Diversity, equity and inclusion within construction | Lora McMillan

Diversity, equity and inclusion within construction | Lora McMillan

Our guest on Honest Conversations today is Lora McMillan, Manager of Special Projects at Ledcor. Lora has over 15 years experience in the construction industry, and as both a woman and a member of the LGBTQ community she has developed unique perspectives on the nature of the construction industry through her lived experiences. Join us as we dive into how Lora has progressed through the industry despite the lack of broader representation, how she thinks the construction industry can adopt stronger Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives, what real change needs to look like, and more! 

Lauren: Hi everyone. Thank you for joining us here today. My name is Lauren Lake. I’m the co-founder and COO of Bridgt. We’re a female founded construction software company and we build workforce intelligence products for the construction world! Today we’re here to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion in the construction industry. This is a big topic. We’ve been hearing more and more discussion around what companies can do to build a diverse and inclusive environment and workplace. 

Q: Lora, do you want to give just a brief on your history in the construction world and why you’re so passionate about D, E & I?

Lora: Thanks Lauren, I appreciate you having me on today. My name is Lora McMillan and my pronouns are she/her. I’ve been in the construction industry for about 15 years now. I started in residential construction building homes and moved into the commercial world of building giant buildings and skyscrapers in Toronto. So I have a mixed bag experience as far as some in design and some in actual construction, but my passion is in the construction side, on a site office or on a field. 

Of course with that and being a woman and identifying as queer comes, kind of this otherness that’s created in the field that you become acutely aware of quite quickly. And it’s not necessarily always with any type of discrimination, but it can be just not seeing anyone that’s like you in those spaces, not seeing anyone above you in those spaces. So, just kind of being aware of what makes you different from the status quo, which is caused by construction’s issues with representation.

Q: Do you want to talk to us a little bit about what your experience has been with that idea of feeling different from the moment you step on a job site and what that’s like? 

Lora: I think it’s kind of cemented in everything we do in construction. I started from a schooling in interior design where I was with predominantly women and then went into construction at George Brown, where it was predominantly men and it was obvious seeing the differences in those spaces. I started working construction, which also had predominantly men, and I didn’t think I knew that I was necessarily different, but then you start making those comparisons and it’s evident. 

Unfortunately in the commercial construction industry, there is very low representation of women in the industry, but also onsite. As my career progressed I’ve maintained site presence, but with that I’ve remained in an environment without much representation. I think the industry’s around 10%, but onsite is maybe around 2%. Those are startling numbers, and they signify that as a woman you’ll be in an environment where you don’t identify with anyone around you and you aren’t able to recognize similarities. 

It’s funny, starting in construction, I felt I had to kind of be tough and maybe throw around a couple of swear words to get along with the guys, but my differences soon became a benefit to be honest with you. I’ve found being a woman, being a little bit better at communication or being a little bit more communicative, made me kind of step apart from a lot of the people I was working with. 

And those hidden benefits are helpful, but at the same time there’s a lot of systemic issues you aren’t necessarily aware of until you get your first set of boots and your first hardhat and vest and you’re swimming in your own gear. You have a lot of different needs within the industry and you see how they’re not recognized. And of course, there’s the nomenclature. You hear the words like foreman and manpower. You’re shown at every corner that you are not thought of here, or you’re not represented and that becomes a little bit alienating for women and queer folks in the industry I think. 

Q: A common concern in the industry is the labor shortage being experienced right now. Do you think there’s an angle there where building a more inclusive and diverse workforce will help companies expand their talent pool and deal with the labor shortage?

Lora: Definitely. I think when we talk about the normal nomenclature, we don’t recognize it at first as really a big issue, but then you kind of realize it’s part of what excludes you from instruction. I didn’t really understand DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) until I thought about it as a sense of belonging. Then I realized that was what was missing for me, is feeling like I belong, because everywhere I turned, I kind of felt like I didn’t belong. 

When you look at it as a sense of belonging, you start thinking about inclusion. And it’s no secret that there’s half a million workers who will be retiring within the next 10 years. That’s a lot of positions to fill and I think as we become a little bit more aware of our surroundings and potential barriers to inclusion, you’re going to see a lot of those positions be filled by more innovative and diverse voices.  

What I’ve seen in the industry is that as soon as we start recognizing that a woman can bring something different to the table or that potentially a racialized person may have different lived experiences that could help contribute to a new idea or a new way of doing things, it’s like a light bulb goes off in everybody’s head. And I think the term DEI sometimes can be a little bit alienating, but when you start talking about what it is, the nuts and bolts, it’s actually getting different people in a room creating solutions that you’ve never heard of. Once they understand that, then everybody’s like, yeah, that’s what I want. 

When you start looking outside of your status quo of people you may be hiring just based on biases that you didn’t even know you had, maybe because they look like you or you came from the same background, you realize we have to go outside our industry. We have to go to the military who have great leaders, or we need to go to different industries that can bring something different to construction. And I think there’s no secret that the construction industry has really not gotten more efficient. We’ve kind of just maintained. We maintain the status quo. There’s now this kind of aha moment of, we need to try something different, and that’s different people. 

Q: Do you think it’s as easy as just attracting those people into the industry or do you see that there is more attrition from some of those folks from minority groups?

Lora: There’s two sides to it. I like to think of acquired diversity as something that you’ve got, whether it was through schooling or where you lived, but then there’s also inherent diversity, which is like who you are as a person. Sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status. Those things all make you look at things differently. You want to have both that acquired diversity and inherent diversity, but you don’t see the change until you get inclusion, where diverse folks have a seat at the table and have a voice to make decisions, alongside power and access to power. 

So it’s one thing to hire a bunch of diverse folks, that’s fairly easy, but I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that when you get to retaining those employees. That’s where we have to start making systemic changes, like changing the nomenclature, just so you’re not looking at all these terrible words that make you feel like you’re not represented or having teams that are diverse so that you’re not the ‘other’ in the room. I can tell you how many times that happens, where you’re like, yeah, I’m definitely the odd person out here, and that can be a little bit alienating. 

There’s the initial ‘let’s hire different people’ but there’s going to be a full systemic overhaul that’s required to ensure that we’re keeping people and that goes for promotions and pay raises. It’s a lot deeper than just hiring different folks. 

Q: In terms of building that inclusive environment, what role do you think workplace culture plays in that, or as a leader In the construction world, how are you thinking about inclusivity and building that culture of belonging? 

Lora: Obviously it’s a long journey, so I think there’s no necessary action item that’s going to lead to everybody feeling included, but I think there is a lot of value to getting diverse folks’ opinions on different issues. I like to lean on the fact that in the construction industry, we had a very poor safety culture back in the eighties where people were dying and being injured and this was commonplace. Then you put in checks and balances to equal those out, and all of a sudden safety is the number one priority. 

I think what we can see now is the marrying of those two safety cultures. There’s also safety of feeling like you belong and feeling like you can be yourself and free from discrimination. So with this cultural shift, I think of it two ways. I think it needs to be from the top down. Leadership needs to ask, ‘who’s being quiet in this room and how can I call on them and find out their opinions and see if they have anything’, and actively seek that feedback. 

All leadership needs good feedback, but I also think it comes from the bottom up, where folks need to ask for what they want. Especially as a woman in a male dominated career, you tend to step back and be a little bit nervous to stick out, but I’ve had a lot of success with managers and coworkers by just asking, ‘I want to lead this, I want to pick out this,’ and advocating for ourselves. 

Another thing is mentoring and networking. You need to work your way up there and when you get up there you need to mentor folks that are below you, to make sure you can bring them up with you. 

Lauren: Why do you think now that more of these conversations are happening, in regards to dealing with some of the issues related to DEI?

Lora: Well, part of it is that everybody is just being a little bit more aware that other folks struggle with different things that we don’t. Obviously racial tensions are coming up and indigenous rights are being talked about, finally. And that’s the kind of thing that we didn’t know, but you don’t know what you don’t know. 

I think the way that privilege is worded sometimes can be a little bit hard to understand. You think of privilege as a set of advantages that you’ve experienced, but we try to look at it in a different way. Privilege is just your baseline and everything else is barriers that have been put in other people’s ways. Marginalized folks are not saying that predominantly white men have an easy route. It’s just that there’s barriers that you’re not aware of. 

The beauty of the DEI journey is once you start being aware of things it’s an aha moment, because of course, nobody wants anyone to struggle. And once people are aware of the struggles others encounter, they’re often quick to try to solve them. It’s really just a matter of, you don’t know what you don’t know. 

But that’s the beauty of these spaces, creating those communities with women, queer folks, racialized folks, indigenous folks, and kind of just sharing the stories and sharing the experiences. That’s what opens people’s eyes and that’s where you get that inclusion as well. You bring different people to the table and ask ‘what are your struggles?’ And a very good mentor of mine said, not everybody around this table knows everything, but someone knows something and I think that’s kind of the basis of it. 

Q: Do you feel like it’s something that people are more openly talking about within the past couple of years or what’s your thinking between yourself and your peers in terms of how some of these conversations are shaping up?

Lora: It’s no secret that the construction industry is pretty homogeneous, but I think it’s always been difficult to kind of tie the consequences of that in with a business case or something tangible. When you think of DEI, you think of feelings, but how can that be put down to paper? 

The Canadian construction association did a great job, actually. They did a recent survey and a report on diversity, inclusion and its effects in the construction industry. It said definitively that teams with women are more efficient and teams with more racialized people make more money in general. They just have better results. 

It’s also encouraging to see a trend starting of caring more about employee retention. That’s simple stuff like just increasing mental health care in your benefits, because certainly mental health issues are not new and it’s not a secret that many people struggle with it. So, by providing something above the base benefits package it creates this sense of ‘oh, my employer actually cares about me and how I feel’. 

I think that’s kind of the discussions that are being had and the beauty of the DEI space is it needs both people at the top and people at the bottom. It needs everybody trying to collaborate together because it’s not one person’s responsibility, especially if those people that talk don’t have this experience, so how would they possibly know? So it’s a collaboration, it doesn’t have to be us against them. It’s inclusion in the solution. 

Q: Do you think it’s helpful when companies try to start diversity, equity, and inclusion forums or leadership groups that meet to discuss these topics?

Lora: Absolutely. I feel that employee resource groups are the most important thing about any journey, just to get that sense of community. Being a member of the queer community, it’s almost second nature to have people to reach out to and to go to spaces where we’re similar and just be in each other’s company. I never actually thought about that from another side, where some people don’t have a community, and I think building that community is so important. 

There’s some hesitation sometimes that if you get a bunch of women in a room they’re going to be revolting and hating against other people, hating against men, but I really think it’s building that sense of community, leaning on each other, knowing that you can talk to each other and be like, ‘hey, how did you navigate this issue?’ and just supporting each other. 

Inclusion and diversity councils or diversity and equity councils are a good check and balance, just like a safety committee. It’s critical to put this at the forefront and I think that the results are going to be felt throughout the company, with better retention and efficiency. It’s kind of a no brainer, and you are seeing it pop up in the construction industry, for sure. 

Q: Why is inclusion ultimately that most important piece to the puzzle? 

Lora: Diversity is important, but without inclusion it’s kind of just a bunch of diverse folks scattered all over the place. You’ve got to give some power and some access there. It ties into so many different departments because one of the biggest issues within the trades is mental health and mental illness, and one of the best ways to deal with those issues in the workplace is providing a sense of belonging and a positive environment.

Innovation is at the forefront of construction, and I don’t think you’d get that innovation unless you have that inclusion. It’s just a different way of looking at things. I think in the construction industry, especially construction management, we all know there are those with technical savvy aptitudes and then there’s those with more people management, soft skills. And typically, due to the nature of the work, you want the people that know how to swing steel and know how to put up a high rise in record time. 

But I think the true value and the true importance is working with people, because that’s what we do, we just manage the people that do the work, and I think the most important part is to try and get the best out of those people. To accomplish that, as an industry we need to hone in on those soft skills. 

Construction’s not really going to change that much, so the innovation is about how we get more out of people and how we make people feel like they’re contributing the best and the most efficiently. And that’s where the tech industry has a handle on that, because I feel like they’ve understood it, the big companies have switched from a more technical component to a more soft skill focus. 

Q: Any final thoughts for us before we finish this off?

Lora: A lot of the leaders and people I look up to in the industry, they always say ‘we’re not in the business of building, we’re in the business of people.’ And that’s really where it is. Gone are the days where people are throwing hard hats around and calling each other names. I think what we understand is we need to get the best out of people and the way to do that is not necessarily holler and shout. 

It’s about creating communities, but also just making someone feel like their voice matters, their opinion matters, and they’re valuable. I think that’s really, especially with the millennials coming up, guilty as charged, that’s what we want is just a sense of ‘we’re important and we’re part of the picture.’ And I think that’s what’s going to help bridge that gap in the construction industry.