How to promote gender inclusion in male dominated industries with Mandy Willis of Mace

Mandy Willis, group board director of corporate strategy at Mace, global experts at shaping the built environment, is breaking down barriers for women in the workplace. As a board member of one of the most influential construction companies in the UK, she has successfully navigated a path less trodden. We find out about her career experiences, why she believes supporting women’s health is pivotal to improving gender diversity and Mace’s efforts at tackling gender inequality.

How to promote gender inclusion in male dominated industries with Mandy Willis of Mace

Mandy’s professional career started out in the landscape of tax, working for large international professional services companies such as Touche Ross, Arthur Andersen and BDO. Learning on the job meant Mandy quickly gained commercial experience. By the time she was invited to join Mace, she had been advising boardrooms for 14 years.

Soon after joining Mace, Mandy made clear her aspiration to gain a board seat. The group CEO, Mark Reynolds, took the decision to put her in the boardroom early on, as an advisor and invitee. This involved attending boardroom meetings every Monday morning and having the opportunity to listen and discuss priority issues with members. After six months, Mandy was formally appointed to the board; it’s a position that continues to positively challenge her.

A woman in a male-dominated world

“As a woman working in a traditionally male dominated industry like construction, there have been times I’ve been the only woman in the room, or one of a minority,” Mandy says. “And clearly that can feel uncomfortable. But while it may have taken quite some time to get here [the industry], Mace as a company is trying to make changes”.

As to feeling uncomfortable, Mandy stands behind her innate curiosity, which tends to break down any awkwardness, she says. “I want to ask questions, and when people realise that I'm genuinely interested and want to draw on their experience, they break down very easily, so it becomes more about just the sharing of an idea”.

Mandy recognises that, in the construction industry and other heavily male-dominated sectors, women can feel like outsiders. “I know from my female construction colleagues that women still wrestle with being made to feel different in the building industry. We can be excluded from social events like ‘drinks with the boys’ or made to feel we are not part of the clique”.

If somebody uses offensive or misogynistic language in the workplace, Mandy is not afraid to call it out. “Rather than reprimanding them, I might say ‘You possibly don't understand what you just said’, or ‘That’s interesting. Would you like to explain more so I know what you mean by that?’ The thing is, I'm not going to let it go. At Mace, we know  that visible leadership affects behaviours.”

Lobbying for change

Mandy was appointed co-chair of The REBuild Project alongside Amanda Fisher, CEO of Amey, in March 2021. The project aims to promote the three Rs of: Recognition (increasing the number of  women holding senior and board level positions);  Representation (getting a greater gender balance within the industry); and Remuneration (reducing the gender pay gap).

“Since our appointment, we’ve taken a step back to reflect on the strategy and direction of the campaign,” says Mandy. “We want to recognise the wider issues of diversity. We want it to be real and to not only highlight the issues, but also to create a pathway for creating momentum for change. We want to explore how levelling up can be achieved, encouraging companies to invest in a pipeline of female talent”.

Why women make a difference

Many studies have shown the positive impact of women holding senior roles in leadership teams. Over the past 30 years, the construction industry has struggled with a lack of investment and modernisation. “We know that the skills that we will need tomorrow are not necessarily the skills we had in the past,” says Mandy. “We're talking about future skills to reflect digitisation, social, political and economic change, modern methods of construction… vision.

“The backdrop to that is drawing on the strong academic results of women and girls in schools and universities –  what employer would not want to tap into that?” she asks.

Modernisation of the industry clearly calls for change, and Mace is at the forefront. “Mace is a purpose-led organisation, and our ultimate client is society. We cannot reflect society without a diverse and inclusive workforce.

“We want richer perspectives and different opinions. We want to challenge ourselves and be progressive, and you can't do that with a one-dimensional profile. All these factors point to the fact that we need more women in this business, from all backgrounds and ethnicities”.

Preventing attrition

Although graduate intake level is 50% women in this industry, which is fantastic, a bigger problem can be attrition, explains Mandy.

Women have certain health and life challenges to navigate, whether it's fertility, pregnancy, bringing up children or going through the menopause. If women are not supported at work or haven’t been able to have the right conversations with their employers, they may decide to just leave.

Proving their commitment to driving gender equality and inclusivity in the workplace, Mace Group has recently launched access to Peppy – a digital health platform that supports users in under-served areas of health, including fertility, early parenthood and menopause – for all employees. This support will help to empower staff at Mace through their careers, women in particular, Mandy says.

“Peppy is a great conduit to having better conversations in the workplace but also to improving awareness of these issues within the workforce.”

This personalised support provided by Peppy is a powerful tool to prevent attrition of female talent. As Mandy explains: “The reality is, if you don’t feel your employer is going to support you, you might decide to opt out, or move sideways. The child rearing years that encompass pregnancy, motherhood and menopause coincide with an incredible point in a woman’s working life when she has gained a lot of experience and is highly proficient.  

“At Mace we have an ‘eyes wide open’ attitude to this. We need to understand the impact of these big events in a woman’s life and be open minded and informed as an industry so that we don’t lose valuable talent”.

Personal experience of menopause
Mandy understands the health factors that can lead to the loss of talent only too well. “I had to have an induced menopause when I had a hysterectomy at 30. I was ill for some time and went from a job I loved at Arthur Andersen to a part-time job elsewhere, just hoping that when I was ill it would coincide with my days off, because I didn’t want to share my situation with anyone.

“It took me a long time to get my confidence back a and I did that alone, not feeling I could have that conversation with my then employer.”

The sad truth is, there are far too many women who have felt obliged to leave a job they love because they haven’t felt able to ask for help – one in four women  experiencing menopause consider leaving their job due to symptoms. “This waste of valuable talent can be prevented with support. At Mace this is via our internal networks, our wider approach to inclusivity, as well as personalised support from platforms like Peppy”.

How Mace is taking action

Mandy explains that the Women at Mace network is a focus for raising awareness. “All our forums at Mace allow us all to just listen and learn. These networks have played an important part in taking our business priority for inclusivity to an incredible level of maturity.”

For companies like Mace that want to evolve by taking the right approach, Mandy recommends a combination of investment in behaviours, visible leadership and promoting a culture of openness and sharing.

“There are no soft steps, but change is entirely achievable if you invest in it. For example, we invite speakers in to coach senior employees, with audiences of 200 plus.

“But you also have to create the forums to raise people's EQ (emotional intelligence) and their GQ (their gender awareness). It’s one thing to read a book, but it's quite another to listen to somebody who's been through a difficult experience and have them share that experience with you. That openness is very moving, and it displays and engenders an incredible amount of trust. It’s a powerful way of changing people’s attitudes”.

This article is provided by Peppy. 

Find out more about how Mace and Amey are working to become gender equal workforces in the below video.

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