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Mind the Gap!

The ICE’s latest survey shows women still earn less than men and many leave the industry early. Could flexible working be the answer? Jessica Rowson reports.

Wolf-whistling builders and old boys’ networks may not be as prevalent in the construction industry as they once were, but the latest ICE salary survey highlights a disturbing salary gender gap and a shortage of women coming up through the ranks (News last week).

ICE’s latest survey showed that female members earn 32% less than their male counterparts, while starting salaries of female graduates are around £1,000 lower on average. The survey makes for shocking reading, but it doesn’t really tell you enough to be conclusive.

The greater number of men in contracting, which offers higher wages, could account for the differences in the starting salaries. And the age spread of female MICE could go some way to explaining the salary gap higher up the ladder: more than 20% of engineers under 30 are women, yet fewer than 5% of engineers over 45 are women.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that any company would be so foolish as to pay its employees different amounts based on gender. Women are reported to be surpassing men at school, the number of female engineering graduates is increasing and they are highly valued by their employers.

One area where women differ from their male counterparts is that at some point, they may have children and take around nine months of maternity leave, often followed by a request for flexible working. Women now have a much more level playing field, but some employers still make general assumptions about women of child-bearing age.

A number of female engineers admitted to NCE that they did have concerns about the assumptions people might make about them and what would happen to their career if they became pregnant.

"The older you get, the more nervous people are that you will run away and have babies,"
says one.

"Once you say you are pregnant, you have six months of being given rubbish [work], as it’s in nobody’s interest to have you involved and leave. Then, when it comes to pay reviews, you are assessed on the work you have done, without taking into account the quality of the work you have been given to do."

One engineer who has recently returned to work after taking time off to raise a family explains her worries about how it may affect her career.

"The part-time jobs offered to me were at a level that was lower down the scale than what I was doing before, which left me disappointed. I am concerned that working part-time will lower the number of opportunities I am given to develop my career."

A seemingly common mistake employers make is to think parttime workers are working just to make ends meet. They can be just as keen as the next person to progress up the career ladder, and can be happy to go the extra mile in response to an employer looking to adapt to their needs.

Sarah Buck, president of the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE), is director and co-founder of consultant BSW and has also raised a family.

"I’ve always felt welcomed and encouraged in the industry," she says. "The only glass ceiling was when I was working part-time. There was an assumption that I wouldn’t be wanting promotion. It wasn’t intentional, but I think they didn’t realise. When I then started up on my own, people realised I had ambition.

"With the appraisal system that operates in most companies today, there is more of an opportunity to say what you want to do," she adds.

She emphasises that it is important to sit down with your employer and work out what is best for both of you. However, it can be one thing to sit down with an existing employer and negotiate fl exible working, but another to re-enter the job market on a part-time basis.

Many seeking part-time work struggle their way though job adverts dominated by full-time posts.

"The majority of adverts are for full-time positions," says one engineer. "I’d be applying for a full-time position and obviously I wouldn’t be the person they were looking for."

A spokesman for Hays Consulting Engineering says about 10-20% of the female candidates who come to them
looking for engineering jobs want flexible or part-time working.

"The ease with which they can be placed depends on several factors, including the requirements of the role they are looking for," says a spokesman.

"The number of days they are looking to work is also a factor. For example, placing somebody who is looking to work four days a week would generally be easier to accommodate than somebody who is looking for fewer days."

With more women entering the industry, attitudes towards job-sharing will have to change if a critical shortage of project engineers in their mid-thirties is to be avoided. Currently few part-time jobs are advertised, but, potentially, many full-time jobs could be done by a jobshare.

Companies moan they can’t find the staff , but adverts targeted at job-sharing could go some way to plugging the gap.

"What is needed is more flexibility in the industry," says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster

"Employers have to be motivated to want to offer flexible working, but as there is such a shortage of engineers
at the moment, they need to be looking at how to offer flexible working for senior positions, not just on an ethical basis but
because they need more engineers."

Women are breaking through the glass ceiling. There are now women of the baby-boom generation who are at the top of their careers and coming through to top positions. There is a female president at IStructE and towards the end of this year there will be one at ICE (current senior vice president Jean Venables). Both providing inspiration to female engineers starting out.

"There are female trailblazers who have made it to the top – Jean Venables is a great example – and you think there’s no reason this generation can’t do the same," says Ruth Hopgood, graduate ICE council member and engineer at Expedition Engineering.

"As a graduate engineer I have not perceived a glass ceiling," she adds. "It does seem, however, that the higher paid
jobs in the construction industry are still predominantly occupied by males, but I think this balance is shifting."

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