SPOTLIGHT: How can engineering-related firms close the gender pay gap?

Joseph Flaig

(Credit: Shutterstock)
(Credit: Shutterstock)

For every £1 that men earn at James Frew, women make only 38p.

But despite the huge gender pay gap at the building, maintenance and renewable technology firm, it is far from unique.

More than 10,000 UK companies were required to release information on their pay levels by April’s deadline, and PE’s analysis discovered 72 engineering-related businesses that pay men at least 35% more on average than women.

Manufacturer Masco UK Window Group is one of them. Vice-president Steve Forbes said there were two reasons for the 49.9% gap in mean pay, one being that most job applications came from men. 

The other was that “we struggle to offer flexibility when it comes to hours, as the machines and lines have to run”.

Flexible working hours are often seen as being most important for mothers caring for young children. However, Peter Finegold, head of education policy at the IMechE, said the approach could have more widespread benefits and reduce the pay gap. “The most vital change that could be made to reduce the pay disparity is for employers to improve access to flexible working practices for both men and women from day one of employment,” he said.

“Research carried out for HSBC showed that flexible working in manufacturing was ranked as more desirable than being paid more money. According to this research, more creative deployment of staff could lead to increased productivity all round.”

The Women’s Engineering Society said companies must learn from the revelations by removing barriers and allowing women to flourish. 

“I wouldn’t want to bash all these companies for discovering this issue,” the society’s vice-president Sarah Peers told PE. “It is how they learn from it and how they react to it… so they don’t put barriers to diversity throughout their organisations.”

Pay gaps would be smaller and less common if female engineers hired in the past 10-20 years were given more opportunities to progress, she added. 

“There is a problem of progression to higher-level roles. If they had progressed at the same level, we shouldn’t be seeing a negative pay gap.” 

The online data also revealed the average differences in bonus pay, frequently showing that men make more on top of their standard wages. 

Skill levels vary

Of the 10 engineering companies with large gender pay gaps that we contacted, six, including James Frew, failed to respond. Mark Slattery, media manager at BAM Construct, highlighted potential issues with reducing the firm’s 46.9% pay gap. 

“Ironically, the fastest way to reduce the pay gap would be to take on more men in lower-paid roles,” he said. “That’s not the right thing to do because it would mean deliberately employing fewer women.”

He added: “We treat genders fairly. The reporting requirement is not about whether people are treated equally or fairly. It reflects the mix of roles within any company and the comparative numbers of each gender in those roles.”

The spokesman said the company, which specialises in sustainable buildings, has a large facilities management business with many “lesser-skilled” roles such as cooks, helpdesk staff and cleaners. He added: “The crux is – what lies behind the numbers? What kind of employer are you? We are always trying to be better at this, but we don’t think the headline number is any reflection of our employment ratings. In every independent assessment of employers that we’ve entered, we’ve performed strongly.”

Survitec, which makes survival and safety equipment for the marine, defence and aviation sectors, said it would continue to offer flexible working options for mothers to avoid them leaving the workforce, and that it has many women employed in manufacturing roles. 

HR director Russell Goodenough also highlighted the group’s work in encouraging women to progress to senior levels and in promoting STEM in schools. 

However, the company refused to say if it would take additional steps to actively reduce its 58.6% gender pay gap. 

Goodenough said: “Due to the nature of our business, we have a large percentage of manufacturing roles which have traditionally been occupied by females – reflective of society and the sector itself. But, as with every position we recruit for, all staff are appointed on being the most suitable fit for the role, and we will continue to adopt this approach at all levels.”

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

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