Gender pay gap illustration

The gender pay gap: valuing women in engineering

Image credit: Dreamstime

Why is the engineering industry still failing to recruit women effectively and pay them as much as men?

The British don’t much like change. We are pragmatic and utilitarian when it comes to ideals. Our society is regulated and ordered as much by conventions as it is by laws.

This culture, we often hear, provides a continuity to life that people in other countries don’t enjoy: stability, security, safety. This is what we are told.

However, a system, designed to conserve the essence of a society, also preserves the inequalities. For instance, one of the UK’s biggest and most important industries (engineering) is not really employing that many women (who are half the population) and it pays those women it does employ less than men are paid in that same profession.

Last April, UK employers with more than 250 staff were required by government to publish data on their gender pay gap. A gender pay gap doesn’t imply a man and woman doing the same job but having unequal pay, which is against the law. Instead, firms have to calculate the mean or median difference between men’s and women’s earnings throughout their organisation.

The mean hourly rate is a measure of the difference between women’s mean hourly wage and men’s mean hourly wage. The median gender pay gap is the difference between the middle paid man and the middle paid woman.

Each company submits its figures in four pay quartiles, calculated by splitting all employees in an organisation into four groups according to their level of pay. Looking at the proportion of women in each quartile gives an indication of women’s representation at different levels of the organisation.

The results weren’t great in engineering-related sectors such as construction, manufacturing and transport. The Scottish building services and maintenance firm James Frew had a 62 per cent mean gender pay gap and a median gap of 55.5 per cent. The company employs no women in the top or upper-middle quartile, only 2.9 per cent of its employees in the lower-middle quartile are women, but women are employed in 37.1 per cent of the lowest paid jobs. We contacted James Frew for their comments but received no response.

Just over 22 per cent of Survitec’s top earners are women and 55.9 per cent of the upper-middle quartile. But the company, which makes survival and safety equipment for the marine, defence and aviation sectors, still has a mean gender gap of 58.6 per cent and a median gap of 42.9 per cent. That’s because 77.6 per cent of the company’s lowest paid (manufacturing) roles are also held by women. Again, the company didn’t respond to a request for an explanation.

Masco UK Window Group (UKWG)’s mean hourly rate for women is 49.9 per cent lower than men’s.  That means their women earn 50p for every £1 men earn. Women’s median hourly rate is 67.4 per cent lower than men’s. Their middle-paid woman earns 33p for every £1 that the middle-paid man earns. Again, the majority of the company’s female employees are in the lowest paid jobs.

Steve Forbes, Masco’s VP for people and performance EMEA, told E&T: “We pay equally all of our employees regardless of gender. The disparity is part due to this being a manufacturing business (low take-up of female employees on the shop floor) and the demographic being difficult to find females willing to come to a manufacturing business, given it is a fixed shift with no opportunity for flexible working to support child care.

“We are working hard to change the external perspective of the manufacturing environment, though this is wider than just UKWG, as well as address the one or two areas where we are undersubscribed in terms of diversity.”

At Premier Oil, the mean hourly pay gap is 67.7 per cent. Just under 34 per cent of lower-middle quartile jobs are held by women, but only 8.1 per cent of upper-middle quartile and 4.8 per cent of the top quartile. This gives Premier Oil a mean pay gap of 49.6 per cent and a median gap of 53.2 per cent.

A spokesman told E&T: “Premier Oil has long been committed to the principle of equal opportunity and the maintenance of a fair and non-discriminatory work environment. Premier Oil is committed to action, both current and future, that should promote ongoing sustainable improvement on gender pay gap, both within Premier and our contribution to the oil and gas industry at large, which shows similar statistics to Premier on gender pay.”

The distribution of jobs within the quartiles was similar at BAM Construct, which reported a mean gap of 46.9 per cent and a median gap of 59.6 per cent. There was no response from BAM Construct.

The list goes on. But these figures are only part of the story.

Workplace

Employers that set an example

BT, Co-op, Lendlease, PepsiCo, Royal Mail and Vodafone are among the UK organisations that feature in The Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2018 list, compiled by The Times and Business in the Community (BITC) – a British charity promoting corporate social responsibility.

The unranked alphabetical list recognises UK employers that are making gender equality a key focus within their business strategy – and that includes equal pay, though it was compiled before the gender pay gap data was published.These companies excel in creating inclusive workplace cultures and promoting women in their careers across all areas and levels.

Some other UK organisations on the 2018 list are (in alphabetical order): Ashurst, BBC, Barclays, Deloitte, Lloyds Banking Group, Mercer, Norton Rose Fulbright, Santander UK, Sky, the British Army and Unilever UK.

Vitali Vitaliev

Where pay gaps are less pronounced, for instance Aecom’s 21.5 per cent mean and 21.9 per cent median, this is often due to a relatively even distribution of women throughout the four quartiles, rather than an even distribution of men and women in the upper quartiles.

Anotech Energy and Global Solutions, which specialises in professional and scientific activities, has a 6.3 per cent median pay gap, but the highest proportion of women in any of the quartiles is just 7.1 per cent.

Many engineering roles would be part of other industries’ figures, such as agriculture. Firms that employ under 250 workers weren’t required to publish their data. And according to Sarah Peers from the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), the reported gender pay gap would be more accurate if it was based on the distribution of salaries throughout the company rather than mean or median figures. She says: “One firm was able to report a pay gap in favour of women because they had one woman in a senior position, even though the rest of their 2,000 staff are men.”

There’s more. Last February, a survey published by science recruitment specialists SRG found that women working in engineering and science earn a fifth less than their male colleagues. The SRG researchers found that the youngest women were paid only 2.5 per cent less than men the same age, whereas women aged 35-44 were 16 per cent down. The figure was 23 per cent in the 45-54 age range, and for over-55s it was 35 per cent.

Also, let’s not forget that only 11 per cent of the UK’s engineering workforce are women, or 9 per cent according to the Royal Academy of Engineering – either way, one of the lowest percentages in Europe. Also, according to the Women’s Engineering Society, only 15.1 per cent of engineering undergraduates are women and there are fewer women doing computing degrees than in 2010. Most embarrassingly of all, women account for 6.8 per cent of engineering apprentices and only 1.9 per cent of Construction Skills apprenticeship starts.

So, now that we know all this, do we march on Downing Street and demand that Theresa May imposes massive fines on the worst offenders? Do we insist that said companies are removed from government contract lists?  Can we even suggest  that these companies should be required by law to put action plans in place to address these figures?

Instead of screaming from the rafters about gender apartheid, which is the real issue here, we hear a lot of diplomatic talk about the need for diversity. We are told that more women in the workforce would help deal with the skills shortage. Give the industry some creativity and innovation. As if workforce discrimination against half the population isn’t reason enough to take action.

The whole debate is pointless. On one side, the cautious beatings of those who should be leading the charge towards equality, but who seem more concerned about offending those who are perpetuating the inequality. On the other, traditionalists who assure us that things are not as bad as they look and that they’re doing everything they can to address the issue.

A Royal Academy of Engineering spokesperson told E&T that its staff are “not in a position to speak about the pay gap”, as its Diversity and Inclusion leadership group is currently analysing gender pay gap data to identify trends and patterns.

In time, the Academy says, it hopes to come up with an action plan. Apparently, the engineering profession has made good progress in analysing the nature and extent of the current diversity and inclusion challenge. After all, engineering wasn’t specifically mentioned in the reporting at the end of April.

‘One firm was able to report a pay gap in favour of women because they had one woman in a senior position, even though the rest of their 2,000 staff are men.’

Sarah Peers, Women’s Engineering Society

An action plan? Half the population is being paid considerably less than the other half, for no reason other than that they are female.  The whole debate is completely ridiculous. And the most ridiculous thing about it is that no one sees how ridiculous it is. Until, that is, we look with new eyes at some of the frequently given reasons for why women engineers aren’t paid as much as men.

They’re not suitable for senior engineering roles, unless (as one interviewee who doesn’t want to be identified, told E&T) it’s in HR or management. Too flighty and emotional. Not logical, tough, detached, reliable and authoritative enough.

How can a woman expect to run a company, spend a few years off having children and then to come back and run the place part-time? Part-time office junior, yes. But senior positions require long hours and constant availability. You can hardly expect a multi-billion-pound industry to fit around the school run.

The excuses come thick and fast. There aren’t enough women in engineering to fill senior posts. Not enough girls want to do engineering at university or even STEM subjects at school, even though Jessica Rowson from the Institute of Physics is one of many who insists that this is only because girls are not given enough information to make informed decisions.

Here’s the most peculiar excuse, though: if we did employ more women as entrants to the profession, in the short-term the pay gap would actually get worse.

Now, let’s look at some of the solutions being bandied around.

Send female engineers into schools, give school careers officers diversity training, set up engineering competitions for girls (preferably somewhere in the developing world, as far away from our own patch as possible) and give kids work experience before they choose their GCSEs. All nice ideas, but hardly likely to make any meaningful difference.

Mooted workplace solutions are equally underwhelming. More staff consultation, removal of masculine language on websites and job descriptions. And of course, leadership training for women. Of course: let’s fix women, not the system.

And if anyone insists that the gender gap is caused by bias, we can just say it’s unconscious. Bias that we didn’t realise was bias, or that we didn’t know we had. Because, obviously, no one could be reasonably expected to be aware that employing hardly any women and paying them much less than men is a discriminatory practice.

If we can’t blame our own biases for the lack of gender equality, how about blaming gender equality itself? A study out of Leeds Beckett University earlier this year concluded that Albania, Tunisia and Algeria have a higher percentage of women STEM graduates than ‘gender-equal’ countries in the west. The university’s press release called this the ‘gender equality paradox’.

Psychologist Professor Gijsbert Stoet, one of the researchers, claims that women in many poorer countries, where there are few economic opportunities and employment is precarious, will make career choices based solely on pay. “In the prosperous west, where there is more welfare infrastructure and career choice, women are more likely to pick something that they enjoy, even if it’s not so well-paid,” he says.

Of course, the real gender equality paradox is that a country can be perceived as gender-equal without women getting anything even approaching equal pay to men in a major industry like engineering.

There are some places that seem to be on the right track. In Belgium, the gender pay gap is just 3.3 per cent, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Over there, however, 55 per cent of workers are in trade unions and 96 per cent covered by the collective bargaining agreements they sign.

In 2012 new Belgian law made it mandatory for the gender pay gap to be taken into consideration when unions and employers negotiate wage agreements. The Federal Labour Service checks job classifications for gender neutrality. And companies with over 50 employees are required to report every two years.

In Britain, however, governments have long preferred a hands-off wages policy, unions are only active in the public sector and companies are free to negotiate pay directly with their employees.

WES’s Sarah Peers thinks that things would start to change if companies gave men time off for childcare duties, not just women. Peers would also like to see companies train their middle managers so they actually implement the leadership, recruitment and PR messages about gender equality that their company is putting out.

Jessica Rowson of the IoP wants us to go back further and challenge the practice of separating boys and girls into separate streams as soon as they are born. Pink and blue clothes. Long and short hair. Dolls and toy trucks. This, she believes, can lead to girls and those around them having low expectations and unhelpful beliefs about risk-taking and independence.

Engineering, like all major industries, has a moral obligation to the equal and democratic society that we claim to be to employ women in the same way that it employs men. But this is not just about morals, it’s also about prosperity.

A World Bank study published at the end of May estimated that gender pay equality would enrich the global economy by £120tn. It said gender inequality costs countries 14 per cent of their wealth and that with equality everyone would benefit from a higher standard of living.

Even if we don’t care about society as a whole and only think about what’s best for engineering, the case for equality is just as strong.

Royal Academy of Engineering director Dr Hayaatun Sillem got it exactly right when she recently stated that engineering won’t attract the best talent until it sorts out its inclusion and diversity issues.

Hear, hear.

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