Insight

How is construction dealing with the gender pay gap?

26 April 2018 | By Neil Gerrard

The gender pay gap data published by construction companies last month presented a damning picture, showing pay inequality worse than in any other industry. Neil Gerrard looks at how firms are trying to address the problem.

Confirmation of the yawning pay gap between men and women has exposed just how much more progress construction needs to make on gender equality.

The government set a deadline of 4 April for companies with more than 250 employers to publicise their analysis of the disparity between men and women’s pay.

The results have made for sobering reading. Among the UK’s top 10 contractors (by turnover), women are paid an average of 30% less (on a median basis) than their male counterparts.

Meanwhile, across all 349 construction employers who have made their figures publicly available, the median pay gap is reported to be 23.6%. The UK average median pay gap is 9.8%.

So what can construction businesses do to improve the situation, and where do they start?

For Lucy Homer, executive general manager design + technical at Lendlease Construction, the results were “very disappointing, but not surprising” although she admits she wasn’t expecting the gap between men and women’s bonuses to be quite as marked. Nonetheless, she expects this to be a turning point.

What do women in construction think about the gender pay gap data?

Rebecca Thompson, CIOB president

“I am disappointed but not surprised by the results within the construction industry. We have a low representation of female leaders, although we have many qualified and capable women within the industry.”

Christine Gausden RD, University of Greenwich

“There remains a skills shortage and the most readily available resource [male workers] will negotiate what is most favourable to them. There is not necessarily a gender pay gap, but a gap which is relative to the timing of an appointment.”

Chrissi McCarthy, Constructing Equality

“Without serious strategic approval the topic of women in construction will never progress past cute PR-based initiatives that are likely to be as unsuccessful as the past 20 years of similar programmes.”

“I hope it results in positive action from every construction board of directors,” she says. “The pay gap data is a tool to use when talking about how to increase a company’s diversity.”

Lendlease, which was one of the first construction firms to publicise its gender pay analysis and revealed women received median hourly pay 33% lower than that of men, has been working hard to put its own house in order.

Staff who receive bonuses have targets to hit a certain percentage of female representation in the area of the business they are responsible for – or face missing out on the bonus reward at their performance review.

The company has increased senior female representation across the board from 24% to 29% over the past 21 months and claims to be on target to hit 33% by 2020.

It has already reached 50/50 recruitment at graduate levels, and at least one woman must be shortlisted for other roles, although the firm is finding the pool of talent for site-based and M&E roles smaller, Homer says. 

She advocates female recruitment quotas both for internal and external recruitment.

“The aim should be to get to a certain level by a certain date because you need something to aim at,” Homer says.

Willmott Dixon, where the median hourly rate for women is 43.5% lower than men’s, is also trying to address the problem.

“The simple reason for our gender pay gap is that there are many more men working with us than women in senior positions across the business,” says Rick Willmott, group chief executive at Willmott Dixon.

“Until our gender balance is improved across most of our pay grades, and especially at senior levels, then the gender pay gap will remain – it is as simple as that.”

Willmott Dixon has set a target of a 50/50 gender balance by 2030 and claims to be the only construction firm so far to have set a target to achieve gender parity.

Its 2018 management trainee intake process is still ongoing but a spokesman indicated that the firm hoped for it to be 40-50% women. Last year it was 40%.

But recruiting women to senior (and better paid) positions won’t be enough on its own – companies will also need to tackle the problem of how to recruit more women at site level.

Julia Barrett, director of Willmott Dixon’s Re-Thinking team, says: “There is a plethora of reasons why we don’t see more women tradespeople. A lot of that is around aspirations at school, lack of role models, parents making assumptions that it is not a career for their daughters.”

“One of the biggest opportunities we find is that for women coming into our industry they are more likely to join us if they know someone who has worked in the industry and can see the opportunities rather than the barriers.”

Board-level support

That’s a view echoed by Chrissi McCarthy, managing director of Constructing Equality, who wants to see more board-level support if businesses want to get past “cute PR-based initiatives” that have, in her view, failed to make inroads over the last 20 years of similar programmes.

“We need to abandon the idea that this is simply an entry-level women’s problem,” she says. “The falling numbers of women in the sector despite the rise in initiatives to encourage school girls into industry demonstrates that. This is a complex problem that requires understanding of the strategic, cultural and personal dynamics at play within the sector.

“We advise organisations to undertake an assessment of their current culture in line with fairness, inclusion and respect,” she adds.

A positive approach is important in the eyes of Christine Gausden RD, senior lecturer at the department of built environment, University of Greenwich.

She questions whether hauling companies over the coals for the size of their gender pay gap is the best approach. Gausden says the industry “needs to overtly promote best practice and avoid the temptation to name and shame, as this simply seeks to reinforce the negative image of our industry”.

The publication of so many companies’ gender pay gap analysis, and the extent of the problem that it has revealed, has certainly done little to enhance that image so far.

Nonetheless, CIOB president Rebecca Thompson, who runs her own heritage consultancy, sees cause for hope.

She says: “I feel optimistic that a few of the larger companies are leading with a reduced gender pay gap, and realising the potential of inviting and retaining women in this industry.  It is not all about the financial reward, it is about the attitude towards staff and enabling a fair and rewarding place to work.”

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