Women working for construction firms take home lower average earnings than men - that’s a fact, but one that shouldn’t be tolerated
This week we have official confirmation: most construction companies pay women on average less than men. And the reason for what the prime minister has dubbed “this burning injustice”? Men, according to the government’s gender pay gap data, get promoted to senior, higher-paying construction roles, whereas women are grouped into admin and support roles that are lower paid.
It’s the same in many sectors, financial services being one, but construction is particularly bad because women are so woefully underrepresented, at just under 14% of the workforce. The underlying reasons for this are many and complex and have roots in society’s different pressures on, and expectations of, men and women. This much we already knew, so what does this data collection exercise add to our understanding?
If you were expecting to find a complete picture of the industry’s average pay gap on the official website, think again
Well, we now know the best and worst performing companies in the construction sector, the explanations for their pay gaps and in some cases what their action plan for change is. It is fascinating to see, for example that Balfour Beatty, the UK’s biggest contractor, has a median average hourly pay gap of 33% and that women’s bonus pay is a staggering 65% lower than men’s. Balfour is not the worst offender and in fact reflects the situation in many companies – by Building’s calculations, the average median pay gap of the top 10 UK contractors is 25%. The data also shows pay gaps in construction go as high as 48% – to put this in context, the Office for National Statistics reckoned in 2017 that the overall pay gap in the UK was 18.4%.
As predicted, many of the 9,000 UK firms forced to reveal their data did so in the last 24 hours before the deadline. The cynical view would be that companies don’t want to report “bad” statistics – they may have hoped their story would go unnoticed in the flood of information. The kinder interpretation is that collating the information for the first time has been a big undertaking that some firms may have underestimated.
Whatever the reasons for the relative tardiness in reporting, actually finding construction companies’ data on the government gender pay gap website is not as easy as it should be. Many construction companies, for example, are not listed under “construction” (you will find them under sectors ranging from “financial and insurance” to “professional, scientific and technical”).
So, if you were expecting to find a complete picture of the industry’s average pay gap on the official website, think again – a lot more number crunching still has to happen. Moreover, some firms have reported data separately under different business units, which, though within the rules, can make it difficult to gain a company-wide view.
Reporting on the gender pay gap reminds us of the pressing need to recruit a more diverse workforce and develop clear pathways for women to progress up the career ladder
Another gripe is that the earnings of equity partners do not have to be included because they are not classed as employees. For the big-name construction consultancies, it’s a fair bet this group of high earners is male dominated and that by not including them the official average pay for men will not reflect the reality of what they actually take home.
Doubtless, much of the blame for data inadequacies can be laid at the door of the government. After all, it set the rules and companies have simply complied with what they were asked to do. Why would bosses go beyond what has been requested, especially if they are unsure of how the data could be used in future and are almost certain their competitors will follow the same cautious path?
In any case, critics have slammed the data on average hourly pay as meaningless because it fails to take into account factors such as part-time working, amount of experience, and the type of work people are doing. Even supporters of the legislation, such as Theresa Mohammed, chair of the National Association of Women in Construction, admit the data “does not go below the surface” to tackle the fundamental reasons why women earn less than men.
And yet, this data-gathering exercise – the most comprehensive of its kind – cannot simply be batted away. It is relevant and, as Mohammed argues, it will be useful for two very important reasons.
If you’re a construction employer with a whopping great pay gap, admit it, it’s fine, because pretty much everyone else in your sector has the same problem
First, reporting on the gender pay gap reminds us of the pressing need to recruit a more diverse workforce and develop clear pathways for women to progress up the career ladder. So if you’re a construction employer with a whopping great pay gap, admit it, it’s fine, really it is, because pretty much everyone else in your sector has the same problem. What will differentiate you is what you intend to do about it. And frankly, starting from such a low base any improvement is going to be a good news story this time next year.
Secondly, this data could be the start of a cultural shift where people – women in particular – feel empowered to start asking questions about salary offers and pay rises. There is, of course, a clear difference between a structural pay gap and individuals receiving unequal pay for doing similar work, which is discriminatory and illegal. Still, being aware of the former could help guard against the latter.
So, however imperfect the data may be, the principle of transparency and accountability around women’s pay has been established. Companies will want to get their excuses in, to explain away their disappointing statistics to female staff. They shouldn’t. No one intends to have a pay gap in their organisation, it’s something that develops over time when nobody is looking. But now we are, so let’s close the gap.