Diversity & Inclusion

The key to overcoming pay disparity in the built environment

Overcoming pay disparity based on ethnicity will require commitment of all levels and a strong collaborative approach says HKA’s Nurul Sabri

There have been many discussions about gender diversity and equality in the construction industry as well as gender pay gap. For women working in the industry, especially ethnic minority women, the challenges are even more acute. Not only is there a gender pay gap affecting women but in addition, ethnic minority women in the region are also subjected to alternate pay structures based on their ethnicity or race.

The topic of pay disparity by ethnicity is not uncommon in the UK and US and has been widely discussed. It represents the unfair divergence between the pay of different groups of people by demographic characteristics. In my opinion, addressing not only the gender pay disparity, but also the ethnicity pay disparity, is key to fostering an equal and inclusive working environment.

A critical first step to achieving meaningful change is for the industry as a whole to acknowledge the issue exists. Simply put, we cannot address an issue if we refuse to accept it exists. Next is to change mind-sets and behaviour. McKinsey research in Model for Effective Change Management states that transformations stand the best chance of success when they focus on four key actions to change mind-sets and behaviour. By understanding why or the reason for a change will inspires people to behave in support of such change.

Call to Action to Combat Inequality

There are few suggestions on actions that we can focus on to bring meaningful changes, which is divided into four key areas: Educate, Lead, Culture and Measure.

  1. Educate
  • Eliminate Bias

It is said that pay discrimination often is rooted in different forms of bias, including biases about specific ethnicity and their value. Combating biases is critical to getting this right. McKinsey said biases can lead to blind spots, making people overlook the individual’s abilities. Employees should be paid what they are worth; value should not be determined by skin colour nor gender, but from an employee’s dynamism, skills, and knowledge.

Continuous anti-bias training is also critical to combat workplace biases that devalue the contributions of specific ethnicity. To move in a new direction, the change must be led from the top. Senior leadership must challenge bias when they see it and advocate and revise company policies to promote equality in pay practices within workplaces.

  • Public Awareness

We should create public awareness that differentiating employees’ pay within the same grade on the basis of ethnicity is wrong, unfair, discriminatory, and considered unethical. The aim is to attract people’s attention towards this subject, which might lead to small talks amongst them. Hopefully this small talk could lead an interest towards this subject and make people interested to do an in-depth study about this and take necessary action.

  1. Lead
  • Be an ally and consistently taking key allyship actions

Being an ally (allyship) allows those who are at lower risk of discrimination the opportunity to advocate for the underprivileged colleagues to gain visibility, validity, and credibility for their work and contributions. Allyship from senior leaders and more privileged colleagues can make a big difference. However, being an ally alone is not enough. The ally should consistently take key allyship actions such as advocate for equal payment structures for all and actively confront discrimination against underprivileged colleagues.

  • Regulate legislation prohibiting discrimination based on ethnicity

Passing law is an important step towards the change. In the UK and the US, there are laws providing protection against pay discrimination due to race, colour, religion, sex or national origin. The new UAE Labour Law, which took effect on 2 February, 2022 expands on general prohibition on discrimination and prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, religion, national origin, social origin and disability. Such law is good to support and promote equality and inclusiveness at workplace.

  1. Culture
  • Speaking up and Having Difficult Conversations

Too often employees stay in situations where they are being undervalued for fear of not finding another opportunity, or fear of ruining the relationships with the bosses and leaders that they have internally. In order to overcome this, one needs to speak up and start to be comfortable in having difficult conversations. Difficult conversations are a necessary part of working well with others. Reaching an understanding is often the first step toward creating a better work environment.

  1. Measure
  • Employee Engagement Survey

It is important for companies to consistently measure the fairness of its pay policy. For example, my company, HKA, carries out an annual Employee Engagement Survey that helps the company to understand, amongst other things, employee’s views on the fairness of pay scales and its process of calculating pay. The survey seeks to understand whether (i) the effort, skill and experience are accurately reflecting in the employee’s pay and (ii) the process of calculating pay in the company is fair and unbiased. Such survey results are vital to help companies continuously improve in this aspect.

There is no doubt that narrowing or overcoming the pay disparity based on ethnicity will not be an easy process. But neither is it a defense against action. It will require the commitment of all levels and a strong collaborative approach. We are all accountable, let’s overcome this pay disparity based on ethnicity together.

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