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Trying To Keep Women In Engineering

By Sharon Manssen

Aurecon’s Experience

I am a female engineer by training and for the past 10 years I have worked for Aurecon, a global, multi-disciplinary professional engineering, planning, survey services consultancy. I am a mother and have worked full-time since the kids were 6 and 8 years old. Although 5 years ago I shifted from engineering to Quality & Environmental systems management, I continue to work day-to-day in a heavily male-dominated environment. And I love my job.

Awaw and Flexibility

A huge part of my job satisfaction is due to the work-life-balance that I am able to have thanks to Aurecon’s flexible work and purchased leave policies, which have been put in place or promoted through Aurecon’s AWAW initiative. Aurecon Women Achieving Women is an award-winning, global diversity and inclusion initiative that champions gender diversity and celebrates the achievements of Aurecon women. Whilst it is inclusive of all genders (males are encouraged to participate in the events), it does focus on subject matter directly relevant to female employees.

I was fortunate to have been involved since shortly after the 2006 launch of the initiative and was the chair of the NZ AWAW committee during the first few years. And yes, some of the males were sceptical about the initiative, referring to it as “the girls’ knitting club”. Exactly the attitude we were trying to break down!


And if you’ve worked in this type of industry, you’ll know that it’s not like we’ve never been exposed to that kind of attitude before – after making it through engineering school (biggest minority I experienced: 3 females in classes of over 80 students) you tend to be pretty thick-skinned about such flippant remarks. For goodness sake, I got accused of doing engineering only to meet men!! So it’s not so much about the women getting used to working in male dominated environments, but rather about helping the men to become comfortable with a more gender-inclusive culture – and having conversations about such things as flexibility needs – which are not limited to women, by the way.

In fact, of the 26% of NZ staff who have purchased additional leave, only a quarter of them are female – and only half of those females are parents! So whilst we know that some parents are using the purchased leave to care for children, roughly 80% of staff are purchasing the leave for other reasons – extended holidays for example, or to take every Friday off to play golf!

Driving Change

One of the biggest challenges for AWAW has been to figure out how the group can actually change policy in the business and drive real change. We have had to ensure that a senior champion has access to our senior staff, eg through our Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Team, to enable this.  It’s one thing to be a passionate group of advocates for gender equality, it’s another to actually drive the changes necessary in a business’s structure, culture, strategy and operations.

Here’s some of the specific initiatives that have come out of AWAW:

  • Aurecon pays for mammograms
  • Paid memberships of NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction)
  • Internal award-winning self-development programme (ASPIRE)
  • Annual events to celebrate International Women’s Day
  • Provide opportunities to enhance the profile of Aurecon women and their achievements
  • Promote and inform policies and practices that enable gender diversity
  • Identify and support professional development opportunities that support gender diversity
  • Link Aurecon with female-focused professional organisations

Role Models

Something that really works is the promotion of our female role models.  Through AWAW we have been able to align ourselves with external awards and recognition for our women – put them in the spotlight, so to speak.  It has also helped to raise the profile of the women who volunteer on the AWAW committees – it puts them in front of our senior staff where they may not have otherwise had the opportunity to be, and showcases skills they have outside of their day-to-day roles in our business.

Another initiative that works is that AWAW provides learning or professional development sessions/opportunities outside the business’s normal talent development or learning and development programmes.  Women in particular are able to identify subject matter that they would like more support with, such as self -branding, and AWAW find a way to deliver that learning in the form of debates, guest speakers, lunch and learn events, etc.


And it does seem to be working. Whilst not a direct AWAW initiative, continued improvements in our parental practices does appear to be impacting the retention of women who need time away for caring responsibilities.  For example, we are seeing a steady increase in the retention of our returned parents. And for me personally, the ability to purchase up to an additional 8 weeks’ leave (on top of my annual leave allowance) means that I can cover the school holidays, go on school trips, attend sporting events etc – with my manager’s approval, of course! This initiative has not in itself created change to the percentage of women in our business, nor percentage of women in our management or leadership positions.  What it has contributed to however is retaining those percentages.

Views from the Inside

So what do Aureconites think about AWAW? It’s a mixed response to be honest.

Many of our men and women embrace the initiative and get involved with its events and activities, whilst others don’t see it as a necessary part of their internal network.  However, that mixed response can be attributed to people’s bias around a women’s networking group.  Until someone actually experiences what the initiative can do for them, they may have their own ideas about its limitations.  It’s important for this kind of initiative to promote and brand itself to help challenge bias around “women’s groups”.

My personal view is that there is a place for AWAW and that it is making a difference at Aurecon. Because we’re talking about it.

My personal view is that there is a place for AWAW and that it is making a difference at Aurecon. Because we’re talking about it.


Sharon Manssen is an environmental engineer-turned-quality and environmental management systems professional within the global, multi-disciplinary professional engineering consultancy Aurecon – She is a working mum who is passionate about work-life-balance issues.

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