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Gender pay gap data: the blunt instrument that could smash architecture’s glass pyramid

Gender pay gap 4
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While some have rushed to discredit the newly published pay gap data, others welcome the way it has got men talking about the issue in the boardroom. Ella Jessel reports

‘Women architects are seriously good value for money,’ quipped Tatiana von Preussen of vPPR as the UK’s largest architectural firms coughed up their gender pay gap data.

The average difference between median hourly earnings of male and female staff of the 11 architecture practices big enough (250-plus staff) to be compelled to disclose their pay gap information under the government’s new law was 16.3 per cent.

Although slightly better than the national average of 18 per cent – a figure Theresa May called a ‘burning injustice’ that needed to be rectified – many firms fared badly. Stride Treglown posted a 28.7 per cent median gap while there were 25.5 per cent and 24.3 per cent differences at BDP and Pick Everard respectively.

The data tells me the median man in a practice is paid more than the median woman, but I don’t know whether the median man has more experience

Bruce Tether, Alliance Manchester Business School

But the apparently dispiriting figures have been sidelined by a wider debate focusing more on what the data does not tell us. Many firms have rushed to clarify that, as Foster + Partners stressed at the top of its report, the gender pay gap is ‘not an equal pay issue’. 

Unequal pay, when men and women are paid differently for the same work – an injustice the 2017 Women in Architecture survey revealed was widespread – is a separate issue, they explained.

Not only was the term ‘pay gap’ confusing, critics said, but so were the data sets the government exercise produced. Many criticised the methods as ‘imperfect’ and dismissed the reporting as a ‘shaming tool’ that gives little insight into a complex wider picture. So is the pay-gap methodology really the best way to measure salary imbalance? And if the data does not shine a true light on pay discrimination, what does it tell us? 

PracticeNumber of employeesPercentage female architects  Median pay gap (lower)Mean pay gap (lower)
Allford Hall Monaghan Morris 341 35%* 12.3% 23.6%
Allies and Morrison 284* 43% 10.5% 15.8%
BDP 772* 27%* 25.5% 29.5%
Foster + Partners 1425 35% 10.5% 23.8%
Hawkins\Brown 246* 38%* 2.6% 9.6%
Pick Everard 452* 20%* 24.3% 21.1%
PRP 266* 38%* 21% 19%
Sheppard Robson 342* 31%* 10.9% 11%
Stride Treglown 327* 26% 28.7% 23.4%
TP Bennett 299* 24%* 12.8% 17.9%
Zaha Hadid 310 37%* 19.6% 20.9%

*Based on data from AJ100 2017

‘Noisy’ data

The gender pay gap data is ‘noisy in more ways than one’, according to analyst Bruce Tether, professor at Manchester University’s Alliance Manchester Business School. Not only has it created a cacophony of arguments but it is difficult to decipher what the figures are really telling us. 

As regards the methods, the median pay gap reveals the difference in pay between the middle man and the middle woman in a line-up, by salary, of a firm’s staff, while – explains Tether – the mean measure is less useful as it is easily skewed by a few high-earning staff members. 

The real problem is that data does not reveal ‘any systemic bias’, Tether says. ‘It tells me that the median man in a practice is paid something between 10 to 30 per cent more than the median woman, but I don’t know anything about whether the median man has more experience.’

Tether says the data would have shown us more if it had taken key variables about a practice’s employee, including their age and qualifications, and compared it with the nearest person of the opposite gender at the same firm.

A further problem with the data is that, under the government’s rules, practices set up as limited liability partnerships (LLPs) are not required to include partner pay as they are not technically employees. Four firms, all with comparatively low pay gaps – Hawkins\Brown (2.6 per cent) Sheppard Robson (10.9 per cent), Allies and Morrison (10.5 per cent) and TP Bennett (12.8 per cent) – have confirmed this was the case with their figures. 

Asked if the exercise was useful, Tether says: ‘Well, maybe. [The data can be] a bit embarrassing and probably, in that sense it focuses attention on the issue. But it’s a bit like taking a sledgehammer and throwing it around.’

Shaming tool

Stride Treglown chairman David Hunter admits the practice initially felt ‘vilified’ when it published its median pay gap of 28.7 per cent – the highest among the 11 architects compelled to publish their figures. 

‘We railed against it being a blunt instrument and felt there was far more to it than the headline numbers,’ he says. 

We railed against it being a blunt instrument … but sometimes you do need a blunt instrument to make the difference

David Hunter, chairman, Stride Treglown

For Hunter, explaining some of the contributing factors to the outside world – a low staff turnover and offices in regions with different labour markets such as Truro and Cardiff – felt ‘defensive’, and ultimately led to a change of heart. 

‘I became reconciled to the fact that sometimes you do need a blunt instrument to make the difference,’ he says.

Hunter says Stride Treglown is committed to levelling out the playing field, adding that he would welcome a move by the RIBA to ask practices of all sizes to submit their pay gaps. 

The institute has already published its figures voluntarily, as has president Ben Derbyshire’s practice HTA Design, while Purcell and AHR have pledged to follow suit.

But others say the government’s ‘name and shame’ approach does not reflect the wider issues in the industry. 

HLM managing director Karen Mosley says: ‘There are many complex elements that contribute to the gender pay gap and the results from the broad-brush approach, while raising awareness, don’t reflect that.’ 

Mosley argues that rather than focusing on ‘headlining stats’ that do not show the whole picture, more needs to be done to encourage women into architecture from an early age as well as bringing about a ‘culture change’ focusing on output rather than office hours.

Gill Parker, chief executive of BDG, also believes the data is ‘misleading’ but thinks it has succeeded in getting firms’ attention, with men now ‘talking about gender pay gaps in the boardroom’. She says more needs to be done to retain women when they reach senior level. 

015 paygap ajw 180426

015 paygap ajw 180426


But most agree that what the results reveal is how the UK’s top architectural firms are set up, with highly paid men at the top and women somewhere underneath. The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) describes this hierarchy as a ‘glass pyramid’ – it is ‘transparent and clear to all, yet it’s still rigid and hard to break through.’ 

A glance at the UK’s three largest practices shows there is a long way to go. Foster + Partners, which says its pay gap is ‘due to us having more men, with longer service, in senior, higher-paid roles’ has just 20 per cent female staff in its top pay quartile, compared with 35 per cent overall. Zaha Hadid Architects has 21.8 per cent female staff among its higher paid staff while BDP has just 17.1 of women in the top quartile.

The generation gap excuse is a cop-out. That’s saying that the younger generation will come along and sort it out

Tatiana von Preussen, vPPR

As to why men still dominate at the top, many point to the ‘generation gap’ – the fact that while more women are entering the industry, they are not yet experienced enough to promote. 

Jo Bacon, managing partner at Allies and Morrison, says: ‘When I began my Part 2, fewer than one in five of my fellow Part 2s were women; today, half are. In the future we should expect the gap to close – and with today’s push towards a more transparent and joined-up approach, hopefully that process will accelerate.’ 

Industry must ‘step up’

But von Preussen, whose London-based practice is composed entirely of women, says the ‘generation gap’ excuse from the industry is not good enough. ‘I think that’s a cop-out,’ she says. ‘That’s saying that the younger generation will come along and sort it out. To have change, you have to make change happen.’

She calls the pay gap ‘shocking’, adding: ‘It is unacceptable. Even if you take into account [the data’s] bluntness, architecture has a massive, massive gap.’ 

Von Preussen, who co-won Emerging Architect of the Year at the AJ’s Women in Architecture Awards in 2015, says the cost of childcare is the ‘crux’ of the matter. 

But she adds: ‘I don’t think it’s about women choosing [to have children]. I think it’s about men choosing not to take up the slack and it being culturally still not acceptable for men to do childcare.’ 

CMI head of research and advocacy Patrick Woodman warns there is a tendency to ‘explain away’ the pay gap. 

‘The gender pay gap is a hugely contentious issue – one that many denounce as a myth or just the product of free choice,’ he says. ‘Yet we know discrimination is widespread and has an adverse effect on the career progress of women.’ 

It is frustrating to finally have all this information published and then be told it’s not big or important

Abigail Patel, student and RIBA Council member 

He adds that there is a ‘yawning gulf’ between the corporate rhetoric and reality of work for too many women. 

‘Employers outwardly say they have good intentions,’ he says, ‘yet CMI’s own research highlights that just one in four managers say that their peers and senior leaders actively champion gender diversity initiatives.’

MArch student and RIBA Council member Abigail Patel says the industry needs to ‘step up’, and provide ‘action plans, not words’. She recommends practices take a look at the NHS’s pay scales and its Women on Boards target of 50:50 by 2020. 

‘I’ve seen people discussing the “so-called gender pay gap” – it is frustrating to finally have all this information published and then be told it’s not big or important,’ she says, adding: ‘To downplay it is a smack in face. There is not that feeling coming out of the industry that this needs to change.’

Patel says young people from different backgrounds need role models to ‘see themselves at the top’, adding: ‘I’m in my early 20s … what I see is that at the top are men. I’m also mixed race and I don’t see people like me at a high level.’

The government’s pay gap reporting might be a blunt instrument – ‘a sledgehammer’ even – but could it be capable of smashing glass pyramids? 

‘How else are you going to get anyone to change anything?’ asks von Preussen. ’Yes, it’s a shaming tool, but [the pay gap] is shameful. Sitting back and saying it’s going to iron itself out – that’s not going to happen.’

Comment: ‘We should follow Ford’s example’

Teresa borsuk

Teresa Borsuk, senior partner, Pollard Thomas Edwards

We have just calculated our gender pay gap. (As a company of fewer than 250 employees, we are not required to.) Our pay gap is in single figures. The target is no pay gap. 

The gender pay gap is not a measure of equality or equal pay. It is the difference in the hourly earnings and bonus payments of male and female employees during one pay period. The reporting is dealt with in quartiles, with hourly rates organised in order, noting the percentage ratio of males to females. The pay gap is expressed as a proportion of men’s earnings. Where, for example, the gender pay gap is 30 per cent, for every £100 earned by a man, a woman would earn £70.

The UK is one of the first countries to introduce gender pay gap reporting, but Britain has one of the widest pay gaps in Europe. Of the 10,000 employers that have participated, the results have revealed an average median gender pay gap of between 14 per cent and 18 per cent (depending on the source). Some sectors fare better than others.

The gender pay gap essentially gauges your workforce profile. Broadly, if you have more women in higher-paid positions your overall gender pay gap will be lower.

So, has the exercise been helpful? Publishing the data is a start. The results may not yet be fully understood but they have certainly attracted attention and some reputations are ruffled. 

The reporting is an annual obligation, so one can hope that this in itself is an incentive for change and that the priority will be to ensure that subsequent years’ results show improvement. 

As with all statistics, there may be quick fixes that help improve the figures – but these will probably be flawed and short-lived. The aim is to create a more equal and gender-balanced workforce across and at all levels of an organisation. Meaningful solutions need a full understanding of what lies behind the numbers and that will take time.

I take heart from motor company Ford of Britain. Its gender pay gap report shows both its median and mean pay gaps to favour women. There are more female employees in its upper pay quartile than the other three quartiles. 

Ford certainly seems to be paying attention to equality of opportunity and has evidently made significant progress. Remember that only 50 years ago, nearly 200 female employees walked out of the Ford Motor Company plant in Dagenham, realising that they were being paid less than men doing the same level of work (persuasively preserved in the film Made in Dagenham). Their strike ultimately led to the passing of the 1970s Equal Pay Act. 

As a manufacturing and process-orientated company, Ford likes metrics. They’re ingrained in how it operates. It believes that measuring things makes a difference and ultimately changes behaviour and culture. A heading in its 2017 gender pay gap report reads ‘Go Further’. Now that’s encouraging. 

This article was published in the Health and Wellbeing issue

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