To embrace equity, we must ‘start with yes’
In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8 we are sharing how we #EmbraceEquity not only in the workplace but in our work. Get an inside look at how our teams are embracing equity through their projects and positively impacting the lives of women as well as underserved communities around the world.
Infrastructure shapes how we live our lives—and how society makes progress. On International Women’s Day, Lara Poloni traces her 30-year career journey from urban planner to AECOM President, outlining what progress can look like when organizations embrace equity – and when women stand up and seize opportunities.
Infrastructure is a living testament to our progress in communities around the world, reflecting social and economic impact as well as the values we share and our aspirations for the future. When done right, infrastructure is a conduit for access, equity and sustainability.
On International Women’s Day, I’m reminded that to achieve progress and create opportunities for ourselves and others, we must – regardless of gender – do something simple yet daunting: we must be bold with our own aspirations, and that often means starting with saying ‘yes’ rather than focusing on the reasons to say ‘no’.
In an unequal society that is no easy task, especially for women. For so long, many of us have experienced barriers to career progression that have led to historical and ongoing inequities. During my 30-year career, I’ve witnessed some of those inequities first-hand. But I’ve also watched so many women and men bravely confront and overcome them by calling out bias, affirming one another, reckoning with doubts, and making hard choices that have led the way toward a more equitable industry and society. In short, we said ‘yes.’
‘Starting with yes’ is powerful, which I learned very early in my career. But sometimes you need the confidence that comes with time and experience, or with a sponsor who will look out for you to consciously shift to ‘yes’ rather than acceptance of ‘no’ or ‘too hard, not now.’
When I finished college, I naturally applied for graduate level jobs, which assumed no work experience but, of course, preferred it.Dealing with rejections was really tough, but I kept at it.
One day, I decided I wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer. I walked into the office of the best urban planning practice in Melbourne. I told them that I would work for free and, if they didn’t like me, they could let me go after a month.
They never did.
I learned so much from that first experience about backing myself, and that I shouldn’t be afraid of my own drive to succeed. It was a lesson that served me well later in my career when the stakes were higher.
After many fulfilling years at AECOM, gaining valuable experience and confidence, and managing various parts of the Environment and Transportation businesses, I was presented with a new opportunity: to become Chief Executive of AECOM’s Australia and New Zealand business.
I was stunned and unsure if I was truly ready. Nevertheless, I said ‘yes’.
My appointment as a senior woman in a sector underrepresented by women brought with it a level of interest and opportunity that I used to my advantage, spearheading initiatives that benefited AECOM, and our industry.
We launched ambitious equity, diversity and inclusion targets, led our local industry in workplace flexibility, and deepened our engagement with schools to encourage young women to join the industry—efforts which fed into our graduate recruitment and a 50/50 gender split. We also commenced a long-term work placement program for young indigenous women and men, which almost a decade on continues to inspire a lot of pride in our teams.
Even in my subsequent roles as Europe, Middle East and Africa Chief Executive, and, more recently, as AECOM President, there was that element of “how am I going to do this?” but the prior experiences of backing myself gave me the confidence I needed to say ‘yes’ to my future opportunities. In fact, whenever am I asked for career advice from many women at AECOM or in our industry, I start by saying that “you need to be bold and back yourself first and foremost”.
These steps in my career taught me that success, in many ways, comes from uncertainty. Only by saying ‘yes’ to ourselves can we also say ‘yes’ to others, giving them the opportunity to thrive. It’s these small actions—these affirmations of ourselves and others—that constitute progress. And in my role as AECOM’s President, progress has been my purpose.
Today, women make up more than 33 percent of our workforce, while two thirds of our executive team and 50 percent of our Board are from a diverse background. We’re seeing Employee Resource Groups flourish across our regions, contributing to a more inclusive culture at AECOM. We’re pioneering flexibility in the workplace that gives both women and men the freedom to grow. And these efforts to champion equity, diversity and inclusion have received recognition from The Human Rights Campaign, Ethisphere, Fortune, and more.
Infrastructure is driving progress around the world, enabling more sustainable and resilient solutions to address the climate emergency. It is also promoting equitable representation and participation. For women in particular, there is massive opportunity to continue to step up and lead this positive change.
To do so will take openness—not only to our differences, but to our aspirations as well. Challenges? There will be plenty. But we’re determined to build a more equitable world by standing up, by being heard, by ‘starting with yes.’