Opinion

Gender pay gap - is it more than just Venus and Mars?

12 December 2017 | By Gary Sullivan

When it comes to gender inequality, Gary Sullivan asks if the industry should also be looking at the value it puts on tasks.

Gary Sullivan

It is more than 25 years since John Gray’s book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus hit the bookstands and yet the issue of gender equality in the workplace has not changed significantly.

There are lots of sage words on how the skills that women bring can improve businesses and there are no jobs in construction that women can’t do, but those much-discussed planets are still some distance from being aligned.

Salaries are an emotive subject in any business and when you introduce gender into the debate, the temperature rises a degree or two.  

I am not naive enough to think Jurassic thinking has been eradicated by some of those who set salaries. However, it is hard to imagine in the 21st Century that there are those who make a deliberate choice to pay a woman less than a man doing the same job, although the recent furore over salaries at the BBC suggests there is still discrimination.

The reason(s) why the pay gap hasn’t improved is potentially a complex area to resolve – the answer to the “why” may well lay in historic institutional gender stereotyping, although I suspect that is only part of the problem.

Construction is recognised as a male-dominated industry and perhaps we cannot be surprised that it scores badly in female/male ratios, although on the issue of equal pay, I suggest that most reputable construction companies will have equal pay for those doing the same jobs regardless of gender. Perhaps the gender pay gap is not an equal pay issue. Maybe it is a value issue?

The headline statistics (usually a percentage figure) highlight the gaps and yet make little comment on the disparity in numbers of senior women employees, of which generally there are fewer, and those that are employed in what might be deemed supporting functions, for example HR and administrative type roles where there are often more women.

The industry continues to struggle to attract people of all types and the working conditions put off many people, not just women. The skills deficit can only be fixed by making the industry more attractive to everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

There will be prejudice, bombast and rhetoric from all those with “political” points to score, but we should not be distracted by those with an axe to grind. Whilst changes in culture and vernacular are still too slow, we should be mindful to fix the right problem.  

The issue is not so much about gender inequality, but task value inequality. We need to try to understand how we value jobs, why some jobs such as HR, administration and finance are perceived to have less value than so-called “frontline” roles. Any business is the sum of its parts and perhaps it is time to measure the value of the task, not what gender forms the workforce.

In an industry which is often self-critical, “the price of everything and the value of nothing” is sometimes quoted. If the construction industry wants to improve, and not just in the equality arena, perhaps it is time to measure the value of all the tasks involved in the creation of a building and not just those that involve bricks and sticks.

It is a fantastic industry that is often unjustly maligned and while construction is unlikely to resolve the mysteries of Mars and Venus, there is no reason why it shouldn’t stand up and commit to being ahead of the game and value everyone who contributes to its success.

However, what needs to be said out loud for all to hear is: there is no excuse in the 21st century not to pay people the same wage for the same job.    

Gary Sullivan OBE is chairman of construction logistics contractor Wilson James

Image: Vjanez/Dreamstime

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