The Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion

Brent Darnell, Aff.M.ASCE, is president and owner of Atlanta-based Brent Darnell International. For more information, email [email protected] or visit

The long-standing issue of diversity and inclusion is reaching a tipping point.

I have attended many industry events lately, and the demographics are a little frightening. As wonderful as our industry is, these events are filled with mostly middle-aged, white men. If I were a woman or a minority, I would take one look at the demographic and run away like my hair was on fire.

We all know that women and minority participation in construction is quite low, and the effort to be more inclusive to women and minorities is limited at best. There are several reasons for this: the lack of role models for women and minorities, wage disparity, the entrenched culture of the industry, and a lack of mutual understanding and connection among all these groups.

The underrepresentation of women and minorities in the industry is a symptom of a far deeper issue. Evidence suggests the industry does not value diversity and is not very inclusive. It is time to start a meaningful dialogue to create some traction toward a resolution. And I’m not proposing coercing companies to hire more women and minorities.

Instead, the place to begin is one where we engage women and minorities in exploring solutions to this issue. It is time for everyone to dig deeply and focus on the issue. It is time for all sides to commit to a proactive approach with compromise and cooperation in mind. It is time that we meet in the middle to utilize a wonderfully diverse workforce to create better projects and better business results.

There is some progress: Several companies and industry organizations are reaching out to young people, women, and minorities through a variety of workforce development initiatives. The ACE Mentoring Program targets youngsters, including women and minorities, and promotes the construction industry as a viable career. Since this is a more long-term solution, we must be more aggressive in our approach in order to realize some short-term results.

If all industry organizations and companies would commit to some very simple initiatives, we could improve diversity and inclusion dramatically in a relatively short time:

Provide education and information

Reach out to the many women and minority organizations throughout the construction industry and court them. Let them know that they are welcome. Invite their members to the currently white, male-dominated events and give them the spotlight. Create an open dialogue. We need to learn more about each other, and the best way to do that is to get everyone in the same room. This will help to shift the industry image from one of exclusion to one of inclusion.

Provide meaningful training for the white guys

I don’t mean “diversity” training or “sensitivity” training. These tend to only provide the legal requirements to keep from being sued. I’m talking about training that creates true understanding and trust. We need to explode stereotypes and preconceptions and create an atmosphere of cooperation, trust, and comfort.

Provide meaningful training for women and minorities

Give them the tools they need to navigate this maze of white males. These skills are teachable and learnable, but we must create programs that teach these skills to maximize the success of women and minorities.

Provide role models through recruitment and retention

Recruiting more women and minorities into the construction industry provides role models. Seeing other women and minorities within the industry helps promote a sense of belonging and inclusion.

There is a very real business case for these inclusion initiatives:

1. Diverse people with diverse thinking leads to creative and innovative ideas and better solutions to industry problems. We need the talent and perspective of minorities and women to move forward.

2. If you look at sheer numbers, when more women and minorities enter the industry, it will greatly help our current workforce crisis.

3. The industry is gravitating toward more collaborative ways of project delivery such as IPD and Lean, and, according to my research on the typical emotional profiles for men and women in the industry, women are often better at collaboration than men.

Most women score relatively high in social responsibility (the ability to work in teams), empathy, and interpersonal relationships. Most men score relatively high in self-regard, independence, and assertiveness.

4. In an article in Engineering News-Record (Nov. 15, 2010), a research company found that “companies with more women board members significantly outperformed those with fewer female directors in return on equity, return on sales, and return on invested capital.” This article was written more than five years ago, and it seems we have made little progress with regard to promoting more women leaders.

Many construction guys insist that they “don’t mind” women and minorities in construction. This attitude is simply not enough. We must take proactive steps, start this dialogue, create a more inclusive industry and actively pursue professional involvement from women and minorities. We need them to move our industry forward. We need them to help transform the industry into one that is more sustainable, more successful, and more profitable.

If we don’t make this effort and women and minorities continue to stay away from construction, we may be in big trouble. If we do invest in this effort, together, perhaps we can solve the larger issue of inclusion.


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