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FEATURE: Want to close the gender pay gap? Tell employees how much each role earns

Joseph Flaig

(Credit: This is Engineering)
(Credit: This is Engineering)

“It’s totally unclear”; “I am embarrassed”; “it’s cultural”; “I worry about how people will perceive me if I do make a fuss.”

There are many blocks to discussing pay with your colleagues and managers. It is a difficult topic to raise, and you might not be happy with what you hear.

Yet transparency around salaries is one of the most important steps a firm can take to reduce the gender pay gap, says a new report from the Royal Academy of Engineering. According to Closing the engineering pay gap – which includes the above comments from surveyed women – female engineers earn a mean 10.8% less than male engineers, a median of 11.4%.

Those figures are about two-thirds the national average, but that should not distract from serious ongoing issues for women in engineering. Few enter the profession, many drop out of it early and hardly any are promoted to senior roles. The workforce is about 12% female.

Attempts to increase the number of girls and women joining are “disappointingly slow”, says an announcement for the new research, which was produced with equality campaign group Wise. Retaining existing employees and reducing the pay gap could help overcome that and encourage more young engineers. Other than introducing transparent pay structures and grades, the report also recommends reviewing promotion criteria and introducing flexible working options for senior roles.

Data used in the paper is an “indicative sample” from 25 companies already working with the academy’s diversity and inclusion forum, says co-author Jonathan Lyle to Professional Engineering, so they might be “more enlightened or more progressive” than average. The data – from firms ranging in size from a few hundred employees up to over 5,000 – nonetheless includes pay information on almost 42,000 engineers.

Underrepresentation of women in senior roles is the single largest cause of the gender pay gap, the report says. Factors that contributed most are career level (40%), type of employer (12%), age (6%) and annual revenue of employers (5%). Just 9% of engineers in the top career grade were female and women accounted for only 8% of those in the upper pay quartile. But could that change if companies opened up on pay?

Negotiating under pressure

“The biggest impact on all those issues is transparency,” said co-author and Wise chief executive Helen Wollaston. “When we looked at… those organisations that have published salary ranges as well as pay grades for those salary ranges, their engineering gender pay gap was 75% smaller than those who did not. If you do one thing and you want to make an impact, I would recommend looking at transparent pay grading.”

While the gender pay gap reveals a clear difference in the average wages of male and female engineers, half of the women who were surveyed for the report did not know if there was a gap between their own pay and their male colleagues. They expressed a lack of confidence in negotiating pay, which was not mentioned at all by male engineers.

Sharing pay data with employees can remove the pressure on women to negotiate their own pay by setting out principles that are understood by everyone – and open to scrutiny.

Although it can be very effective, Lyle tells Professional Engineering he is wary of companies being forced to comply. The deputy chairman of the academy’s diversity and inclusion committee says: “Despite speaking as a former civil servant, one is always nervous of anything that is mandated. The government has put in place a legal framework that already obliges companies to publish their data, it also obliges companies to publish a report on what they are doing, and by no means all companies do that.”

Even when firms do publish reports, Lyle says they often reveal an unwillingness to act or a reliance on excuses such as ‘macho’ working cultures left over from prior heavy industry.

“It’s been quite enlightening to see how few are really gripping the issue,” he says. “Often you look at gender pay gap reports and they are doing this outward stuff, which is worthy and essential but is not sufficient. It’s that looking in the mirror and saying, ‘What needs to happen within the company… to enable women to progress to those more senior, more fulfilling, more influential and rewarding roles?’”

Skills shortage

The onus is on businesses to change. Thankfully the academy’s report launch yesterday (28 January) was packed with representatives from some of the most important companies and organisations in the country, including Thales, Bosch, Rolls-Royce, Imperial College London, Transport for London, EasyJet, BP, Network Rail, Airbus, the Royal Air Force, HS2, Arup, Leonardo and BAE Systems.

The report authors urged attendees to go back to work and ask questions – “Does my organisation have a clear and transparent pay and progression policy?” for example, or “How serious is my new or current employer about really understanding and closing the gender pay gap?”

Speakers also clarified that the aim is not just equality for equality’s sake.

“It also needs to be addressed because it makes good business sense,” said Victoria Atkins, Minister for Women – or “Half the Population”, as she prefers – at the event. “The UK will need 59,000 engineers per year to address the current skills shortage. We must therefore encourage highly-skilled women and men to stay in the sector.”

Sitting in a packed hall of engineers and executives, it felt that real effort could help close the pay gap – and prevent the embarrassment and anxieties that arise when discussing salaries.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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