Choose to challenge this International Women's Day - with Helen Davidson

The theme of this year's International Women's Day is "Choose to Challenge". ''A challenged world is an alert world, and from challenge comes change. So let's all choose to challenge''. New ACE Chief Executive Helen Davidson gives us her thoughts on what this means to the engineering and consulting sector.

International Women's Day

What challenges have you encountered during your career?

There have been many challenges in my career - some have been gender-driven, some driven by other forces. Some of the challenges seemed significant at the time, while others appeared to be small but were memorable for various reasons.

I love the theme of International Women's Day this year because it revolves around using challenge to drive change. That is a philosophy that I ascribe to. Here are a couple of quick examples of why we need to challenge the way women are sometimes treated in the workplace:

I clearly remember the day when a young female lawyer and I were about to present to a group of mainly male lawyers on a project we were involved in. We were told that to grab the audience's attention, all we needed to do was put up a PowerPoint slide that included a picture of a woman in a bikini. It also never ceases to amaze me the number of times I hear the generic engineer referred to with the male pronoun.

I think those examples indicate just how easily a woman's sense of contribution or place in the profession can be undermined, even if it's not done with intent. How can those types of comments suggest an inclusive workplace?

What has made a difference to you?

I am fortunate to have had strong mentors and role models during my career who have empowered me to be alert for any suggestion of gender bias. These people helped me recognise what's OK and what's not and have encouraged me to speak up in an influential way.

I like to think that by challenging even the most minor indiscretion, we can create a ripple of awareness and instigate change that will lead to a more equitable world.

How will your leadership of ACE help forge a gender-equal sector?

At ACE, we're responsible for driving positive change with and for our members and fostering an inclusive environment where diversity is valued, and women can thrive in their careers. Developing a gender-equal sector is something that we all must do together, and I am privileged to be working alongside some fantastic industry leaders who are championing change. Together we need to be strong mentors and role models.

I believe our sector has made an excellent start by committing to The Diversity Agenda and the Diversity Accord, and I'll work hard to keep that conversation alive and at the forefront of discussions. We also must share our lessons and hold ourselves to account.

I'm looking forward to the Diversity Accord summit in May this year where industry leaders who've signed the accord will come together to report on what's worked well and what hasn't.

How can we be alert to bias in our sector?

One of the tricky things about bias is that it's usually done unconsciously, and people don't set out to be biased. It mostly happens without the person even noticing the impact of their actions or words.   

There are so many different types of bias influencing our decision-making every day. For example, we perceive risk based on how controllable we feel in the situation or how easy it's to imagine. We make assumptions that the way someone is behaving directly corresponds to what they must be thinking. And when we're making decisions as a group, our responses are easily swayed by things like group think, anchoring (the view of the person who speaks first has an anchoring effect), or the relationships we have, and we let emotion creep in. All of this makes bias a very complex thing to unravel.

One trick that I've learned is to develop something called a debiasing shield. The shield works by asking yourself, "is what I see all that there is". Identify decisions that'll impact others and slow down your decision-making process in those situations. Engage in systematic thought, test your decisions with people who may have a different perspective than yours, and use evidence-based decision making rather than resorting to assumptions.

Why should members take action for equality?

By now, we should all understand that taking action to foster a diverse, inclusive and equal workplace makes good business sense. However, I like to think that business outcomes are not the sole driver of decision making on equality.

ACE's vision is to support our members to actively and positively shape the future of Aotearoa. Put simply, taking action for equality is the right thing to do.

What other things can members do to foster an inclusive workplace?

I'm going to borrow from the International Women's Day website to answer this question. We can all choose to be alert to gender inequality and commit to change.

At an individual level, we can commit to checking our language, questioning our stereotypes and systematically testing our decisions to ensure that they are bias-free and make space for every voice.

When you discover gender bias or inequality, be bold and call it out. As a leader in the consulting and engineering sector, my message is that you have a responsibility to lift the game.

If you're not a member of The Diversity Agenda, become one so that you have access to the many resources that are available. You should also sign up to the Diversity Accord, which will show your commitment to change.

What is your challenge to ACE members?

My challenge is to have our members understand their role in taking action and play their part. Share your successes and failures, so we can all learn from them and together forge a more equitable Aotearoa.