the Middle East and Africa. Speaking about what the UN WEPs mean for the company, he explains, “SNC-Lavalin has always been committed to gender equality. In 2016, we launched a global diversity and inclusion programme which goes beyond women’s empowerment and gender equality. It’s based around cultural diversity, nationals and expats, the young and the not so young, and engaging with staff and the community around learning development. It’s also about increasing awareness.”
“Signing those principles for the business here was important. We’ve set some targets and we want to, as part of that, review policies to ensure that we encourage the retention of women. We already have a maternity policy that exceeds any of the local standards and we’re now looking at paternity, where people have more flexibility. But the most important thing to me is how women return to work, because that’s a real challenge. We’re also involved in an external initiative which encourages and supports mums returning to work after long-term career breaks.”
Pressed about the firm’s maternity policies, Porter comments, “There’s a few things. First, our medical insurance covers maternity as a starter. We also offer 11 weeks paid leave, which exceeds the legal standards, and we offer six months extended unpaid leave and we will protect the role in the business. During the extended period, women can continue to be mentored from the office. Then we allow a sort of gentle return to work, so people can come in and keep the networks going; and then, once the person returns to work, we have a support system around them consisting of other mums that have returned to work. The other thing we do is track and monitor for two years post-birth the number of women that we retain, because that’s a strong talent pool and we don’t want to lose them. So we specifically measure and manage that.”
Porter notes that other parts of the SNC-Lavalin business have previously signed up to the UN WEPs and says SNC-Lavalin is committed to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. “It’s a big thing for the business here to sign, because we really do want to make a difference. We’ve been trying to make a difference for some time and, most importantly, it’s about raising awareness that we are on this journey,” he says.
Discussing which of the seven principles could be the most challenging to implement and the steps the firm has taken since signing the UN WEPs, Porter notes, “There’s one that’s more challenging than most – Principal five, which requires us to engage with supply chain. That’s a challenge across the construction sector. What is also very important to us is Principal one, which is leading from the top, because if we don’t do that, we’re not going to achieve anything. Likewise, with Principal seven, which is to measure and report – because if we don’t do that, we won’t know if we’re making a difference and doing things well.
“Diversity and inclusion has been a focus for some time and we continue to raise awareness, and that is really important. Last month we had an industry event with clients, peers and industry leaders, and that was for International Women’s Day. The diversity and inclusion network has local chapters, so we are able to act across the region – we will be seeking feedback from people in the network and will work closely with them. What’s most important for me is leading from the top and working with the chapters to get feedback, properly embed it and work with my fellow sector leaders within SNC-Lavalin to measure ourselves against targets.”
Going into depth about educating the supply chain, Porter explains, “That’s absolutely going to be a challenge in the construction sector. As part of SNC-Lavalin’s procurement process, the group policy is that we engage with women-owned businesses, which is something we need to look at in the Middle East. That’s a global policy and we need to work out how we could implement that more in the region.
“In terms of the contractor space, it’s about awareness. The forum that we had last month is about influencing, because that’s a difficult space. Professional services and contracting are extremely different. Here, our clients are the ones that can influence the contractor space the most, but there are also businesses in this region that have gender equality high on their agenda beyond the construction sector. So by engaging with the community – and this has to be a long-term objective – the construction supply chain will start to be influenced. It’s about making a difference in any way that we can.”
A Region Wide Focus
Porter is keen to point out that the firm’s initiatives have and will continue to be rolled out across the region. He notes that the firm has already had success with its initiatives and goals in Saudi Arabia and Oman.
“Saudi is no different to any other country in the Middle East from a D&I perspective, and we do have local chapters in Riyadh and Khobar. I spend a lot of time in Saudi and what I’m finding is that there are a lot of very talented women coming through, and there’s talented Saudis full stop. We want to retain them through the policies we’ve put in place. Over the last two or three years, if you look at our graduate intake, we’ve been focused on nationals and we’ve got an even 50/50 split between men and women. We invest heavily in these graduates and want to retain them. Therefore, policies are part of our approach and they all benefit from the same policies and the network that we have.”
The firm held a graduation ceremony In December 2018 for 24 young professionals who had successfully completed SNC-Lavalin’s graduate development programme. The programme is managed by Learning & Development and HR and aims to attract the best-performing fresh graduates and enrol them in a two-year scheme for oil & gas and a three-year scheme for Engineering, Design and Project Management (EDPM).
According to SNC-Lavalin, the programme is not just a series of in-class trainings, but a journey designed to develop and invest in the next generation of leading engineers, architects and project managers in the region. It is designed to help graduates develop the skills and knowledge needed to progress in their early career and achieve professional designation. The scheme includes core training modules, professional development, mentoring and on-the-job experience. The firm says 35 graduates are currently employed in the Middle East, which it sees as a testament to its commitment to the region.
Going into detail about how the D&I network is structured and functions, Porter comments, “The network is quite a tight group, like a board, and then there’s local chapters which include a finite number of people in each of the offices. In terms of how it works, they engage with each of the offices and we are also developing a diversity and inclusion intranet site, so all staff can be aware of what they can do and what we’re planning to do. We have really strong engagement there but, ultimately, all staff will be able to benefit from the policies we roll out.
“In terms of our recruitment process, for a long time we’ve had a policy where with senior positions, we have gender-balanced interview panels and we must have women on the panels. We’re also really excited about having a graduate programme that’s 50/50, and we have across the business strong training academies which our clients are particularly interested in.
“We’ve got one with Petroleum Development Oman, where we now have 100 Omanis and they do 50 people a year – six months in the office and two and a half years on the job, doing oil & gas commissioning, electrical and mechanical, and that’s flagship. We’ve also taken about 9,000 people through training in Saudi Arabia and the last time I was there, there were 20 women going through that programme, which is a change in recent years. So our efforts go right across.”
Elaborating further, Porter notes, “Our last three graduate intakes have focused on nationals and we have had particular success in Oman. The business there is almost 60% Omani and an awful lot are women, so there’s a lot of women going into architecture. That model is about immersing young national graduates, involving them at the right level and giving them the support and encouragement that they need. The Saudi graduates we’ve got at the moment are excellent, and we are focused on their success – not because of a government drive to nationalise, it’s because it’s the correct thing to do from a diversity and inclusion perspective. We’re really excited about what we’ve achieved in Oman and we want to emulate that further across the region.”
Porter concludes, “We’re really excited about this journey. As chair of the D&I Network, I want to work closely with local chapters. We know that when there’s proper gender diversity, productivity, innovation and satisfaction is improved, so I’ll be working hard to support our drive towards that. We’re excited to raise awareness across the construction sector and the community.”