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The value of diversity

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I often get asked to support national campaigns. Recently, one caught my eye.

Are you a feminist? This was the question posed by Mark Hansford, editor of the New Civil Engineer.

The New Civil Engineer is campaigning to improve the civil engineering industry’s attitude towards gender diversity. We employ a number of engineers and scientists across the country, so I was very happy to give my wholehearted support to this initiative. If feminism means advocating gender equality in the Environment Agency, a cause that I am personally committed to, then sign me up.

Breaking the Mould

There is a strong business case, as well as a moral case, for supporting diversity in our workplace. Different perspectives support better decision making. I am really pleased to say that we are making some progress. In the Environment Agency, the percentage of women at executive manager level (Executive Directors, Directors and Deputy Directors) has risen from 25% in 2010 to 37% in 2014. Our Women’s Network has been hugely influential in this respect and is helping women at every level and from diverse backgrounds to achieve their full potential. This network was recognised recently for its contribution to equality and diversity in the 2014 Civil Service awards.

I recently attended the Breaking the Mould awards. These awards recognise organisations with the most creative approaches to ensure women are properly represented at senior levels in organisations. I was delighted that we won the public sector award thanks to our programmes including coaching, leadership programmes and mentoring.

Cultural awareness

There are of course many strands to diversity. I want to share my experiences of learning about cultural differences through a 2-way mentoring programme with Radius Business. The Radius Network uses senior/junior mentoring relationships to explore diversity issues. One of my priorities is to attract more Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people into the Environment Agency, and encourage them to progress their careers with us up to senior levels. The Radius programme is giving me the opportunity to learn directly from BAME colleagues, working with me as my co-mentors. Through this approach, I am challenging some of my long held beliefs and assumptions. One of my co-mentors told me about the challenges he faced in learning to make eye contact. In his culture, avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect rather than disinterest. Another co-mentor explained how difficult he found it to talk about personal achievements in competency interviews as his culture recognises the value of team efforts far more.

These personal experiences have helped me understand the importance of cultural awareness in our organisation. We need to keep challenging ourselves to make sure our deep-held beliefs and assumptions are not stopping us seeing people as individuals. As we approach Christmas, this is a good time to remember that we work with people who have different beliefs and customs.

Valuing and benefiting from diversity is not just a concept. It is an essential part of the values that are important to us in our organisation. In our staff survey last year, 82% of us said that we respected individual differences. This is encouraging, but there is always more to be done. My ambition is that the people who work in the Environment Agency are more representative of the customers and communities we serve. We still have some way to go to achieve this but I am fully committed to making this a reality.

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