Whitby Wood speaks out

Mind the Pay Gap … is openness the key to closing it?

First published by The Structural Engineer, June 2023
I was recently contacted by The Structural Engineer, which was intrigued by the fact that our small (but perfectly formed) practice publishes its gender pay gap analysis. In the UK, companies with over 250 employees are required by law to publish pay gap data, but we aren’t that big and yet we had. Why, I was asked, would we do this?

I guess my immediate answer was: why on earth wouldn’t we? Why wouldn’t any company do so? Apparently, there are still people who don’t understand why it is important to show that you pay women and men equally. I feel that by now this should be too obvious to need explaining, and for many readers I hope it will be. For those who are still in doubt, here goes.

Why equality matters

Pay isn’t just about being able to buy stuff and live. It indicates your worth in other people’s eyes, your status and — importantly — a self-sense of fairness, of a level playing field and of equal opportunity to succeed in your career and achieve your life goals.

If you think a game, a company or a whole industry is rigged against you, or even might be rigged against you, would you play or join? Would you put your entire life’s work, your achievements and your ability to earn into the hands of some (hopefully) benevolent, (probably) male leader who decides to give you a fair crack of the whip? Or would you try your luck somewhere else?

The strength of my reaction to the magazine’s question made me think about what got me so worked up — about why it felt so personal. I have three sisters and two brothers, plus five children of my own: three female, two male. The gender distribution of my wider family — much like humanity overall — is also roughly 50:50. Gender equality was part of the bedrock of my upbringing.

“We publish our pay gap analysis to show my (and your) sisters and daughters that they have as good a chance of succeeding as our brothers and sons.”

Then I went to school and university, which is where things started to look a bit odd. My all-boys school was mixed in the sixth form (to get the university grade averages up?), while at university, although the gender split was representative overall, my course was almost entirely male. From this environment, I went on to a career as an engineer and immediately seemed to have re-entered my school: where had all the women gone? To me it just felt — and feels — weird.

Weird… and stupid. Stupid because when women are missing, we’re all missing out on at least half the ideas, the skills and the talents available to us, and which our industry badly needs. Stupid because (if we need it to be proven), study after study shows diversity equals success.

We live in an age defined by gigantic, worldwide, endemic challenges: widening inequality; climate and ecological breakdown; an energy and resource supply crisis — to name but a few. Yet the industry that literally builds societies apparently doesn’t need (or want?) to double the ideas or skills available to solve these challenges: the ideas and skills provided by half of humanity. That attitude simply doesn’t make sense to me.

As I found at university and then at work, it’s almost a trope that the profession of structural engineering is overwhelmingly male. Because men make up the vast majority of the profession, all the more so when it comes to leadership, it must surely be up to us — to men — to sort out the continuing imbalance.

I don’t think it’s acceptable to expect the minority to come up with the answers, to fight their way into the industry and, when they do, to continue to battle against endemic inequality at every stage of their career. Yet, tiringly, I hear the same excuses time and again: ‘I want to see more women in the industry but there aren’t enough attracted/retained/skilled …’. But apparently demonstrating equal pay isn’t important to solving this.

Our experience

As well as publishing our pay gap data (showing a mean pay gap of 11% and a median gap of 0%), we have instigated a number of equality-related initiatives, including name- and gender-blind CV reviews (the jury’s out on how successful this has been: the first time we did it, we picked all males), what we believe is an industry-first equality respect clause in our contracts and, we think, the best maternity and paternity policy in UK engineering.

All these things have triggered a number of subtle but direction-changing impacts on our practice. It has given staff licence to talk; not just about sexual inequality but about much more besides. Freely. It has triggered open employee discussion on the work we do and who we work with, how staff are treated and what we should do about it.

We have found we need to understand much more about the specific conditions that mean some companies successfully recruit and retain their female staff and some companies lose them.

At Whitby Wood, our pay gap and gender split are pretty good (relatively speaking) until the senior levels, where we are seriously lopsided. Good women have left us. Some have joined other engineering practices, but most have left to go into project management and property related finance.

Among other things, they have cited a desire for more breadth in outlook. Would we become broader if we had a 50:50 board? Possibly. Or do we need to re-broaden engineering? It’s also about money: project management can give higher salaries quicker.

“It has opened our eyes to how little we know and how much more there is to discover.”

This is tough stuff, but we are hard at it trying different things to keep our women and attract others at a senior level. Most of all for me, though, it has opened our eyes to how little we know and how much more there is to discover. In our efforts to see Whitby Wood become an exemplary place of work, I don’t deny that there are complexities to tackle, and that to actually shift the dial and get our practice to 50:50 may be far harder for us than we at first realised.

For a start, we need to have a working assumption that because we have a predominantly male board (all but one) we probably are unconsciously biased. It doesn’t make us bad but it is real, and in itself probably makes the goal of a 50:50 gender split all the harder to reach. As humans, we tend to do more of what we know, and where change is required — as it is in gender equality — this tendency can stop you being the best.

At Whitby Wood, that’s not good enough for us: we’re determined to change the mindset, and that begins by making whatever changes we can and following where they lead.

So, back to the question I was asked: we publish our pay gap analysis to show my (and your) sisters and daughters that if they enter our profession, they have as good a chance of succeeding as our brothers and sons. Every single company, however large or small, should publish theirs, too. And I suspect that if we all did, it would open the door to the kind of discussion our industry needs — to changes in thinking and changes in practice so that, in time we wouldn’t have such a problem with numbers of women to choose from.