Q&A: Caroline Cole

Design consultant Colander Associates’ Caroline Cole is looking to address gender issues in the construction industry with the Equilibrium Network for its higher achievers

So are you looking to stage a boardroom coup?

Not exactly! The Equilibrium Network is cross disciplinary; architects, engineers, landscape architects, contractors, academics and clients. With everyone moaning about the lack of female representation at senior level, we asked ‘does it actually matter?’ We assembled some female big industry achievers to tell their stories and decided ‘yes it does’. 

So you came to the obvious conclusion?

Actually, we concluded it wasn’t just about gender but diversity at executive level and not just about helping women but helping business to do better. At junior level it’s a 50/50 gender mix in architecture but at senior level it’s 11% – and worse in engineering. We want to find ways to help organisations be more diverse, by not being hellraising and confrontational but business-like.

How do you nudge people in the right direction?

We need to do more research to prove diversity helps in business as there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence. Studies from other sectors show it has a positive effect on the bottom line and profitability seems the best way to drive change. 

Yes, more senior women would lead to a better workplace but can that counter the long hours work culture that gets passed down?

So the abused becomes the abuser?! Yes, office culture is important but the issue’s much wider than that. For the built environment industry, whose output affects how society interacts, there’s a compelling argument that greater diversity at executive level would lead to better design outcomes for everyone. But proving it is the key! 

So you don’t feel the industry is changing of its own accord?

There’s a sense now that gender is actively discussed by larger organisations, which is encouraging. There aren’t many more women are in senior positions now than when I was starting out, and that’s problematic. The network wants to use its experience to analyse why some women’s careers flourish more than others.

And career-breaks for child-rearing isn’t an issue?

No, I would say it’s more about pay. If you’re in a profession that tolerates low pay you can’t afford child care. That has nothing to do with being a woman: the issue applies to both parents and is a financial one.

So where to from here?

We’ve launched the website and we’re expanding the network through personal invitations to both men and women to join as mentors. We ask members to give three days a year to be a role model for diversity and advocate the business benefits of gender balance. Our first event is in September to set the agenda for the coming year.