Speaking frankly

Many men in the construction industry wonder (some out loud, some silently) whether the push for things like stricter health and safety regulations and the drive to get more women into the industry are a bit over the top. Mary Searle Bell talks to ex Connexis chair Frances Hague about ‘PC gone mad’.

Frances Hague.

Many in this industry ask if the current focus on the shortage of females in our workforce, along with health and safety nagging is simply placating politicians, or are they signs the industry is adjusting its mindset alongside the technological advances it has made over the years?

One of the names in the midst of all this change is Frances Hague, a business consultant who tackles strategic change and who is passionate about the infrastructure sector.

For many years Frances has served as a director on the ESITO board and then as the inaugural chair of Connexis, only recently stepping down from that position. She’s good at what she does too: in 2016 she was named Winner of the Leadership Award Governance NZ, Women on Boards.

Frances is a woman in a man’s world. And someone who thinks differently to most – certainly differently to your average engineer.

“In the infrastructure sector, 80-85 percent of the people are highly analytical. They’re clever – the devil is in the detail. I am in the 20 percent that think conceptually. I see the big picture,” she says.

“For me it’s about the end game, not the nuts and bolts.”

It’s this ability to join the dots that makes her mind an asset in a team that is thinking about strategy and policy – whether for a business, or the sector at large. And she’s not one to shy away from a challenge.

“In 2010, ESITO (the Electricity Supply Industry Training Organisation) commissioned research around women in technology and trade. One of the respondents said he’d “rather have nobody working for him than have a woman on his staff”.

This was 2010!

“My response is simply: 51 percent of the population is female. If you exclude women, that’s 51 percent of the talent pool you’re not attracting.”

It’s hard to argue with that logic, especially while complaining how hard it is to find workers. But Frances says the heart of the issue is about people philosophically thinking a woman couldn’t do a better job.

“These days, with the advances in technology and machinery, so often the brute strength that was a necessity in the job historically is no longer a requirement. And the evidence shows that women are gentler on machinery, safer, and more risk adverse, and therefore a real asset on the workforce.”

The flip side of the coin is the women themselves – getting them to even consider a career in industry.

“Infrastructure is silent,” says Frances.

“Girls don’t even consider it as a career path. It’s not sexy or glamorous, and the sector needs to do more to show that it is interesting.”

“These days, with the advances in technology and machinery, so often the brute strength that was a necessity in the job historically is no longer a requirement. And the evidence shows that women are gentler on machinery, safer, and more risk adverse, and therefore a real asset on the workforce.”

It’s not just a gender issue either. Frances says that, as a culture, we have lost pride in our trades. This is not the case overseas. Here, parents want their children to have a university education, but the trades will often offer a more rewarding and satisfying career.

So how did Frances herself get into this strong and silent, male-dominated industry?

“Originally, I was an ED nurse. Back in the early 90s my husband and I moved with our young children to the UK for five years to be near our parents.

“While my husband was setting up his own business, I phoned a nursing agency to find part time work. They told me they had a health and safety position in a biscuit factory.

“When I told them I didn’t know anything about health and safety, they said, ‘you’re a nurse, you’ll know what to do if there’s an accident’. I thought, there shouldn’t be accidents!”

So, with no experience, Frances became health and safety manager for Foxes Biscuits, which had a staff of over 3000. When the family returned to New Zealand, she joined Mercury Energy as a health and safety coordinator and was promoted to manager within the year.

“I was with Mercury during the time the cables failed in the late 90s. I had to do all the risk management around getting the cables back in place. I became imbued in infrastructure.

“It’s a basic and essential need, much like nursing. Also, like nursing, it’s solution based.”

In 2000, Frances decided to go out on her own as a consultant, setting up Capability Consulting. She chose to remain a sole-operator, not only to forego the admin and drama of staff management, but to remain the one to do the work and not just generate it.

“I do what I love, and I love what I do.”

Not long after she was phoned by ESITO and offered a position on its board.

“Simply, they needed a woman. It was not about my skills or what I could add, but purely because I was female,” she laughs.

“I could get huffy, or I could seize the opportunity and run with it. And that’s how I got into governance. Today we are more sophisticated and understand why diversity is so important.

“I am committed to women having the opportunity to be what they want. Gender shouldn’t be an issue.”

After that fateful 2010 ESITO research project which highlighted the anti-female mindset in the industry, Frances thought, “it’s time for a change” and, with seed funding from ESITO and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, got a team together and set up Women in Power.

Then, along with Barbara Harrison, who was the GM of HR at Northpower, went to 10 electricity sector CEOs and asked for $15,000 a year for three years to get the project off the ground.

This has developed into Ultimit, a programme to get more women of all ages into the trade and technical roles in the infrastructure industry. Part of this programme is Girls with High-Vis, which targets young girls (16-20 years) and shows them the variety of careers available in the sector.

Another challenge Frances tackled in her governance role was the merger of ESITO and InfraTrain in 2013. She was the inaugural chair of the new ITO, named Connexis, which also then added the water sector and telecoms to its portfolio.

“We’re a niche ITO of essential services. The success in merging the various organisations came through understanding the similarities and differences of each sector – harnessing the similarities and utilising the differences,” she says.

“ITOs were historically about getting bums on seats. Money was allotted for every trainee that was signed up. Then in 2013 it became about output. Yes, the focus was still on the numbers coming in, but achieving goals was what generated revenue.”

This is where we ask about the raft of qualifications that contractors with many years’ experience are now expected to achieve to continue to do the job they’ve been doing all along.

To this Frances acknowledges there is a difference between a qualification and competency, however, she says technology has changed, environmental demands have changed, and we as a society no longer accept risk the way we used to.

She does acknowledge that qualifications are lagging behind.

“By the time a qualification is put together they can be outdated. We’re hidebound by the bureaucratic systems and processes of NZQA.

“However, there is the opportunity for qualifications to be industry-led. Qualifications should be industry-commissioned.”

And as for the question of the seemingly onerous health and safety demands placed on the sector, Frances cries “bullshit”.

“Accidents are a negative output of a system – the wrong equipment, inadequate training, employees not following procedures, etc.

“They’re the last step in a sequence of events. Yes, some people have more propensity to take risks than others, but if you accept accidents at work, you condone risk.

“Leadership is imperative,” she says.

“I always say there are three things that drive contractors: Money, making money, and losing money. Screwing down contracts has negative outcomes, and asset owners have driven margins so low.

“I believe quality and safety need to be priced into contracts. If not, we get the outcomes that you can expect.”

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