Mind the (pay) gap: how to get more women into senior engineering roles | Engineering careers

Engineering’s gender pay gap is a third lower than for the UK economy as a whole and is much less severe than some had feared, according to recent research published by the Royal Academy of Engineering. But narrowing the gap will take many years and it is likely to get worse before it gets better.

The gender pay gap is the difference in average hourly earnings between men and women across an organisation, profession or the economy. The median gender pay gap in UK engineering is 11.4%, according to the study. This compares favourably with a gap of 17.3% for all UK workers.

Pay discrimination for equal work is illegal and women should receive similar pay to men at all levels of employment. What the gender pay gap reflects is the low number of women in highly paid senior positions in engineering. This is partly down to the small numbers of women entering the profession – just 12% of engineers in the report’s sample are female – but also the fact that many miss out on promotions to the highest paid jobs after taking career breaks to have children.

Helen Wollaston, chief executive of Wise, which campaigns for gender equality in science and engineering and which helped research the report, says: “The actual figure for the gender pay gap is not the most important thing. What’s important are the underlying reasons for that gap.” And she adds: “The gender pay gap is a symptom of unequal opportunities and an unequally gendered labour market.”

One way of reducing the gap is by promoting more women to senior positions in engineering. But first, businesses need to expand the recruitment of women engineers at entry-level and bring in higher numbers of graduate recruits and apprentices to feed the pipeline of senior executives. Paradoxically, this has the effect of reducing the average pay for women across an organisation and thus increasing the gender pay gap. This has occurred at Network Rail, which has seen its gender pay gap tick up slightly precisely because it has hired more female engineering graduates and apprentices.

As Loraine Martins, head of diversity and inclusion at Network Rail, says: “We want to make sure that we’ve got more women in our business and the way that we can do that is through apprenticeships and through our graduate scheme, because that is the area where we have volume recruitment.”

She adds: “We are concerned that we get more senior women in the organisation, and retain women because it is one thing to recruit them and another thing to make sure that they are happy and want to stay in the business.” Over time, she believes such approaches will lead to greater numbers of senior female engineers and eventually reduce the pay gap.

An important factor widening the gender pay gap is that men tend to be represented more strongly in some of the profession’s higher paid sectors. These include fields such as electrical engineering and those where there is a skills shortage, such as software engineering. Encouraging more women into these areas could help redress the balance.

Most observers agree that engineering companies which are state-controlled or recently privatised have a better record on gender representation and women’s pay. Equally, having strong trade union representation is usually associated with more equal conditions for women engineers.

Perhaps surprisingly, there can also be a pay gap in favour of women in some engineering firms. This is the case at one aviation business, which employs many men in lower-paid technical jobs on the shop floor while women tend to work in better-paid office-based managerial roles. 

This is not the norm, however, and the Royal Academy of Engineering report outlines a series of steps that organisations should take to reduce the gender pay gap. Most importantly, they need to collect data about women’s pay to understand the factors driving the pay gap. They should measure pay rises over the years for women and men to identify differences and try to reduce them. It may be that women are less forceful in demanding pay rises than men. They are also more likely to work part-time as they manage caring roles or return after maternity leave, which means they may be less likely to receive bonuses. These imbalances need addressing. The report also recommends greater transparency in pay grades so staff understand the standard pay for different roles. 

SeeMe is an interactive; curriculum-linked stage show created by Siemens and BBC science presenter Fran Scott. The show explores ground-breaking contributions to science; technology engineering and maths (STEM); taking the audience on a journey into the world of STEM with captivating live stage experiments.
SeeMe is an interactive, curriculum-linked stage show created by Siemens which encourages pupils to study Stem subjects

Harriet Padina, diversity and inclusion community manager at the engineering company Siemens UK, says the company is undertaking many of the steps outlined to iron out the gender pay gap. Another measure it launched five years ago was the SeeMe project, a stage show for schools encouraging pupils to study Stem subjects.

The 13-year-olds who saw it in that first year are just about finishing school now. “They’re not working for Siemens yet,” says Padina. “This is a long-term approach.”

Since mandatory gender pay gap reporting was introduced in 2017, all firms must research and publish data on differences in average pay. This may be a blunt instrument for measuring women’s professional progress, but it has had some positive effects. The issue of gender inequality has gained greater salience. Many engineering firms report that women ask about the pay gap and working conditions for women at job interviews.

The gender pay gap is likely to continue for many years to come. But the measures taken to attract more women into engineering and promote them to senior positions should eventually result in greater pay equality.

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