Mandy Willis is Group Board Director of Corporate Strategy at Mace, global experts at shaping the built environment. She is breaking down barriers for women in the workplace and disproving the concept that it’s a man’s world.
We sat down with her to find out about her pathway to becoming a Board member of one of the most influential construction companies in the UK construction industry, how they are tackling gender inequality, and why she believes supporting women’s health is pivotal to improving gender diversity.
Mandy’s professional career started out in the landscape of tax, working for large international professional services companies such as Touche Ross, Arthur Andersen and BDO. Learning on the job meant Mandy had first-hand experience early on to the commercial world of business.
By the time she was invited to join Mace, she had been advising the Board for 14 years.
Since joining Mace, Mandy made clear her aspiration to gain a Board seat. The group CEO, Mark Reynolds, made the progressive decision to put her early on in the boardroom as an advisor and invitee. This meant being in the Board room every Monday morning, getting the opportunity to listen and discuss priority issues with board members. After six months, she was formally appointed to the board; it’s a position that continues to positively challenge.
A woman in a male-dominated world
“As a woman working in a traditionally male dominated industry like construction, there have been times that I’ve been the only woman in the room, or one of a minority. And clearly that can feel uncomfortable. But while it may have taken quite some time to get here [the industry], Mace as a company is seriously trying to make changes”.
As to feeling uncomfortable, Mandy stands behind her innate curiosity, “which tends to break down any awkwardness. I want to ask questions. When people are realising that I’m genuinely interested and want to draw on their experience, they break down very easily. It becomes more about just the sharing of an idea”.
Of course, those awkward moments of meeting with resistance are still happening. “As women in professional services, we’ve all had experiences which were far from pleasant. Of being the victim of bias or poor behaviours. But, as you get older, you become better equipped and that confidence in yourself means that people take less advantage,” she says.
Sometimes it’s a matter of just not knowing how to communicate or the right narrative. “When dealing with male colleagues, I may sometimes be met with a reticence to interact and when that happens, I think maybe they feel unsure how to interact with me. I think that as a society we’re all trying to grapple with that, how best to interact with each other and not cause offence.”
Mandy’s advice? “The only thing you can do is be open and honest about it. So while I’ve found that people sometimes can appear standoffish, once you break down that initial conversation and start to show your curiosity and empathy, you win people’s respect”.
In the construction industry…
She recognises that, in the construction industry and likely other heavily male-dominated sectors, women can feel like outsiders. “I know from my female construction colleagues that women still wrestle with being made to feel different in the building industry, by maybe not being invited out with the boys for drinks or not being in the clique”.
If somebody uses offensive or misogynistic language in the workplace, Mandy is not afraid to call it out. “Rather than reprimanding them, I might say ‘You possibly don’t understand what you just said,’ or I’ll say ‘That’s interesting. Would you like to explain so I know what you mean by that?’ The thing is, I’m not going to let it go. At Mace we would not let it go and that visible leadership impacts behaviours.
The REBuild Project
Mandy was appointed co-chair of The REBuild Project alongside Amanda Fisher from Amey in March 2021. The project aims to promote the three Rs of recognition, representation and remuneration.
Representation – getting a greater gender balance within the industry.
Recognition – an increase in women holding senior and board level positions.
Remuneration – reducing the gender pay gap.
“Since our appointment, we’ve really taken a step back to reflect on the strategy and direction of the campaign,” says Mandy. “We want to recognise the wider issues of diversity. To be real and to not only highlight the issues, but also to create a pathway to engender momentum for change. To explore how levelling up can be achieved, encouraging companies to invest in a pipeline of female talent”.
Why women make a difference
Many studies have shown the positive impact of women holding senior roles in leadership teams. Over the past 30 years, the construction industry has struggled with a lack of investment and modernisation.
“We know that the skills that we will need tomorrow are not necessarily the skills we had in the past. We’re talking about future skills to reflect digitisation, social, political and economic change, modern methods of construction… vision.”
“The backdrop to that is that we know about the strong academic results of women and girls in schools and universities – what employer would not want to tap into that?” asks Mandy.
Modernisation of the industry clearly calls for change, and Mace is at the forefront. “Mace is a purpose-led organisation, and our ultimate client is society. We cannot reflect society without a diverse and inclusive workforce.”
“We want richer perspectives and different opinions and to challenge ourselves and be progressive. You can’t do that with a one-dimensional profile. All these factors point to the fact that we need more women in this business, from all backgrounds and ethnicities”.
“The good news is that we are probably at graduate intake level at 50% women when it comes to recruitment in this industry. This is fantastic. The problem is attrition,” warns Mandy.
The fact is that women have certain health and life challenges to navigate. This includes fertility, pregnancy, bringing up children or going through the menopause. If women are not being supported at work or haven’t been able to have the right conversations with their employers, they may decide to just leave.
“For that reason, Peppy is a great conduit to having better conversations in the workplace but also to improving awareness of these issues within the workforce”, says Mandy.
Proving their commitment to driving gender equality and inclusivity in the workplace, Mace Group has recently launched access to Peppy for all employees. This is a digital health platform that supports users through under-served areas of health, including fertility, early parenthood and menopause. The support will help to empower staff at Mace through their careers, women in particular.
This personalised support provided by Peppy is a powerful tool to prevent attrition of female talent. “The reality is, if you don’t feel your employer is going to support you, you might take a decision to opt out, or move sideways. The childrearing years that encompass pregnancy, motherhood and menopause coincide with an incredible point in a woman’s working life. When she’s been working for a number of years and has become proficient at what she does.”
“At Mace we have an ‘eyes wide open’ attitude to this,” says Mandy. “We need to understand the impact of these big events in a woman’s life. It’s important to be open-minded and informed as an industry so that we don’t lose valuable talent”.
Personal experience of menopause
Mandy knows about the factors that can lead to the loss of talent only too well. “I had to have an induced menopause when I had a hysterectomy at 30. I was ill for some time and went from a job I loved at Arthur Andersen to a part-time job elsewhere, just hoping that when I was ill it would be on my days off, because I didn’t want to share my situation with anyone.”
“It took me a long time to get my confidence back again and I did that alone, not feeling I could have ‘that’ conversation with my then employer.” The sad truth is, there are far too many women who have felt obliged to leave a job they love. Simply, because they haven’t felt able to ask for help. A recent survey cited that 1 in 4 people experiencing menopause consider leaving their job due to symptoms. “Support via or internal networks, our wider approach to inclusivity and personalised support from platforms like Peppy, can aid in preventing the waste of valuable talent.”
How Mace is taking action
Thankfully the world has moved on in terms of attitudes to these issues. “We have our women at Mace network the focus of which is to raise awareness. All our forums at Mace allow us all to just listen and learn. These networks have played an important part in taking our business priority for inclusivity to an incredible level of maturity.”
Regarding the behaviour towards women in the workplace, Mace has made significant progress, “we prioritise behaviours at Mace, investing in a leadership programme to embed and nurture the culture we want.”
For companies that want to evolve, like Mace, by taking the right approach, Mandy recommends a combination of investment in behaviours, visible leadership and promoting a culture of openness and sharing.
“There are no soft steps, but change is entirely do-able if you invest in it”, says Mandy. “We invite speakers in to coach senior employees, with audiences of 200 plus. that takes investment.”
“But you also have to create the forums to raise people’s EQ (emotional intelligence) and their GQ (their gender awareness). It’s one thing to read a book. It’s quite another to listen to somebody who’s been through a difficult experience and have them share that experience with you. That openness is very moving, and it displays and engenders an incredible amount of trust. I’ve seen very little as powerful as that when it comes to changing people’s attitudes”.