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Are women architects really earning more than men?

Brian Green

The gender pay gap is certainly narrowing, but the picture is complicated and the big bucks still tend to gravitate to the blokes

Go to the Office for National Statistics website, seek out ‘Gender pay gap in the UK: 2018’ then scroll down the page to ‘Figure 5: Explore the gender pay gap by occupation, UK, April 2018’ and choose ‘Architects’ as the occupation.

What do you find?

Let’s save you the bother of looking it up. It says for all employees: ‘Women are paid 1.8% more than men’.

Now there’s something you probably didn’t expect.

Certainly, it would have been a shock to find that a few years ago. You only need to go back to 2016 to find the gender pay gap for architects was 9% in favour of men, though it closed to 4.4% last year.

This all looks like a huge success story. And, indeed, it is not just the ONS Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) that shows a closing of the gender pay gap for architects. The annual RIBA/Fees Bureau Architects Employment & Earnings Survey found similar patterns.

For the past 10 years or so it has found a gender gap among private practice salaried architects of between 7% and 10% in favour of men. This year’s survey found a gap of 2% in favour of women.

Given the significant effort put in by institutions to improve gender pay parity, you might be forgiven for thinking ‘job done’. Sadly, it’s not that simple.

Before exploring the nuances in the data, it’s a good idea to see how pay is moving for architects overall. The wider context matters when trying to understand changes in the headline measure of the gender pay gap. Furthermore, as any HR expert will tell you, while upward pay inflation can bring problems it also brings more scope to realign pay without people taking a nominal cut.

Chart 1
Chart 1

Chart 1 shows the trend in average earnings. For reference, these are the mean average, so they may poorly reflect pay rises to individuals if the mix of employed architects shifts. But on this showing the annual earnings among architects is averaging about £45,000 to £46,000, with most earning less and some earning quite a bit more.

The first point to note is on the comparison between RIBA and ASHE figures. Both start and end at a very similar place, but the RIBA data suggests a dip in nominal earnings from 2009 to 2018 whereas ASHE suggests earnings remained flat. My gut feeling would be to favour the RIBA survey given it has a bigger sample.

Both show that when inflation (and we’ve taken Consumer Price Index here) is accounted for, average earnings have fallen a lot – somewhere above 15%. What’s more, earnings in real terms are down since 2013 over a period of significant growth in workloads.

There are at least a couple of points to make about this. Firstly, while there may be more work about, earnings of architectural practices took a real beating in the recession. While in nominal terms fees levels may have risen, when adjusted for inflation they are down since 2010 and have risen only slightly against inflation over the past five years. Salaries represent well over half of expenditure for architectural practices, so salaries will be heavily influenced by fees earned.

Chart 2
Chart 2

Chart 2 illustrates the change in the ONS services producer prices index for architectural services (a measure of inflation for architectural services). It shows how price rises for architectural services have been subdued of late and falling relative to general inflation.

This could be something to worry about in future, or it could be a result of higher productivity with, for instance, practices winning a higher proportion of bids, so expending less on unproductive bidding. Either way it’s not, on the face of it, a background you’d associate with strong salary rises.

The other, perhaps more upbeat, point is that there has been a surge in employment within architecture over recent years. This inevitably skews the overall mix of employment towards the less experienced and consequently relatively less well paid. This can pull average earnings down even if those in a job get healthy pay rises.

A further point to at least note is that regional variations can lead to seemingly paradoxical effects on the national averages.

So, what does all this mean when trying to interpret that seemingly extraordinary finding that women architects earn more than men?

It will come as no surprise to those in the profession that plenty of women may earn more than some men, but the big bucks still seem to gravitate towards the blokes.

Ultimately, the headline figures all depend on how you treat the statistics.

Let’s start with the definition. The ONS says: ‘The gender pay gap is calculated as the difference between average hourly earnings (excluding overtime) of men and women as a proportion of average hourly earnings (excluding overtime) of men’s earnings.’

For sensible statistical reasons, in part to contain the impact of very wide and unbalanced distributions, the gender pay gap is based on median rather than mean earnings. That is, how the male in the middle position along the male pay scale compares with the female in the middle position along the female pay scale.

So, out of interest, what would be the gender pay gap if ONS used the mean average? Well, using that average men earn 15.5% more per hour. Furthermore, if you compared just full-time employees you’d find the gender pay gap at 0.8% in favour of men on the median calculation and 17.4% if you chose to use the mean.

  • Chart 3
    Chart 3
  • Chart 4
    Chart 4

Chart 3 shows the median hourly pay for UK architects by gender for full-time employees (note: we have taken the gross figure which includes overtime). Chart 4 shows the mean hourly pay.

That men do much better on pay based on the mean average clearly supports the reasonable assumption that the big bucks tend to go to blokes.

But there are some other factors we should try to account for when interpreting the data. While London generally sucks in a high proportion of architects, around a third of those in the UK, the proportion of women in London is far higher, well above 40% if you use the annual population survey data.

This automatically inflates the national average earnings of women architects on any like-for-like basis, because for a given level of experience pay is normally higher in London. So, in that sense it makes the gender pay gap look more favourable to women than it might be otherwise.

Chart 5
Chart 5

However, if we look at Chart 5 we see that the gap between the median hourly pay in London and the UK overall has steadily narrowed. This may seem a bit odd. But the age and experience of architects in London is unlikely to compare directly with the pattern elsewhere, with younger architects being recruited in numbers in recent years into practices in London as they look to gain experience. The RIBA Business Benchmarking 2017 report certainly suggests that there are proportionately more architects with fewer than five years of experience in London than we see across the UK.

The report also shows that the proportion of women compared with men among those with less than five years of experience is far higher, at 44%, than within the overall population of architects.

How the skewing of population of women architects towards being younger and less experienced (relatively pulling down average earnings) and in London (relatively pushing up average earnings) influences the aggregated gender pay gap figure is hard to assess. To some extent the two may balance out a bit against a notional like-for-like comparison. But the critical message to take from recognising how such quirks can influence the headline figures is the need to be very cautious in how they are interpreted.

This does not mean ignoring the headline figures. Nor does it mean downplaying the work done to promote gender pay parity, or the need for continued vigilance to ensure that diversity is appreciated within the workplace, rather than punished through discriminatory pay awards.

But it should be recognised that gender pay parity is just one element within a wider debate around fairness and how unfairness is formed within cultures in ways that affect both women and men.

Chart 6
Chart 6

Looking at Chart 6, showing the gender pay gap for employment across the UK by age groups, the direction of travel provides much to hearten those pursuing an equal pay agenda. It shows, at least at an aggregate level, near parity within younger age groups. The trend among older groups, however, appears to be holding more stubbornly.

This is to be expected. Large gender pay gaps that are well established will be hardest to address, as change will be resisted. Furthermore, older people may well see their cultural norms challenged, increasing their resistance to change.

The motor of change is therefore most likely to lie with the young, not least because younger employees will be far more accustomed to greater gender equality in pay and are likely to be less accepting of inequalities.

With all age groups (apart from the 60+) heading towards greater gender pay parity, perhaps the headline pay gap will, as the older generation retires, close more rapidly.

But parity in career progression is not just about pay. And there is an interesting quirk in Chart 6 that is worth examining.

Between 2009 and 2016 women in the age group 22 to 29 in full-time employment, having edged towards pay parity, suddenly appeared to be earning more on average than men, certainly based on the median earnings data. It’s not that much more, but it’s noticeable, and interestingly it has since reversed.

What could have caused this? This strange phenomenon could be a glitch in the data or it could be telling us something. For instance, a drop in the proportion of poorly paid women in the workforce of that age group or a drop in the proportion of well-paid men might account statistically for a switch of this nature.

Without detailed analysis it’s hard to judge. But if we look at the annual population survey data, one thing that did happen in that period is that the proportion of 20- to 24-year-old women in part-time employment as opposed to full-time employment rose quite sharply. A similar shift happened among men of that age, although it was far less pronounced. There was little discernible shift in the proportion of women aged 25 to 49 in part-time employment over the period.

One interpretation of this is that as job shedding became the norm after the recession, early career women looking to get into the workplace or having just started their working life may have taken a harder hit than others. The paradox is that statistically this would raise the median earnings for women in that age group, assuming older, more-experienced, better-paid women held on more firmly to full-time employment.

Chart 7
Chart 7

Closer to home for architects, Chart 7, which is based on annual population data, shows a drop in the proportion of women architects following the recession. This suggests women may have been more vulnerable to job loss during the recession. Again, without detailed analysis, such as examining the flow of women through the education system, this is just an observation. But it is a reminder that there can be more things at play in gender parity than solely equal pay.

When all said and done, the data from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings appears to show progress in improving gender parity among architects. But even a quick skip through the data tells us one thing – there is more to parity than a single headline figure for the gender pay gap.



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