Diversity and the need to promote it in our industry is not a new concept. Indeed, it has been championed many times before.

Many of us have good intentions but that itself won’t change anything. We have talked about it a lot but we are far from successfully altering the deeply entrenched attitudes, fully understanding the complex issues and creating equal opportunities.

This is why I am backing Property Week’s Open Plan campaign. It is a strong platform from which we can work together to bring about positive change, not just within our industry but by using our contacts and influence to affect wider change. The campaign’s call for all property firms to have a link with schools, the plans for a property career event and for firms to nominate and train mentors from all backgrounds are wholly achievable goals.

We have come through the worst recession in our experience and the time is right for a step change.

Within the wider built environment industry some have worked hard to deliver a more diverse workplace. Lessons have been learned and could be applied to the property industry. I have seen some radical changes in the construction industry, which some might say has had even deeper issues than the property sector.

At AECOM, which as a Fortune 500 consultancy with more than 45,000 staff is almost twice as big as any property agency, we have looked at these issues, because we have had to. Construction? Where women suffer wolf whistles and dusty contracting firms are still beset by ancient family-focused hierarchies? Much of construction has reinvented itself, and property can, too. Here’s what we did.

First, we looked at ourselves — even despite our good intentions, cultural sensitivity and a diversity resulting from working in more than 150 countries, we realised we had much still to do.

Next, we embarked on a 3,000-strong recruitment push across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This included completely reviewing how we recruit and the messages we send to potential staff; more flexible working arrangements to accommodate domestic demands; tasking our recruiters to devise mixed shortlists of candidates; establishing an apprenticeship scheme in various practice areas including engineering and architecture, encouraging those who would not have looked at our industry to do so; and working within communities that weren’t our traditional hunting grounds.

We have been a charity partner of the Construction Youth Trust for many years, supporting young people from areas of social need in finding jobs in the construction world, but we wanted to be even more proactive.

We also studied hard what led people to leave our business, and put in place a new company-wide system. This has four main stages:

  • An honest discussion of where an employee wants to take their career
  • Setting a clear set of objectives
  • A heart-to-heart debate with the candidate on progress and anything hindering that progress
  • A clearly defined career plan, showing how in any circumstances an employee can progress from graduate to the top of the profession.

Assessment is driven by a person’s potential as much as results and works hand-in-hand with an annual review system, rewarding positive behaviour as well as performance.

We have also learned lessons, some of them hard. In one case someone who had a reputation for delivering good results but engendering a culture of fear, which was adversely affecting future female leaders, was unwilling to change and was asked to leave the business. In the great majority of cases, though, our new approach has seen people flourish.

Working mothers were also a big focus for us and we have introduced more flexibility. Statistics show that women returning to careers after a break to have children have not always fared well in the workplace. They may not have spent two years on a building or engineering project, but they have spent that time in a valuable, emotionally draining, tough role. So why should we make it hard for them to return to work?

I’m proud to say we are changing. There are great role models across our business, from our COO and Americas president Jane Chmielinski, Lara Poloni, our chief executive in ANZ, to the women impressing in our Saudi Arabian graduate programme and many more people closer to home.

We have shown it can be done: of AECOM’s 4,221 employees in the UK and Ireland, 1,122 are female and of these 780 are engineers. In addition 22% of the roles on our leadership training courses in the year to 31 May were filled by females. But we can do better. We look forward to working with the industry to make this happen.

Steve Morriss is chief executive, EMEA, for AECOM