Our Head of Employment Affairs Fiona Harper reveals why SELECT wants to use this year to create a more level playing field
Hello Fiona. Why is it important to improve inclusion, diversity and equality in the industry?
By its very nature, our sector is pretty white and male-centric. However, this year we’ll be trying to broaden people’s horizons and hopefully get them thinking differently when it comes to recruitment. We’re not talking about positive discrimination – we’re just saying that everyone should be looked at as equal. So it’s not a case of saying: “The challenge this year is to employ women or ethnic minorities or whoever.” It’s just to be more open to the concept of it. It’s also about educating other groups and saying: “You can be an electrician – we’re a welcoming industry and you will be supported, no matter your gender, race, age, sexual orientation or beliefs.” We’re aiming for a cultural shift that will ultimately bring positive results for individuals and the industry alike.
So what will SELECT be doing?
We’re currently finalising the exact details, but overall we’ll be trying to raise awareness and open people’s minds to see that there are different ways of doing things and involving different people. It’s not problematic or something to be frightened of; it’s something that we should embrace. Different people bring different thinking and different values, and we all benefit from that widening of our thought process. That’s what we’re really aiming to achieve.
Are people’s attitudes the biggest obstacle?
Absolutely. It’s a learning process, which is why our aim is to open people’s minds to the thought of equality and diversity. The more you talk about it, the more people get used to it and, with a bit of luck, put it into practice. It’s about thinking outside your usual comfort zone.
Is the electrical industry lagging behind other industries?
I’m not sure about that. I do think it’s steeped in its own tradition and culture, but that’s not unique to our particular sector. I think electricians love their work and are thoughtful people. But on the other hand, they also tend to think: “Well that’s the way we’ve always done it.” So again, we’ll be trying to encourage people to be more accepting by taking the fear out of change.
Taking gender as an example, have you experienced inequality in the industry yourself?
When I started on-site as an industrial relations officer, the site manager said: “If you last two weeks, I’ll take my hat off to you.” I had to tolerate all sorts of stuff to survive – if I’d been one of those guys’ daughters they’d have been horrified. But that was the 1980s and hopefully things have moved on – although there are still pockets clinging to that ingrained behaviour.
What about the women who work in the industry today?
We hear some amazing stories. For example, I met one girl who works in the Highlands, helping an electrician in a lighthouse. She told me there were 50 batteries and she had to carry each one up about 100 steps, then bring the dead ones down again. But she said it with a smile on her face and told me how much she enjoyed her job. It shows that women can make it in this industry.
And the thing is, they’re amazing because they know they’ve made a difficult choice and not taken the easy option, yet they’ve done incredibly well. And that’s the kind of example we should be showing to everyone.
Do you find that people say that girls can’t do it because it’s a physical job?
People do think it’s dirty and wonder why a girl would want to be crawling about. But if a girl wants to do that, it’s her choice. There are plenty of girls out there who won’t mind – just as there’s plenty of boys who will. Changing that mindset is tough, but if someone out there rises to the challenge and thinks: “Oh, a girl has applied, I’ll interview her” instead of automatically ruling her out, that would be a victory.
So how can CABLEtalk readers help get the ball rolling?
By raising awareness, challenging ideas, and reading up on what diversity and inclusion really means. A big thing is ensuring your HR practices are inclusive and up to date. So you might have the policies and ticked all the right boxes when it comes to the theory, but do you really put them into practice on a daily basis? That’s the issue.
And what about the future?
I’d like us to connect better with schools and educate younger children and their families. Again, giving the example of gender, if a young girl says she wants to be an electrician, I think most parents would say: “Why? What for?” But it’s a good trade with good opportunities for earning and progression – no matter your gender, your ethnicity or your religion or belief. So it’s about communicating that message and building more pathways into the industry for everyone. Getting the message across to parents, to colleges and to employers is key to its success – but we know it’ll be a challenge.
What is equality in the workplace
Equality does not necessarily mean treating everyone the same – it is about taking into account differences appropriately.
In October 2010, the Equality Act came into force, combining and strengthening existing equality laws. It also introduced the nine protected characteristics:
Maternity and pregnancy
Marriage and civil partnership
Religion and belief
This ruling now prohibits both direct and indirect discrimination because of any of these characteristics.
As an employer, you have a legal obligation to comply with the Equality Act and stamp out discrimination from your workplace.
It means developing policies and practices that guarantee people are treated according to their needs.