The construction industry’s gender pay gap will not be bridged organically, says Jennifer Tomlinson.
In the first quarter of this year, 311,000 women were working in construction, accounting for 14.6% of the sector’s workforce, according to the Office of National Statistics.
Construction companies must address this gender imbalance and close the gender pay gap. Research conducted by NCE and its sister title Construction News earlier this year revealed a considerable disparity in hourly pay in favour of men in companies with more than 250 employees (NCE, May 2023).
The median pay gap for contractors stood at 27%, while for consultants was 20.9%.
To bridge the gap construction firms should look outside the industry for solutions, says University of Leeds professor of gender and employment relations Jennifer Tomlinson.
Contractor Ferrovial Construction is doing that as industry partner for a study being led by Tomlinson. It is funded by national research funding agency UK Research & Innovation and is examining ways to reduce gender and ethnic pay gaps in the foundations sector.
The idea that it is just a matter of time isn’t backed by the data
“What the construction industry struggles with the most [to reduce the gender pay gap] is the small proportion of women in the sector and the fact that they are concentrated in certain types of roles that aren’t the highest paid,” says Tomlinson.
She says parental responsibilities are also a factor as the progress of some women can be affected by taking maternity leave. She adds that “dated assumptions” by company executives about women’s ability to achieve a work life balance when they become mothers can also impact promotions.
“I really don’t like stereotypes or generalisations about men and women and their characteristics, but we do often hear that men are more confident in negotiating and are more likely to change jobs,” she adds, pointing to these as potential gender pay gap contributors.
Tomlinson says the assumption that pay disparity will be eliminated over time as more women enter the construction sector is false.
She points to gender pay gap data provided to the government by big employers since 2018 and the lack of significant change seen over the last five years. “The idea that it is just a matter of time isn’t backed by the data, because while some companies are progressing, others are regressing,” Tomlinson explains.
She says the focus should not only be on employing more women, but on their retention and promotion. She uses the legal and financial sectors as examples. They have a better gender balance than construction although Tomlinson says there is still “quite a lag in terms of their [women’s] promotion within them”.
Removing pay disparity requires “sustained effort rather than just monitoring”, she stresses.
She believes the main solution is transparency about pay and creating a pay framework that is adhered to. This would reduce instances of private salary negotiations. She suggests that contractors analyse the various roles they offer and the skills required and reassess salaries so that they are fairer.
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