Putting diversity into practice

Understanding the value of gender balance has led BAE Systems to implement flexible working arrangements. Manufacturers’ Monthly explains.

Promoting and encouraging diversity is not only justified from a moral perspective,
but is empirically proven to increase profitability. In a study of 506 for-profit organisations in the US, those with greater gender diversity had higher sales revenues, greater numbers of customers, market share, and, ultimately, profits.

This is something that defence contractor BAE Systems has taken to heart, as Cathy Riach, employment brand and partnerships manager BAE Systems Australia, points out.

“To ensure success as a business, we need to attract and retain talented people, men and women, but we also know from research and our own experience that gender balanced and more diverse teams are also good for business. A more diverse team is more innovative, productive, and successful.”

BAE Systems has been putting this research into practice, with a number of programs designed to support the participation and elevation of women in its workforce. These programs have included structured mentoring opportunities, requiring diverse interview panels during recruitment, and Lean In Circles, inspired by Facebook chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg. One of the more significant changes was the revision to the company’s flexible working handbook and employee leave policy.

Not only applicable to women and parents, promoting flexibility in the workplace has been one way for BAE Systems to change the culture of work in their organisation.

“In the early days, particularly in the flexible work side, it wasn’t enough to just say, ‘Hey, we’ve got flexible work practices and policies,’ we actually had to prove it.”

This proof of concept was done by publishing case studies on employees who had taken advantage of the flexible working program. Examples included board members and senior individuals within the organisation, showing that there was no stigma against those who took advantage of the policy. This approach ensured the focus of work at BAE Systems remained on outcomes.

“It’s really important to have role models,” noted Riach. “You don’t have to have your jacket on the back of your chair to prove that you were working.”

BAE Systems drew upon the expertise of the Diversity Council and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, which endorsed the CEO of BAE Systems, Gabby Costigan, as a pay equity ambassador.

Where BAE Systems is today is a result of foundations that began the journey, and one that has seen growth in gender equity across the business.

“We first looked at our executive population,” said Riach. “We were about 15 per cent female. It now sits at 26 per cent. Our graduate recruitment has a base target of 30 per cent female, a stretch target of 50 per cent, and at an overall enterprise perspective we are currently sitting at 21 per cent female with the goal to get to 30 per cent.”

As the company has pursued these goals, some unexpected or unforeseen benefits have emerged. With flexible working available to anyone in the workforce, been taken up by employees to pursue volunteering commitments, further study, sporting pursuits, as well as caring for parents.

While this has been seen as a measure of success within the company, BAE Systems acknowledges that broader trends across the defence and engineering sector more broadly limit the participation of women in the workforce. For Riach, it is the lack of women studying STEM subjects at a tertiary and secondary level that limits their numbers in the workforce, with women comprising only 10 per cent of the engineering workforce at BAE Systems.

“We are already feeling the pinch now, and if we want 50 per cent of our engineering workforce women, there’s a huge shift that we need to make,” said Riach.

To take the first steps to make this shift happen, BAE Systems has had to counter the stigma that the defence industry has in regard to the working conditions for women. This involves getting the story of BAE Systems’ efforts in the gender equity field out to the broader community. One method by which BAE Systems hopes to do this is its sponsorship of the Women in Industry Awards for 2020.

“This isn’t an award that’s just for the defence industry, it’s for the engineering community,” said Riach.

At the same time, BAE Systems has monitored the success of their programs via metrics which track the participation of women at each point of their business, with a particular focus on engineering. This gives the company an understand of the trends of employment by gender. Other areas which are given particular attention due to their indication of the success of the diversity program as a whole is voluntary turnover of female employees, as well as the number of applications received from women and the percentage of new hires that are women.

For BAE Systems, the next step is to share the stories of those women who have been successful in the organisation, which comprises an element of the company’s public social media strategy. At the same time, Riach notes, “I think it’s key to have the content but you’ve got to be delivering that content to your target audience”.