It's time for change - with Sina Cotter Tait

Director of Collective Success in Christchurch, Sina Cotter Tait would like to see more equity in our sector for Maori and Pasifika. When she's not championing diversity, she's studying for her PhD and sitting on several boards.

You'd like to see more equity built into the engineering sector for Māori and Pasifika workers. Tell us more. 

Firstly, I'd like to acknowledge that I speak from my perspective as a Pasifika person in the industry, as Tangata Tiriti, and I don't presume to speak for Māori or a broader collective.

Historically, I believe the industry has been blind to the impact its activities and values are having on the indigenous communities both in Aotearoa and in the Pacific. Māori and Pasifika workers make up approximately 30% of the construction workforce which means we are punching well above our weight in terms of our contribution by numbers. Still, so many of those workers are in the lowest-paid and most precarious tiers of the industry.

Also, just 1% of chartered professional engineers identify as being Māori or Pasifika. 

I'd love to see that balance shift with more Māori and Pasifika becoming professional engineers, technical principals, academics and managing directors 

What needs to change to improve Māori and Pasifika representation in the industry? 

There are probably three major things that have to change: 

1. Education - The education system is failing our Māori and Pasifika young people. This is why industry initiatives such as Engineering New Zealand's "The Wonder Project" are so great, to engage young people in maths and science early. That programme has become a fantastic example of how the industry can step in and shift the narrative. 

2. Visibility - At the moment, our industry leaders don't look like us, and it is becoming increasingly vital that we disrupt that perception. We need to lift the visibility of Māori and Pasifika leaders in the professional space so that young people coming through can see that the CEO's office, the technical conference keynote speaker and the boardroom are all spaces for them to aspire. I don't think our young people are seeing that at the moment.

3. Values - The sector's values need to shift to include indigenous values around collectivism rather than just being focussed on technical skills. That will be a difficult conversation, but I think it is one where everyone can come out a winner.

Sina speaking at CXHC in Otautahi-Christchurch for the Vaka speaker series. Vaka is a speaker series platform for indigenous peoples of Oceania to share stories

Are these a step too far for the industry?

No, they are not too big a stretch as some people are already doing the mahi in this space. I believe the industry does have the intent and willingness to have these discussions. I have seen a shift in tone around these issues over the past couple of years.

Who needs to take the lead on making change happen?

I think it needs to be industry-led. Agencies like ACE New Zealand and Engineering New Zealand are playing their part by becoming signatories to the Diversity Agenda Accord; however, other agencies need to convert their aspirations into actions through social procurement and support of education initiatives that help address equity. 

How is the post-COVID-19 period likely to affect Māori and Pasifika moving into the construction industry?

The post-COVID-19 Government-funded construction projects will provide an excellent opportunity for Māori and Pasifika workers, particularly with funding becoming available for free trades training.  

People I have spoken to recently have indicated that there is some early thinking happening around how to encourage Māori and Pasifika participation in the "shovel-ready" projects. However, I think the opportunities need to be expanded further, and we must be mindful that Māori and Pasifika are generally employed in casual contract roles which are the first to go when companies downsize. We are certainly seeing that happening at the moment with some of our major construction companies laying off staff. I am very concerned that the pain of redundancy will be disproportionately felt by our Māori and Pasifika workers.

You mentioned that there are low numbers of Māori and Pasifika in professional roles in the sector. How can we improve those numbers? 

It's a difficult question to answer and was discussed on several occasions when I was on the board of Engineering New Zealand. The problems can be seen as systemic, which generally originate in the social issues that are endemic throughout our communities. There is also cultural issues of under-expectation in our school system. This tends to result in Māori and Pasifika students who demonstrate an aptitude towards maths and science being pushed towards a trade rather than a profession. That is a very subtle move and is proving difficult to address.

NCEA data shows there is a big gap between Māori and Pasifika students and other groups when it comes to achievement in the hard sciences and maths. That makes it challenging for Māori and Pasifika students to gain a place in engineering schools. These problems are creating a pipeline issue with multiple points which need to be addressed. To help tackle this issue, I think the industry needs to develop a better partnership with our education system.

Diversity and inclusion have almost become buzz words for the industry. Did you have any problem feeling comfortable when you first joined the industry? 

I still do. I tick a couple of these boxes as I am female and a person of colour which are both minority groups in our industry. When I speak to other women, Māori and Pasifika in the engineering industry, I find there is a commonality in this view, so I am not alone in the way I feel. However, attitudes have changed a lot in the 20 years I have been in the industry. I wouldn't have been able to have a conversation around diversity and inclusion back when I joined the workforce, so it does give me hope for the future.

How can we improve diversity and inclusion in the sector? 

I have always believed that one of the first things our industry and the Diversity Agenda needs to do is acknowledge our roles as partners of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. I think a more diverse and inclusive workforce will be of immense value as it will make people think differently and look at changing their values. However, I believe demographic diversity for the sake of diversity isn't the answer, and it's not as simple as diversity always equals good. To achieve measurable improvement from the implementation of diversity in the workplace, you need excellent strategic management and well-designed systems and support. 

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