16. Sarah Lang: Transforming infrastructure in New Zealand

Sarah LangIn this episode, Sue Stockdale talks to Sarah Lang, Project Director at Infrastructure NZ, about how she started with one small idea and put it into practice, which in turn has now transformed the face of the infrastructure sector in New Zealand so that it better represents the diversity of the country’s population.

Sarah is Project Director at Infrastructure NZ, New Zealand’s peak infrastructure body. In 2016 Sarah established the NZ Women’s Infrastructure Network (WIN) and is an advocate for the advancement of women in the infrastructure sector. Sarah has led the growth of the WIN network to over 1750 members spread over seven chapters nationwide, and more recently the Emerging Talent Network.  She was awarded the 2018 Women of Influence Diversity Award and was a nominee for the 2019 New Zealander of the Year Award.  Contact Sarah Lang on LinkedIn.



Sarah Lang Transcription

Sue Stockdale: [00:00:00] Hello listeners today, I’m speaking to Sarah Lang project director of Infrastructure New Zealand. Now, infrastructure is vital to any nation because it enables the economy to flourish. And the infrastructure industry keeps New Zealand running through water, power and roads. And it’s really a booming sector forecast to require over 40,000 more people in the next five years. It’s also been reported to you. There’s an increase in women joining the sector through complimentary and related disciplines, such as law planning, architecture, and project management. So I’m really keen to find out more about this sector and about what the work is going on to really transform it. Welcome Sarah.

Sarah Lang: [00:00:45] Thank you. So it’s a pleasure to join you and your listeners today.

Sue Stockdale: [00:00:49] Now I know that you are the founder of the women’s infrastructure network. So tell us about what prompted you to launch that network back in 2016.

Sarah Lang: [00:00:57] Well, look, thank you very much. [00:01:00] Infrastructure, New Zealand is the thought leadership network or. peak body or association for the infrastructure sector in New Zealand. And every year we lead an international delegation going to look at different countries and learn from them about how they plan, fund and deliver infrastructure.  In 2015 we took a delegation to Canada. And while we were in Canada, we met with a raft of different infrastructure leaders, CEO’s both public and private, and we also attended a large infrastructure conference in Toronto. I looked around the room and though oh goodness its very different to the infrastructure sector in New Zealand, which has very male. Anyway,  I got talking with some delegates at the conference, particularly some of the women delegates. And I thought their room looked about 30% women, which was quite different to the New Zealand scenario. I got chatting with them [00:02:00] and they said, why don’t you come and join us at the WIN breakfast? And I said, Whats the WIN breakfast  and they said, Oh, the women’s infrastructure network, it’s a global network. Don’t you have one in New Zealand? And I said no I have never heard of it. I went along to the breakfast and it was a lovely gathering of women from right across the infrastructure sector in Canada, from public sector, private sector agencies, banking, construction, finance, engineering, the whole gambit.

And I thought, wow, what a great concept. So I came back to New Zealand and I tested the concept with a number of people down here and they thought it was a great idea. So, the first thing we did was hold a virtual lunch both in Auckland and Wellington, so we held real lunches in Auckland Wellington. And then we  hosted a virtual lunch with the Canadian WIN ladies in Vancouver, Calgary, and [00:03:00] Toronto. And talked about how they’d set up their WIN network. And the various chapters. So here we are fast forward. Three years later, we now have seven chapters in New Zealand and 2000 members nationwide. We launched the WIN network at Building Nations, which is new Zealand’s largest infrastructure conference and it has grown like topsy since then. The three aims of the network are to increase the visibility of women working in the infrastructure sector, to increase the number of women leaders in the sector and to support those women who are there. So its been an incredibly successful network. I think timing was right. A lot of things aligned in New Zealand at the time with a new woman, prime minister, the MeToo campaign, and really looking at diversity and inclusion and how infrastructure [00:04:00] needs to be an industry of choice. And how we make sure its attractive to everybody and open to people from different persuasions, different genders, different ethnicities it’s been an amazing journey. It’s been very well supported by the industry and it’s starting to create long term change for the sector. I think.

Sue Stockdale: [00:04:23] Well, it’s interesting that you say that, Sarah, and it’s  fantastic you’ve had such a success with the network so far. Because I was reading that there was recently a survey by Infrastructure New Zealand, which was highlighting a couple of issues that are really important to the success of the sector, such as partnership and collaboration, particularly between the local government, central government, private providers, and so on.

And the top performers in, particularly in the procurement sector are more outcome focused and they treat suppliers and contractors as partners. I’m wondering in terms with perhaps an increase in women coming into the sector and the support that you’re providing through the [00:05:00] network. Do you think that has any relevance or link to the kind of change that’s required within the ecosystem of infrastructure?

Sarah Lang: [00:05:08] Do you know what? I really think it does. Typically women have been sort of under the radar in the infrastructure sector, but we forget there’s often a lot of women involved in comms roles and stakeholder engagement roles in the sort of soft skills space. And I think what’s happening is through the network as we’re giving visibility to those women. And I think those traits of listening of partnering and collaboration are now seen as viable skills and necessary skills. So for example, case in point. At the moment in New Zealand, we’re currently building a subway in the Auckland CBD. It’s an engineering feat, but it’s certainly not the most challenging of all underground railway systems in the [00:06:00] world, but certainly it is through a busy CBD.

Now we can keep employing the same type of people. Or, we can make sure we employ people with different skill sets and make sure we are looking at the project the holistic way. So for example, if we were just to employ technical engineers who were boffins and great at their job, but didn’t have an outward facing capability, it would be really hard to get stakeholder buy in to build a railway through the center of your main city. So we really need a diversity of skill sets. I really feel quite strongly that we need to employ really diversly to make sure that we are considering the problem from all angles. And I really think that certainly not entirely due to the WIN Network, but its put the issue of diversity of thought fairly and squarely onto the radar.

Sue Stockdale: [00:06:58] It’s great to see that it’s [00:07:00] having that impact in a positive sense. And then in terms of the women that come along to your network events, what do they gain from being there?

Sarah Lang: [00:07:09] Sure. We open to everybody, not just women, men as well, particularly champions of women, and for women to succeed, we do need champions, and advocates. We are opened to new grads right through to senior CEOs. So everybody along the continuum. For some of those  senior people its  around visibility, it’s around sharing their journey around tips and success stories for the new grads and interns. It’s around role models. It’s around creating networks, its around sharing problems and solutions. It’s also around looking at future avenues for job opportunities and it’s around increasing your knowledge of the wider infrastructure landscape. So we get people coming to a range of different [00:08:00] events that we run. So we run site visits. We run thought leadership events. We run casual networking events. One of our chapters in Queenstown ran a skiing event early one morning. You name it. We have had a raft of events. If its building your confidence in who you are, if it’s building your network to discuss, and find solutions for any problems you might have, it’s an open and friendly environment where you can just be yourself.

Sue Stockdale: [00:08:32] A lot happening by the sounds of it.

Sarah Lang: [00:08:34] It’s fantastic. We’ve got actually coming up a tour of the Clyde dam, which has one of the largest dams in the South Island coming up. We’ve had the prime minister speak at one of our breakfast. You name it. We’ve got things happening all around the country.

Sue Stockdale: [00:08:50] As the network continues to flourish into the future Sarah, I’m wondering, do you see, obviously you’re saying it, you know, men are welcome to attend the [00:09:00] events and so on. Do you see that ideally in the future is an integrated leaders network regardless of gender and it’s about people, male and female of all backgrounds coming together to learn, or do you think there’s still a place for women individually to have something that’s just more focused on their needs?

Sarah Lang: [00:09:16] It’s a very good question. Sue. It’s something we think about really frequently. So parallel to our  WIN network our women’s infrastructure network is our  ET emerging talent, young leaders network for young leaders under the age of 35. So not only looking at  diversity by gender. We are looking at diversity by age. And we also need to focus on  diversity by geography, by ethnic group. You name it. So our  ET network has been established to really provide opportunities for young leaders to network to help them understand more about the breadth of the infrastructure industry and gives them [00:10:00] access to industry leaders to profile, and also increase their visibility and to provide some sort of soft skills- public speaking, getting their LinkedIn page up to speed, how to network all of those things that you use in your everyday life. And we’ve set up two chapters. We’ve got chapters currently in Auckland and Wellington, and we are launching our third in Christchurch.

Sue Stockdale: [00:10:23] I guess one of the things that younger people these days, they do like to be led and managed very often differently to perhaps more traditional approaches. I’m wondering, what do you think can help the infrastructure industry be appealing to them and to meet their needs?

Sarah Lang: [00:10:37] Well, it’s really interesting. Sue. Since we have established this young leaders network, our emerging talent network, I have become very enthusiastic and positive about the future of New Zealand. These young people are savvy. They are sassy. They are well-informed. They have a very strong social conscience. [00:11:00] They are far more connected and ethically minded  than I ever was at their age. They are pushing the industry to look at sustainability, to look at decarbonization, to make sure that diversity and inclusion are just the norm, to improve our focus on health and safety. I think they are the moral conscience of the industry. I think they are going to move the industry to a new place which is great. In some ways they’re the whistleblower and I’m really keen to seek their opinions. They have some great ideas. They’re very connected through technology. And I think they are a wonderful addition to the industry. And that’s why we’re really supportive.

Sue Stockdale: [00:11:51] How can you get those people that are in the leadership positions that may be, have been there a number of years, maybe male. How do you convince them that [00:12:00] the input and the insights that women and the young leaders can bring to the industry. How do you get into change?

Sarah Lang: [00:12:08] It’s not a fast journey, and sometimes you take several steps back before you take steps forward. But I think there are some general cultural change happening in the industry. Five years ago. We at Infrastructure New Zealand as an organization were not even looking at the makeup on our speaker panels. Today there is no way we would proceed unless there’s diversity of speakers, whether it be in gender on the panel, we just would not proceed unless we’re thinking about that sort of thing.

And it’s just the same of like when very careful at our conference, we have no single use throw away plastic bottles. We have no straws. We measure our waste. We recycle where we can. You know, five years ago, we probably weren’t thinking as much about that as we needed to. I think [00:13:00] some of these things are changing. Some of the old guard is moving on. Some of those skeptics that did not appreciate some of these values are coming to the end of their careers. I also think those open to change, embracing these ideas, and they’re learning in a two way stream from some of our young people. So, you know, you can go both ways with mentoring and I think sometimes mentoring up and mentoring down actually in the technology as something that some of our older generation would do well to do. Some other ideas. Some of our boards have either shadow board members or observing board members. And many of those often young people who are just starting out on the governance career, having the voice at the table is very important and you know, and a gradual observing role can be a great entree for some of these young people into board places in the future.

Sue Stockdale: [00:13:58] It seems like you’re [00:14:00] really integrating some of the philosophies about valuing difference and the environment and the economy and so on into everyday activities and making it the norm.

Sarah Lang: [00:14:09] I think it’s a little bit like sustainability, perhaps in the 1980s, you used to recycle your paper and you’d tick the box and think you’d done it. And actually you need to look at what light bulbs you using. You need to look at how you’re traveling. You need to look at to see if you can reduce your ear miles, you need to have a recycle bin. You need to maybe be doing some community contribution. You need to be doing it all the time. It’s not a one tick wonder. It’s a long slow game. I think for some people who are open to change. They’re not threatened by employing more diversly or others who come from a position of power and they’ve never experienced what it’s like to be on the margins, find it possibly threatening. But I actually think New Zealand and the world is a better place where we [00:15:00] include the thoughts and views from everybody.

Sue Stockdale: [00:15:03] Well, you certainly have a role model in your prime minister, in your country being a woman.

Sarah Lang: [00:15:07] Yeah, we do. She’s doing a great job. She’s faced some significant challenges while she’s been in power, but I think how she responded to the March tragic shootings last year with the Muslim community was exemplary. She’s been a great model around displaying kindness and respect. And I think going back to some of those values is very important particularly  when we look at some on the politicians around the world.

Sue Stockdale: [00:15:35] Well, it moves us nicely onto the subject of leadership and I understand  from your perspective, you participated in the international visitor leadership program to the U S this year. And you were only one of eight from the Southern hemisphere to be invited to join that program. As you continue through you leadership journey tell us about what you learned on that program?

Sarah Lang: [00:15:54] Sue it was an absolute privilege to be selected and it certainly came out a bolt out of the [00:16:00] blue for me. So I was selected by the New Zealand American Embassy to attend a three week leadership program on disaster and emergency management in America. I was particularly interested in infrastructure resilience during times of disaster as it’s a big issue for us in New Zealand, particularly with our recent earthquakes. And so I was selected to go up to visit Washington, Houston,  LA and Seattle learning about the American political system and how they respond to disasters and how they fund and manage and govern disaster response. And then we headed to Houston to learn about Hurricane Harvey and how America responded to that. We then went to LA to learn about mass shootings and prior to the Christchurch disaster, I thought that would be irrelevant for me in New Zealand, but as it turned out, it was very pertinent.

And then [00:17:00] we headed North to Seattle to learn about tsunamis and earthquakes. Also very relevant to New Zealand. I was really fortunate to attend this leadership program with a number of others from the South Pacific colleagues from Fiji Lanka, Pakistan and Malaysia joined me on this leadership trip. And it was fantastic because we had a sort of two-way synthesis learning. We obviously learned about the American system. And what we learned there was that the private sector and the philanthropic sectors have a very large role to play in disaster management and relief in America, certainly considerably more so than in New Zealand and many of the Commonwealth countries who were on the program with me. Whereas are in those countries, the government steps then, and really takes a civil defense approach. What I also learned is how these other countries manage disasters and some of the responses and technology that they’re using. So it was a great opportunity to share [00:18:00] success stories, and share different systems.

And also together to analyze and understand how the American system and what parts of it might be really beneficial to us. From a leadership perspective for me to be selected from New Zealand to take part in this was a surprise and an honor, but I suppose also it was a really valid message that one person can make a difference. And who would have thought that the WIN network or the emerging talent network or some of the other things I’ve done over the years, would have ended up where they have. Perhaps timing was bright for some of these initiatives. People have come on board and supported me. I have a fantastic one advisory board and a number of voluntary chairs around the country who’ve contributed to that success. So it certainly hasn’t happened alone, but I think everybody thinks m aybe they are insignificant or they can’t make a difference, but I think everybody can make a difference and you have to look back and see where you’ve [00:19:00] come from. This was a small idea that happened over lunch, which has turned into 2000 people, seven chapters , a nomination for new Zealander of the year and winning several other awards.

Sue Stockdale: [00:19:14] Well  it certainly sounds like you’ve been making an impact and continuing on with your learning in that leadership program. My final question to you, Sarah is what does the future hold for you and the industry, the infrastructure industry and its ecosystem. Where do you see it heading?

Sarah Lang: [00:19:28] That’s a great question. I actually, and it comes back to my earlier comments around the emerging talent network. I feel very positive. I’m very emboldened and excited about a younger generation coming through. I feel very positive about where they’re going to take the industry so I have no fears there. And for me, I’m very staunch about only working in areas where I can make a difference in leaving a positive legacy.

And so I think the infrastructure [00:20:00] sector is a great way to do that. Infrastructure is not just concrete and bridges actually infrastructure is built to improve the wellbeing of our people. And I’m very passionate about that. I’m very passionate about making sure everybody can be part of that journey. So how we and engage with our marginalized communities is a big focus for me. I think we’ve got a long way to go. I think some of the work that infrastructure New Zealand is making a positive difference. Particularly in our policy and advocacy space, but I also think our leadership has made it a more inclusive industry for many more people.

Sue Stockdale: [00:20:35] So to get to the bigger vision of improving the wellbeing in society.  A significant step on that route is about improving the quality of the leadership within the sector.

Sarah Lang: [00:20:43] I absolutely think it is. And I think this government is very much about wellbeing. I think for us to ensure that infrastructure is delivering the right things and not just random projects for the sake of them, we need to ask why we are building infrastructure and [00:21:00] what outcome we’re seeking. Is this the best way we can achieve that? I think we’re asking those questions in a better way now, I think from some of our international delegations learning about what other countries are doing, bringing some of those ideas back and tweaking them for the New Zealand environment is also a way that infrastructure New Zealand can contribute to the wider debate in that space.

Sue Stockdale: [00:21:21] Well, it’s been a great pleasure speaking to you today, Sarah. And I wish you all, every success in the future with the network and the work that you’re doing.

Sarah Lang: [00:21:29] So thank you very much for your time. I appreciate the invitation to talk with you.

Sue Stockdale: [00:21:35] I hope you enjoyed hearing from Sarah Lang about how the infrastructure sector in New Zealand it’s changing to better represent the community it serves. Sarah’s experience reminded me of the Dalai Lama  quote ‘if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito’. I wonder what it caused you to reflect on. If you enjoyed this podcast, please take a moment to leave us a review on Apple podcasts [00:22:00] or whatever platform you’re using and tell your friends about us so we can continue to reach more or listeners that’s all from me Sue Stockdale,  next week, I will be speaking to Virginia Goethais about the work that the organization RUN is doing to support refugees in Hong Kong. I hope you will join us there.