Growing Through Change: Gender Diversity and the Future of Work

HQ Asia spoke with Sean Tompkins, Chief Executive Officer of Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), on leading in the construction industry with an eye on the future.

$1.6 trillion per year: the estimated incremental value to the US$10 trillion construction industry, if productivity can be boosted by 50 to 60 percent through innovative practices, as reported by McKinsey. For Sean Tompkins, he stresses that the industry needs to become more innovative by using data and technology.

To bring more ideas to the industry, we have to make it more collaborative with more gender diversity so that the industry can be more innovative.” – Sean Tompkins

“Given the demands, we are going to need more talented people in this industry. But at the moment, most organisations only recruit from 50% of the population (males). Why aren’t we looking to widen the talent pool? Women may bring in new ideas or possibly be better collaborators in this traditional industry,” says Tompkins.

But attracting women into a male-dominated industry has its barriers too – after all, in the profession, only 13% are female. There is some positive light emerging for the future though as the percentage that are in final stages of qualifying into the profession is closer to 25%.

Championing Gender Diversity

To Tompkins, these are the main barriers for women in construction:

  1. Perceived poor fit in the construction industry. When people think of construction, the physical nature of work comes to mind. “Right now, it’s been thought of as laying bricks,” says Tompkins. “But there are a lot of women in Asia who are successfully running infrastructure projects and thriving in corporate functions. Construction could be a real home for them.”
  2. Lack of support. The industry has not adapted itself to cope with childcare leave or flexible work as support options for women. “The culture and systems need to become more inclusive to attract and retain a diverse workforce,” says Tompkins.
  3. Lack of visible role models. Women are flourishing in this industry but very few of them are known as role models. Yet, these voices are important in convincing women of a home in construction.

It begins with building visibility of female leaders in the industry – to be the voice in telling women that construction is not just “cement and tarmac” but a real possibility to lead and be recognised for their work. How can organisations build visibility for female leaders?

“Leaders doing small things can make quite a big difference. Take, for example, having a more gender-balanced panel in conferences and events,” explains Tompkins. RICS encourages females to step forward and be advocates of change in this industry. “We sponsor the ‘Women of the Future’ and ‘Asian Women of Achievement’ awards for future female leaders in the construction industry who will go on to be visible role models by speaking at conferences and events,” says Tompkins.

Become Leaders, not Experts

When asked about becoming good leaders in the construction industry, Tompkins shared the following:

  • Don’t get stuck in a function. “The world tends to put you in a function, you might not want to be in one but you end up in one,” says Tompkins. But being a leader goes beyond functional expertise. “Leadership needs, what used to be, soft skills – emotional intelligence, influence, empathy, tolerance of ambiguity – which has now become the hard skills of business.”
  • Getting buy-in. “You can have the best ideas but if you can’t get buy-in then you didn’t change the business,” says Tompkins. “A leader needs to understand the variety of human interaction elements to influence.”
  • Equipping yourself with leadership competencies. He suggests going out of one’s comfort zone, being comfortable with failure and learning from experimentation. That’s what great leaders do – make difficult decisions, get back up from failures, persevere and keep going forward.


If some of the traditional soft skills are now the hard skills of business, what are the ‘new’ soft skills leaders should develop? “Understand digitisation and how it will change the organisation. Being able to analyse and interpret data to grow the organisation,” says Tompkins.

Leaders of Tomorrow

Future business challenges demand for a different set of leadership competencies. Tompkins highlighted the following:

  1. Lead in times of change. As technology advances, work context will change. The future of work will see people of diverse backgrounds working in different ways because of technological possibilities. “Leading in such a context will also be one of the ‘new’ soft skills,” says Tompkins.
  2. Emphasise outcomes, not attendance. “If we can be clear about what we need to achieve, we really shouldn’t care if you are in the office or not,” explains Tompkins. “That is a challenge to leadership to be much clearer about outcomes, especially in the world of an increasingly dispersed workforce.”
  3. Build ‘purpose’ for a multi-generational workforce. An ageing population will soon mean a workplace with five generations together. “From a leadership point of view, it is a challenge to attract talent from different generations and yet still build a common purpose in the 18-year-old and the 70-year-old employee,” explains Tompkins.

Recommended Books

When asked to recommend two books, Tompkins picked these:

  1. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni. As work becomes more project-based, agile and self-managed teams will become even more relevant in organisations. The book shares about the meaning of trust in teams and how it is the basic ingredient to high performance in organisations.
  2. Speeches That Changed the World, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Inspiring examples of individuals exhibiting authenticity in moments of intense pressure as they change the world through their words and actions.
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