Male-dominated construction sector needs time to close pay gap

Out-Law Analysis | 13 Sep 2019 | 11:29 am | 4 min. read

The UK construction sector once again reported the largest gap in the average earnings of male and female workers, showing that there are no 'quick fixes' for the gender pay gap (GPG) in this historically male-dominated industry.

Construction firms and contractors are focused on attracting more women into the sector, according to action plans lodged alongside this year's GPG data. The success of such initiatives could actually increase the GPG, at least in the short term, as companies attract more women into their organisations through their apprenticeship or graduate schemes.

To quote Helen Wollaston, chief executive of STEM campaign group WISE, the challenge for these firms now is "to provide a positive experience with development opportunities so that these women stay and move up through the ranks". Only then will we begin to see the construction GPG close.

The construction sector gender pay gap

The construction sector's median pay gap is unchanged from last year, at 24%. This is the worst gap across all industries, followed by a 22.36% median gap in the financial services sector and a 20% median gap in the education sector.

Donaldson Susannah

Susannah Donaldson

Legal Director

Nost companies have recognised that there is no 'quick fix' to the gender pay gap in the construction sector, and that long term initiatives will be the solution.

Currently, just over one quarter of employees at the top 40 contractors are female, a marginal improvement on last year. The median hourly rate for women at these employers is 28% less than that for men.

The Royal Academy of Engineering, which itself reported a median GPG of 9.2%, said the overall results emphasised the serious under-representation of women in engineering. Chief executive Hayaatun Sillem said: "The profession has made good progress in analysing the nature and extent of the current diversity and inclusion challenge, but now is the time for action".

Underlying causes of the gender pay gap

The construction sector has been historically male dominated, which has had an impact on how many women can be recruited, into what areas and at what levels. Some companies reported that there were no female candidates at all for some roles this year.

In the narratives provided alongside the raw GPG data, many companies attributed their gender pay gaps to the profile of their workforce, with more men in higher paid senior positions than women. This will take time to change.

Addressing the gender pay gap

Unsurprisingly, most companies have recognised that there is no 'quick fix' to the GPG in the construction sector, and that long term initiatives will be the solution.

Crossrail chief executive Mark Wild said that a key part of reducing the GPG will be encouraging more women to consider careers in engineering and construction, and it is no surprise to see many companies focussing on recruitment. Some are promoting careers in construction at an early level - BAM, for example, staged more than 100 careers events with schools in 2018; while others, such as Morgan Sindall, are trying to ensure that their recruitment campaigns appeal to underrepresented groups.

Other companies said that they were focusing on unconscious bias training to improve recruitment. HS2 Ltd pointed to its innovative equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) programmes aimed at improving the diversity of its workforce and leadership. It is also piloting 'blind recruitment' to reduce potential bias, by fully anonymising applications - something which it reports has already led to dramatic increases in shortlisting and hire rates for women.

Network Rail has set itself a target of a 20% female workforce by 2020, noting that its median GPG is driven by "the fact that a disproportionate number of men work in the rail sector". Galliford Try is requiring that female candidates be shortlisted for all senior management positions.

However, as Royal Academy of Engineering chief executive Hayaatun Sillem says, improving gender parity in the construction sector isn't simply a matter of making improvements to recruitment processes. Firms must also introduce measures "to better understand and address barriers to career progression faced by women" already employed in the sector, in order to both improve career development and increase retention of talented female staff.

Companies are reviewing their maternity and paternity policies, and their approaches to supporting working parents. Morgan Sindall has a 'returnship' programme consisting of a three month fixed term contract for those returning from work after a longer career break. It also has a parental support 'buddy' system for those returning from family leave. Galliford Try is also developing a returners programme to encourage mothers back to the workforce, while Bouygues UK is reviewing its maternity and paternity policies with the explicit goal of attracting more women back to work.

Kier has developed a Balanced Business Network to review its family friendly and agile working policies, while enhancing its maternity leave offering and providing 'parental transition' seminars to support working parents in achieving a sustainable work-life balance and progressing their personal career aspirations.

Justine Cooper

Consultant, Brook Graham

While there is no 'silver bullet' to redressing the gender pay gap, analysing the data is the first step in building awareness and action around the various challenges to achieve gender equality.

Other steps firms are taking include improving their agile working offerings. Costain has a particular focus on encouraging all employees to take up agile working, in order to allow men to assume equal family responsibilities. Morgan Sindall is including wording in job vacancies that underlines their commitment to flexible working, to ensure that they get the broadest and best range of applicants.

Some companies have launched mentoring programmes to make opportunities accessible. For example, members of the Balfour Beatty executive committee will mentor at least one female employee.

Monitoring progress

Token efforts to increase the representation of any minority group don't build sustainably diverse and inclusive working environments, and over time can regress efforts.

While there is no 'silver bullet' to redressing the gender pay gap, analysing the data is the first step in building awareness and action around the various challenges to achieve gender equality.

Susannah Donaldson is an employment law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law. Additional contributions from Justine Cooper of Brook Graham, the diversity and inclusion consultancy owned by Pinsent Masons.