Michael Bleby Reporter

Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Women’s pay gap bigger at the top of the professional ladder

Published 05 March 2013 10:35, Updated 07 March 2013 15:56

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Women’s pay gap bigger at the top of the professional ladder

“I may be only the third woman president in our history, but I’m also the second in four years, a sign that things are changing,” says Australian Institute of Architects president Shelley Penn. Photo: Jesse Marlow

The news cycle started with a flutter in early January when the government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) report highlighted the discrepancies in starting salaries for male and female graduates in a range of professions. The average gap for starting salaries was 9.1 per cent, with architecture seemingly leading the way back to the Stone Age with a 17.3 per cent disparity, the largest such gap.

The figures showed that the salary of the average male graduate with a Bachelor of Architecture last year was $52,000, up from $50,000 in 2011, while the average female salary was unchanged from a year earlier at $43,000. While it was the biggest gap proportionately, dentistry’s 15.7 per cent difference equated to a larger quantum of $14,400.

People, including the president of the Australian Institute of Architects, Shelley Penn, struggled to understand what had happened.

“This was particularly disheartening for me,” she says. “I may be only the third woman president in our history, but I’m also the second in four years, a sign that things are changing.”

It turns out that the much-trumpeted figures don’t give the right picture for architecture. Back in January Penn suspected they were skewed by the inclusion of salaries for women in industries other than architecture and further analysis indicates this was so.

Separate analysis done for the AIA strips out architecture salaries from other categories such as construction – in which a greater number of female graduates are employed and paid as administrative rather than professional workers – and comes up with a very different picture.

The pay gap in the starting salaries of master’s graduates who had studied architecture full-time and were working 38 to 42 hours a week in architectural practice was 3.3 per cent, with men receiving $46,500 and women $45,000. That was up from a 1.6 per cent difference in 2011, when men received an average $45,000 and women $44,300.

The parameters used are different from the GradStats figures, which measure bachelor’s graduate salaries. But the AIA says master’s graduates are a better measure as bachelor graduates are not qualified to practise architecture. Cast in this light, the revised figures indicate that pay discrepancies in architecture – while wrong – are narrow, rather than being a yawning chasm.

“A more robust analysis of the data suggests that the apparent disparity between salaries for males and females appears to reduce notably once a range of important variables – such as type of employer, exact occupation and hours worked – are taken into account,” says Graduate Careers Australia’s policy and strategy officer Bruce Guthrie.

WGEA spokeswoman Yolanda Beattie defends the way the agency packaged the figures: “The gender pay gap we calculated was based on the difference between the average of all male and all female full-time earnings expressed as a percentage of male earnings (excluding overtime). This method of calculating the gender pay gap is fairly standard.”

Penn worries that the WGEA report and its exaggerated pay gap – which publications including BRW wrote about – may have damaged her profession. “I hope any young women considering architecture as a career choice were not deterred,” she says.

Beattie says that overstates the power of the survey. “The reality is people make career choices on a much more personal level than that.”

The debate about the quantum of starting salaries obscures a more sinister reality – the fact that pay levels diverge markedly at higher levels in the profession. In the United Kingdom, a country with an industry similarly structured to that in Australia, new survey results show a startling pattern.

The London-based Architects’ Journal’s second Women in Architecture survey shows that nearly a third of male architects working full time in the UK earn more than £48,000 ($70,000) but less than a fifth of female equivalents earn that much. At the full-time director level in the UK, only 37 per cent of women earn between £61,000 and £99,000 a year, compared with 63 per cent of men.

No such detailed figures of pay discrepancies in the Australian profession exist, but there are fewer women in senior roles.

As of January this year, 28 per cent of the AIA’s 11,743 members were women, according to analysis published on the website of research and advocacy body archiparlour.org.

However, a breakdown of the types of membership shows that women hold typically more junior positions.

Almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of women AIA members were either student, graduate or affiliated members, rather than full-blown registered architects able to practise in their own right.

By contrast, just 33 per cent of men had membership in these lower level or junior categories.

Among the senior tier of practising architects – sole practitioners, partners and directors/principals of architectural firms – women made up just 14 per cent. In addition, women were clustered in the sole practitioner grouping, where they accounted for 22 per cent of the total, rather than in large firms, where they made up just 11 per cent of directors and principals.

There are different reasons for this disparity, says Justine Clark, a researcher on a project looking at women in the profession.

There might be equal pay at entry grades, but it’s still about who’s been seen as the best bet for promotion, who’s got enough front to bullshit their way up.

“There might be equal pay at entry grades, but it’s still about who’s been seen as the best bet for promotion, who’s got enough front to bullshit their way up.” she says.

The project, Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work and Leadership, is due to complete its work in May next year.

A similar situation confronts women in engineering. While Gradstats figures show that starting salaries for male and female engineering graduates have kept in line, at higher levels, women’s pay – and presence – is less than men’s.

A December 2012 survey of more than 1700 full-time engineers by the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia and Engineers Australia shows that while women accounted for 11.6 per cent of level one engineers – the least experience tier – when it came to level five, women were just 6 per cent of the total, or 13 women to 206 men.

There were no women in levels higher than five, where chief executives, directors and principals are to be found. The median salary package across the wider profession was $132,502 for men and $114,122 for female employees.

Engineers Australia president Marlene Kanga says the number of female engineers halves during the first 10 years of practice and continues to drop over the next decade.

“If you go to functions or events, you see the profession is like a doughnut,” she says. “You’ve got a hole in the middle. You’re missing the women between 30 and 50. They just leave.”

Kanga, a chemical engineer who has two adult sons, is the first mother to be president of the profession’s biggest lobby group. She says half of women engineers have no children and 25 per cent have just one.

Penn, who has two young children, says creating diversity in architecture is vital. Over time things will “get better as more women are welcomed to the profession and are confident of their place in it”, she says.

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