The Woman Problem
by Rachel Sandbrook
It is a lack of women, and in particular a lack of women at senior leadership level.
Try looking up an engineering consultancy’s website at random. Go to
the ‘people’ page. Count up the relative number of male headshots to
female. Try not to feel disheartened. Now filter by ‘Director’ or
‘Partner’. Try not to cry. And whatever you do, don’t, please don’t –
try the same test on the website of any major construction sector
contractor. You really will wish you hadn’t.
Overall, women in construction can expect to earn 76p for every £1
earned by their male counterparts. Noting that the gender pay gap
increases markedly with employee age, one can hardly be surprised that
women don’t bother to stick around.
But why should the construction industry care if there is a gender disparity? Sure it’s not fair, but does it really matter? Buildings have been being built for thousands of years without the benefit of an underlying gender equality. Why am I so bothered?
I’ll tell you why. Because I have not even the shadow of a doubt that the construction sector would be a far, far better place if it was represented by a balance of genders, not to mention a generally far more diverse cross section of society. I think a gender balance will have a profound impact on how the construction sector will function; on behaviours, attitudes and aspirations at every level.
At Engenuiti, we are seeking to tackle this issue through a range of measures. For a start, we are seeking to get more women through the door. At first, we thought that to do this, we would need to actively implement a policy of positive discrimination. And then something brilliant seemed to happen. We wrote a couple of articles on our website about gender equality. And excellent female candidates started applying for graduate jobs with us. We took on three (out of three) female graduates last year and will take two (out of three) female graduates this Autumn. And that’s simply because five of the best six candidates have been women.
As the number of women engineers we employ grows, our task is then to find ways of making those women want to stay. We are doing this by creating a level-playing-field culture with good access to flexible working arrangements and better parental leave support, regardless of gender. The trick (we think) is in creating a culture that enables women to balance career and family, and integral to that is the need to create a world in which men can achieve that balance too. That way, the process of having children doesn’t disproportionately penalise women’s careers. We also have an annual company-wide salary review process, through which we set individuals’ pay levels on the basis of a fair across-the-board appraisal. This removes the need for salary negotiations, which have been shown to work consistently in the favour of men.
Of course we aren’t there yet: we’re not even close. But if we can be one of dozens of practices who are just steadily adjusting the balance; by valuing, encouraging, celebrating and promoting our female employees, we can be originators of what ultimately can and should become a revolution. And given that it is 100 years since women finally got the vote, and the construction sector gender pay gap STILL stands at more than 20%, a revolution is absolutely what we need.