Is construction closing its gender pay gap?

After a pandemic-induced lull in gender pay-gap reporting, and following dramatic changes to some firms’ working practices, James Wilmore explores whether the industry is making progress towards pay equality

When Taylor Wimpey appointed its first female chief executive in February, it sparked headlines. Jennie Daly, the group’s operations director, will be the first woman to lead a FTSE 100 housebuilder when she takes the reins in April. And Taylor Wimpey will be only the third company on the index to have both a female chief executive and chair.

While Daly’s appointment marks progress for the broader built-environment sector, boardrooms within the confines of the construction industry have yet to make such a dramatic shift. Only 22 per cent of all board members in construction are women, according to the ReBuild Project, an industry organisation that aims to raise the representation and remuneration of women at every level in construction.

The lack of women at the top – in the highest-paying roles – goes some way towards explaining why the sector has such a significant gender pay gap. In 2018, when the first official pay-gap figures were published, construction was exposed as being the worst offender of all industries across the UK. It reported a median difference of 30.1 per cent – a figure that proceeded to worsen the following year, reaching 32 per cent. Progress, or the lack of it, since 2019 has been unclear, given that the requirement to report pay gaps was postponed during the pandemic.

But might we nonetheless detect signs that mandatory reporting has helped to remove inequalities in pay across the genders? What are construction firms doing to tackle the problem? And what effect has the pandemic had?

‘A lot of work to be done’

Let’s look at the current picture. Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures published last October revealed that among “construction operatives” the pay gap between men and women was 22.8 per cent. Among “construction project managers and related professionals” it was 9.2 per cent. As a comparison, across all sectors, the gender pay gap among full-time employees was 7.9 per cent.

The deadline for firms to resume reporting their latest figures is fast approaching, at which point the picture will become clearer. But judging by the ONS figures, and on the basis of anecdotal accounts, progress remains slow.

Nicola Jones, Gleeds

Nicola Jones, a senior project manager at consultancy Gleeds and recently appointed chair of networking group Women in Property, says there is “still a lot of work to be done” to address pay inequality. And she wonders what the reporting hiatus during the pandemic will have done: “I am a bit concerned as to what it [the gender pay gap] will be this year, as a sector.”

Jones points to the lack of women working on site for contractors. “There’s plenty of [women] QSes [quantity surveyors] and project managers, but if we can bring more females on to sites, I think that will make a major difference,” she says.

“There’s plenty of [women] QSes [quantity surveyors] and project managers, but if we can bring more females on to sites, I think that will make a major difference”

Nicola Jones, Gleeds

Mandy Willis, group director for corporate strategy at contractor Mace and co-chair of the ReBuild Project, also sees mandatory reporting as just one component of a long-term campaign. “It probably hasn’t improved things yet, as the reality is it takes a lot of work to promote change,” she says. “It takes time to change the dial.”

Dawn Moore, group people and communications director at contractor Murphy, offers a similar view. “It’s important to remember, as a sector, where we’re starting from,” she says. “It’s historically a male-dominated sector. Closing the gap won’t happen overnight.”

Anthony Horrigan, chief executive of diversity consultancy Spktral, points out that the “historical” gender split in construction may make it hard to shift the pay-gap figure. “You will usually find that it is very male-heavy at the top,” he explains. “These were the guys that were young men that worked for a company, then went and set up their own company, and these men now dominate at the top. There is a certain amount of inevitability. But that doesn’t mean that things can’t change in future.”

However, Gleeds’s chief people officer, Louise Ellis, says firms should be actively recruiting women into senior roles from outside the sector, using their transferable skills. “I didn’t start in construction and I’m in the boardroom,” she says. “So it doesn’t have to be that way [exclusively male-led].”

Data may mislead

Is pay-gap reporting having the desired effect? Horrigan cautions against focusing on simplistic measures such as a headline figure. “It’s really bad practice just to focus on the pay-gap percentage,” he warns. “Some of the percentage will actually contain a really encouraging situation at the bottom of the pay range.”

Dawn Moore, Murphy

He points out that a company actively trying to recruit more women through apprenticeships or graduate schemes may actually see its pay gap worsen, for example, as these women will be at the start of their careers and in comparatively low-paid roles.

“Over the past couple of years many construction companies have been making great strides in increasing the amount of females they are getting to apply for what used to be predominantly male-centric jobs,” Horrigan adds.

“Anything that shines a light on equality in the workplace has to be a good thing. And gender pay-gap reporting remains a great step in the right direction”

Dawn Moore, Murphy

Moore also acknowledges that pay-gap reporting can be a “blunt instrument” in driving change. “There are certain things that are included in how it is calculated and certain things that aren’t,” she notes. “Like any reporting system, it has limitations. But despite that, anything that shines a light on equality in the workplace has to be a good thing. And gender pay-gap reporting remains a great step in the right direction.”

Willis agrees that there are limitations with the current reporting system, but she says: “We have to look at what it actually means to employment and what the industry is trying to do. There’s no point just having compliance for compliance’s sake, but it does hold people accountable.”

Ellis adds: “What it has done for Gleeds [is that it] has raised the [gender equality] issue in a very transparent way. It has put the topic firmly on the HR agenda.”

‘Confusing picture’

The pandemic has also increased the spotlight on gender parity in the workplace. A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2020 found that mothers had been 47 per cent more likely to lose their jobs than fathers in the wake of COVID-19. And ONS data showed the increase in the gender pay gap during the pandemic was partially due to the disproportionately high number of women who were furloughed.

Mandy Willis, Mace

Mandatory gender-pay reporting was suspended as a result of the coronavirus in the 2019/20 reporting year, and for the following set of reports, companies were given an extra six months beyond the usual April deadline to file their numbers.

Last summer, an analysis by law firm Pinsent Masons found that many companies had elected not to report their figures for 2019/20 when compulsion was suspended, and that the majority of firms took full advantage of the six-month extension of the 2020/21 reporting period.

“We may have wanted to embrace flexible or agile working, but we probably wouldn’t have done it as quickly as we have – and now we know it works”

Mandy Willis, Mace

Willis suggests these adjustments during the pandemic have led to a “confusing picture” around pay-gap information, at a time when emergency measures may well have set many women back. “They were not only doing their full-time job, but they were also being the home educator or they were looking after the meals,” she observes.

However, she also points to one upside: the well-documented changes to working practices that were supercharged by the immediate needs of the pandemic. “We may have wanted to embrace flexible or agile working, but we probably wouldn’t have done it as quickly as we have – and now we know it works,” Willis says.

Putting structures in place

So what are firms doing today to tackle the gender pay gap? Ellis says Gleeds now aims for a 50:50 split between men and women when recruiting graduates. She adds that the business currently has a shortlist of 130 candidates, equally divided. “It’s solving the problem from day one,” she says.

Another measure involves having a “much more structured approach” for when women return to work following maternity leave.

Louise Ellis, Gleeds

Gleeds has also introduced more flexible working in the wake of the pandemic, especially for people with caring responsibilities. “We’ve got a core-hours policy, so we’ve moved away from the rigid nine-to-five, where you’ve got to be present in the office,” Ellis says.

Gleeds is also working with HR consultancy Clear Assured to improve the inclusivity of its recruitment processes.

Willis says Mace is beginning to see the positive impact of the changes it has introduced. In 2020, the company introduced a diversity and inclusion strategy, which included a commitment to improve its gender and ethnicity pay gaps by at least 10 per cent year-on-year, and increase the number of female new hires by 5 per cent.

“We’ve got a core-hours policy, so we’ve moved away from the rigid nine-to-five, where you’ve got to be present in the office”

Louise Ellis, Gleeds

She also says that the company’s board gets data every Sunday night, which includes the number of women recruited by the business, promotions and attrition. “This allows us to hold ourselves accountable,” Willis says.

All these initiatives are positive, but what advice is there for women who might be frustrated by their employer’s current approach?

Willis says: “I know it might sound a bit trite, but first off I would ask them ‘do you have a women’s network?’, and if they don’t, then I would strongly encourage anybody to start one. Whatever subject matter we’re talking about, collective voices are stronger than a lone voice.”

On a similar theme, Jones says women must “raise our voices and ask the questions, like ‘why didn’t I get promoted?’. Get feedback on that, and then ask what you can do to bridge that gap.”

Broadening the talent pool

Construction as a sector must also raise its sights. “The first thing the industry needs to do is acknowledge that it needs to modernise and accept that the talent pool it needs to swim in is not there today,” Willis states. “We need to broaden the horizons and the opportunities, and advertise them and invest in them, and go to schools, universities and graduate programmes and attract people from different perspectives, different parts of society.”

She explains the recurring problem in a nutshell: “If you go into a school and ask them [to draw a picture of] construction, they will draw a man with a hat on, as a builder. And that is not the future of construction.”   

Ellis adds: “Our dilemma – as with all our competitors – is finding more women to come and work in construction, at all levels.”

“The national gender pay gap has fallen significantly under this government – and by approximately a quarter in the last decade, with 1.9 million more women in work than in 2010

Former prime minister Theresa May described the gender pay gap as a “burning injustice” that “mars our society”, when her government introduced compulsory reporting in 2018. She said the gap ought to be closed within a generation.

The government says things are moving in the right direction. According to a spokesperson for its Equality Hub, “the national gender pay gap has fallen significantly under this government – and by approximately a quarter in the last decade, with 1.9 million more women in work than in 2010. This is a result of this government enacting legislation for the right to flexible working, shared parental leave and pay – including a new online tool to check eligibility – and doubling free childcare for eligible working parents.”

Even as construction-sector employers strive to reduce gender pay gaps, a further complication is looming. “You could say that gender pay-gap reporting, aka male and female reporting, is slightly out of date now,” says Ellis. “We should be looking at all genders – non-binary as well. Should it be wider than just male and female reporting?”

Compulsory pay-gap reporting

Regulations imposed in 2017 under the Equality Act 2010 mean that all employers with 250 or more staff must report their gender pay gap by law. Failure to do so may lead to enforcement action by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, including public naming and shaming, and ultimately an unlimited fine if convicted.

Reports must publish mean and median pay gaps between men and women, divided into four quarters, from the highest paid to the lowest paid. This division into four groups is intended to provide finer detail about how the overall pay gap breaks down within the organisation’s hierarchy.

The government is due to carry out a review of the regulations this year.

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