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Shocked, shaken, shut out: Women react to the gender pay gap

Construction has the largest gender pay gap of any UK industry. But behind the data, why is this issue business-critical and what do the experiences of women in the sector reveal about the challenges we must tackle? Lucy Alderson investigates.

Men make up around 87 per cent of the construction industry’s workforce so if you’re reading this, it’s likely you’re in the overwhelming majority.

You might be reading this in your office, or on site. Looking around, can you count the number of women on one hand?

Women are still a minority in the industry, despite numerous programmes attempting to inspire women of all ages to follow a career in construction.

In April, firms across the UK who employed 250 or more people were required to file a report comparing men and women’s average pay across the business.

According to Construction News calculations, women’s average median pay among the UK’s 100 biggest contractors by turnover is 30.3 per cent lower than the that for men. In fact, construction has the largest median pay gap of any industry.

This does not mean that women are paid less to do the same work. But it does raise important questions about the lack of female leaders in the industry and why there is such a gap.

Businesses were required to explain their pay disparity and many contractors offered similar explanations, primarily that a lack of women in the industry – especially in senior positions – is responsible.

Of those women working in construction, most are in the lower pay quartiles of their businesses, according to the gender pay gap data. Moving up the pay bands, the number of women generally decreases further, leaving men to occupy the majority of the highest-paid – and senior – positions.

So why does it matter that the women working across the whole of your business are, on average, being paid less?

Quite simply, because increasing the number of women in the industry – and in senior positions – makes good business sense.

Inspire Me: Get involved

Join CN’s campaign to encourage women into leadership roles across the industry – find details of our workshops and how you can contribute at inspireme.constructionnews.co.uk

Women = profit

According to research conducted by management consulting company McKinsey & Company, the most financially successful companies are those who have a greater number of women in senior roles.

In McKinsey’s Delivering through Diversity report published in January this year, more than 1,000 companies across the globe were analysed.

Those companies who had the most number of women in executive teams were 21 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability, compared with companies who had the least diverse boards.

“I always felt it was a battle, whereas [I felt] my male colleagues around me were being given promotions and pay rises without even having to ask”

Why are diverse senior teams boosting business performance? McKinsey offers five hypotheses about diverse companies: that they are more likely to attract top talent; that they make better quality and more fact-based decisions; that their teams become more creative; that they resolve conflicts more effectively; and that clients are more likely to work with them.

According to Lana Shaylor, who is among the minority of female directors working in the construction industry, breaching the gender gap is vital for the future of the sector.

Construction must “modernise and move with the times”, she argues, because it is a commercial imperative to do so. “It’s about attracting and futureproofing talent of our industry at grassroots level,” Ms Shaylor says. “But it will take time and we need bigger companies to invest in talent.”

Initiatives such as mentoring new entrants in the industry can help retain and push talent up the career ladder, she adds. 

Understanding the gap

Construction already has the highest gender pay gap of any industry in the UK, but one director at a tier one contractor, who wishes to remain anonymous, thinks the true gulf could be even higher.

“I don’t think the figures give a true reflection of what is happening in the industry,” the director says, explaining that only salaries based on a PAYE basis were taken into account when companies were asked to calculate their gender pay gaps.

A number of different payment methods used across the industry have not been taken into account, the director adds, such as Construction Industry Scheme (CIS) payment methods.

Some of these alternative payment methods left out of the gender pay gap reports are being used for higher-skilled, higher-paid roles across the industry, the director claims. And with men predominantly taking up these technical roles, this could increase the industry’s gender pay gap even further.

infographic gender pay gap

infographic gender pay gap

“It is possible that this has made some companies average hourly rate difference look less, as a whole section of workers from higher levels have not been taken into account,” the director says.

Whether or not the gap is higher than the data suggests, analysing what’s behind it in your own business is fundamental, according to Bowmer & Kirkland board director Chris Kirkland.

B&K’s median pay rate for women is 44.6 per cent lower than men’s, and Mr Kirkland says the company is investigating how to breach the gap. “We’re not defining from on high what the issue is about,” he says. “We want genuine feedback on people’s experiences working in the group.”

The contractor is creating a taskforce consisting of six men and six women that represents a cross-section of the whole business. Together, they are gathering internal feedback to understand how to tackle the gap. “We’re hoping to change things for the long-term in our company,” Mr Kirkland says. “I hope the process we’re running will satisfy the women working in our group and make them see we are massively involved in this.”

A frustrated workforce

The gender pay gap has revealed that women are struggling to get into senior positions. Personal experiences can help shed light into why this is and how these barriers can be removed.

Carol [whose name has been changed to protect her identity] has 25 years’ experience in the sector and holds a senior position at a global engineering firm. But recent experiences have left her feeling frustrated and sceptical about how she can progress as a woman working in construction.

Four years ago when working at a global consultancy firm, Carol says she was passed over for a head of department role.

She was out of the office for a week preparing for an interview. However, when she came back the role had already been filled by her male colleague – even though they were equally qualified and of the same rank and position.

“It is possible that this has made some companies average hourly rate difference look less, as a whole section of workers from higher levels have not been taken into account”

Anonymous director

Carol agreed to sign a non-disclosure agreement and left the business, but was left shaken by her experience. “I wasn’t even given an interview, it was absolutely shocking,” she says. “I felt like he was given the job because he was a man. All I want is an equal platform. But what I found was that it wasn’t equal anymore.”

Carol joined a global engineering firm some months later. But things took a similar turn in her new role working on a major infrastructure project. “At the beginning of this year, a new man was brought in to take over my projects,” she says. “They [senior leadership] announced my job change on a conference call to the whole of the business – that’s how I found out.”

She is now taking legal advice regarding her position.

“Part of me feels I should tell my story [on the record] and say that it’s not right,” she says. “But if I did that, who would have me if I left my company? I feel like I’ve reached my level and it feels unfair. I’m in the prime of my career but I’m being shut out.”

Struggle to the boardroom

For some women who have made it into senior positions, getting a foot into the boardroom presents even further challenges – which is exactly what Alesha [whose name has been changed to protect her identity] found while working at a major contractor for 13 years.

During this time she submitted three proposals to her executive team for her to be made a director, as she was already holding equivalent responsibilities in her existing role. But every time she discussed pay and promotions, she was knocked back.

“I always had to justify my case and outline what I had achieved and how much I should be paid,” she says. “I always felt it was a battle, whereas [I felt] my male colleagues around me were being given promotions and pay rises without even having to ask.”

Her female colleagues were in the same position. One woman, who was head of a separate department, never made it to the board – even though she had been with the company for more than 20 years. “It wasn’t a dinosaur of a company but there was definitely a chauvinistic vibe,” Alesha says. “There was never a woman in a senior position, even though there were some outstanding women who worked there.”

Alesha found the boardroom door remained shut, even though she was leading her department. “I had a conversation with my boss and said: ‘Do I have to grow a pair of testicles to get a promotion?’” she says.

She says the senior leadership would steer her away from joining the board. “When I put in another proposal in to become a director, my boss replied, ‘Think about other titles’. I thought to myself, ‘Why?’ I had earned it […] I think it was old-fashioned thinking on the board that women could only do so much.”

Changing culture

CN received dozens of responses to our coverage of the gender pay gap in construction, with readers outlining the unique challenges women face in the sector.

“It is unacceptable to brush the issue under the carpet by simply stating that there are more men at the top [creating] the pay gap,” says one respondent.

Another reader said she enjoys her career but does not “feel valued or taken seriously” at the tier one contractor she works at, and does not believe the gender pay gap issue has been taken seriously in the industry.

One reader, Hannah [whose name has been changed to protect her identity], had a particularly bad experience.

Women businesswomen woman business diversity corporate gender pay gap 03B65187

Women businesswomen woman business diversity corporate gender pay gap 03B65187

After moving from a global consultancy firm to a major London developer in 2015, Hannah describes being subjected to bullying simply because she was a woman. From the beginning, she was undermined by her male colleague who excluded her from cost meetings on a major contract – even though she was appointed to lead them.

She says she felt like an “outcast” and finally went to her line manager about the problems she was facing. “He said I talked really loud and that I should be quiet because I’m a woman,” she says. “He said I had to go into work and fight my colleague… but that’s not my character. I don’t bully, I don’t discriminate; I just want to do my job.”

She cried every day for the three months she stayed at the business, and says she began to feel suicidal. It was at this point she decided to leave the firm. “I spiralled into depression, and it felt like my reputation had started to take a tumble,” she says. “Who would believe a woman over men who have been in the industry their whole lives?”

What do the contractors say?

As well as Bowmer & Kirkland, other contractors have come forward to speak out about how the industry can bridge the pay gap.

Bam Construction, which reported the biggest pay disparity among the 100 biggest contractors by turnover, “has a lot of work” to do, according to its HR director Andrea Singh. There is an under-representation of females at all levels of our business, she says, with women making up 68 per cent of the lower pay quartile of its workforce.

The group’s facilities management business partly explains why that figure is high, Ms Singh says. Around 900 of the company’s 2,600 workers are employed in this division, with more women than men employed in support roles in cleaning and catering positions.

Ms Singh says while it is “disappointing” that there are uneven proportions of men to women across all levels of the business, the gender pay gap reports have put this issue on the map.

“This is an issue we’ve been working on for many years,” she says. “Now we have a good pipeline of females coming through the business. What the gender pay gap has done is made the entire business across all levels focus on the issue – we have more engagement, understanding and awareness of the topic.”

Bam Construction’s statistics are far from unusual in the sector. 

“I felt like he was given the job because he was a man. All I want is an equal platform. But what I found was that it wasn’t equal anymore”

“There are more women sitting in the lower [pay] quartiles – which suggests there is a barrier to access or promotion, with more women sitting within administrative or non-skilled roles,” says VGC group services director Ciara Pryce.

She attributes this to the sector’s inability to attract women into technical roles due to misconceptions about the industry and poor careers advice in schools. “There are many plans in place to try to encourage this, but it may take a generation to change attitudes,” she says.

Ms Pryce suggests four crucial areas that need to be addressed to attract more women into the industry: greater engagement with young people and schools; looking to other industries for female talent; changing the way roles are advertised; and flexible working.

Pay disparity has put the issue of gender equality under the microscope. It could also act as a catalyst for a wider analysis of diversity in the industry that goes beyond gender, Ms Pryce suggests.

“We know that gender isn’t the only way to discriminate against people inappropriately,” she says. “It’s important that we promote fairness and respect for everyone, whether on site or in the office or both. If gender pay reporting stimulates debate about making construction a truly fair and open industry for everyone, it will prove to be a tremendously positive exercise.”

Experiences like those of Hannah, Carol and Alesha provides an insight into why many women are unable to climb the career ladder, and why the industry has struggled to attract and retain them.

Although Hannah is a senior leader where she now works, she nearly left the industry because of her experience. With the number of women in construction already low, the sector cannot afford to lose any more female talent.

Hannah chose to remain in the industry, but now regrets her career choice as a result of what she has experienced.

“If I went through what I did, think about all the other women out there who are going through the same thing,” she says.

To protect identities, some of the names of those interviewed have been changed

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