Petra Wilton

Engineering management and the gender pay gap

If you are a female engineering manager you’ll probably earn half a million pounds less over your career than your male counterpart. Director of Policy and Research at the Chartered Management Institute, Petra Wilton, explains why. Words and portrait by Nick Smith.

Today the UK’s workforce totals 28 million, of which, according to Petra Wilton, ‘it’s estimated that 5 million are managers. Within that there is a significant population - around 20 per cent - in the science, engineering and technology (SET) sector.’ These people tend to be technical experts who have developed management skills rather than professional managers entering the sector.

Wilton is Director of Policy and Research at the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) in central London, just around the corner from the IET’s headquarters at Savoy Place on the River Thames. Wilton has been with the Institute for 12 years, during which time she’s worked on issues such as how management makes a difference in the workplace and the business benefits of effective managers and leaders. Most of her research is focused on the UK, but she has collaborated on comparative international studies.

The CMI has just announced the findings of its annual salary survey, which it has conducted for the past 39 years. One of its annual findings is the enduring existence of the ‘gender pay gap.’ The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 to ensure that this would eventually go away. But there is still a gender inequality in the workplace, and based on current economic trends Wilton estimates it would take roughly 250 years for the gap to close completely.

According to Wilton, the SET sector is a particularly bad example of gender equality in the workplace: ‘it has an alarming story to tell, in that the average annual gap in pay between male and female managers is around £10,000.’ From this figure it is easy to extrapolate that a woman in engineering management can expect to earn £423,000 less than her male counterpart over the course of her career. Wilton says ‘this is probably a low estimate’, making it the sort of statistic that gets tabloid headline writers coming up with gems like: ‘Women boffins earn half a million less than men.’

The big question: why?

Historically the gap has its roots in a ‘lack of transparency about pay in general within most British companies. If you don’t know comparatively what you are paid, it is very hard to challenge that. This is why equal pay audits have started to come into the public sector, where they have been very effective.’

But there are other issues beyond transparency. Culturally, women have only had for decades the sort of access to tertiary education that men have had for centuries. This creates ‘a lag in terms of educational attainment, and this seems to have had an effect on pay levels at the top.’ Added to this, Wilton explains that women take time out of their careers for maternity leave and this too ‘has an effect on pay levels when they return to work. There is the perception that because women have taken time out of their careers to have children they are somehow less committed.’

In the pre-maternity phase of their careers women fare considerably better. When women leave university to enter their first job as a junior manager they outperform their male counterparts by a few hundred pounds annually. ‘But this is not the case for IT or other engineering disciplines. But it is still broadly an equal scenario for the first management role. The inequality builds quite quickly with the progression from team leader to department head and on to director.’ 

Enter the ‘Paula Principle’

Perhaps the most important statistic related to women managers in the SET sector that ‘there are so few of them. The number of women going into management in the SET professions is much lower than the national average for all sectors.’ Across the board the proportion of women managers at the start of their careers is 57%, a figure that reduces to 24% as they reach director level. But in the SET sector this figure is more like 10 per cent.

One of the reasons for this is what academic and policy researcher Tom Schuller calls the ‘Paula Principle.’ This states that in contrast to the Peter Principle -where men are promoted to one level beyond their competence - women who are better qualified and with higher levels of technical ability than their male counterpart will be promoted to one level below their competence.

‘What this means is that women are unable to realise their potential in the workplace,’ says Wilton. ‘Women go into management with the right skill sets and are very successful. But one of the issues affecting the SET industry is that people tend to enter the workplace as technical experts and then get promoted into management, without necessarily receiving the training and development required for their new management role. A career in engineering might be more attractive to women if that training in management was given earlier in their career, so that they can see a management route into the profession.’

It may be a gender stereotype, but research shows that women (more than men) like to feel comfortable and qualified in what they do, especially when applying for a job. ‘If they have the right qualifications when they apply for a position they’ll feel far happier in stepping up for a promotion into a management role.’ The same research shows that a man who is fully technically competent is more likely to take the view that lack of management skills won’t be an obstruction to securing the position. According to Wilton ‘there have been studies to suggest that if a man has five out of the ten skills required for a position he will go for it, while even if a woman has as many as seven, it’s unlikely she will apply.’

Other factors negatively affecting career development are related to women’s confidence and levels of assertion in the workplace when it comes to negotiating pay rises and making themselves available for promotion. ‘There are a lot of separate studies looking at gender differences in psychological behaviours and motivations.’

Addressing the skills shortage

‘Women are leaving university with engineering degrees and then getting jobs in other industries,’ says Wilton. ‘We are producing IT specialists and a whole range of technical expertise and yet the level of post graduate unemployment is still far too high for women compared to men in the industry.’ Wilton admits that it’s hard to see exactly what’s going on here, although she suggests that women as a group do not perceive engineering as attractive. ‘If they see few females inside the industry making it to the top, that will contribute to making it a self-perpetuating issue. Until you’ve got enough female role models in a gender diverse workplace you may well be discouraging women from applying for jobs in the first place. The danger then is that women with very strong qualifications will seek a career in professions where there is more gender equality.’ The message is clear: there are far easier and more rewarding ways of getting to the top of a professional career as a woman than plugging away at engineering.

If we accept that the UK doesn’t produce enough women engineering graduates, and of that cohort too few are retained by the industry, this all points to an emphatic system failure. ‘There is a lot that can be done in terms of career advice. Also employers in the industry need to be working with people in the school environment. In general, young people do not have enough insight into the world of work and are largely unaware of a whole range of interesting and exciting careers that exist in the field of engineering. This should be equally attractive to both genders. But they are simply not aware of the options available to them. There is often too close a focus on getting grades and qualifications as opposed to broadening a young person’s perception in terms of what’s there to inspire them. This is being addressed by bodies such as the University Technical Colleges (UTCs). But there is also a requirement for the employers in the sector to play more of a role working in partnership with schools if they want the right graduates to emerge. If they want people, especially women, to come to them they need to get involved earlier, rather than doing the milk-round right at the end and creaming off the best of the education system.’

Wilton says that she’s come across research that says women are encouraged to regard technical careers as geekish early in their school careers, and are discouraged from entering engineering by stereotypical portrayals of the discipline in the media. ‘Engineering is a dirty discipline for boys, they are told, while IT is geeky and therefore unattractive. These stereotypes aren’t helpful.’ Without a counterbalance to this emerging from the industry itself Wilton thinks the picture will remain the same. What we need, says Wilton are more role models for women such as Julia King at Rolls Royce. ‘She’s done outstanding work as a passionate advocate for women in the engineering sector. But because of the lack of women coming through to the very top there are too few examples like this, and it is hard to name them because there is a lack of visibility.’

At the end of my conversation with Petra Wilton there seems to me to be one burning issue remaining. Questions about gender in employment are hard to frame because the if you are too politically correct in your choice of language you run the risk of not asking the question at all, while on the other hand step too far in the other direction and you can appear to be part of the problem. But if, as the National Management Salary Survey makes clear, women top women executives cost half a million pounds less to employ over the course of their career, doesn’t it make sound financial sense to employ more of them? Wilton is understandably reluctant to be drawn on this reductio ad absurdam, but is quite happy to admit that ‘industry is missing something here.’ That ‘something’ is simply that those wringing their hands over projected skills shortages are same people who are financially marginalising half of their labour pool.

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