The COVID-19 pandemic is only the latest crisis to starkly highlight gender inequality in the UK workforce. As a sector with near-even gender parity at entry level, how does landscape treat its women practitioners?

Image © The University of Sheffield

A year ago to the day – on 23 March 2020 – the UK entered its first lockdown.

Among the many struggles attributable to COVID-19 has been adapting to working during a pandemic. With up to 8.9 million people on furlough and many businesses unable to trade as normal, the average number of hours worked in the UK per person per week fell to 25.9 in April to June 2020 – the lowest since the 2007-9 recession. (ONS – Coronavirus: A year like no other, 15 March 2021.)

In February, the Government Equalities Office announced a six-month delay in enforcement for companies reporting their gender pay gap data.

‘Awful consequences’ for women’s representation

‘Starting our legal process in October strikes the right balance between supporting businesses and enforcing these important regulations,’ said Equalities Commission Chair Baroness Kishwer Falkner.

But the decision attracted criticism. Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary, Marsha de Cordova, said: ‘All the evidence shows that the pandemic is having awful consequences for women’s labour market representation. Now is the time to be dialling up measures to protect against discrimination and unequal pay, not delaying them.’

‘It will set women back’

In a BBC interview first aired on 9 February, Nicola Phillips CMLI described her experiences returning to work during lockdown after parental leave.

(Footage © BBC News​)

‘…if people aren’t being offered flexible working to be around their children… women will get set back and they will get pushed aside,’ said Nicola. ‘And sometimes they’ll either leave because of mental stress, or just walk away and find another job that’s not necessarily in their [chosen] career, which is not fair.’

The gendered economic impact

The Women and Equalities Commission (WEC) has concluded that the furlough scheme failed to consider ‘well-understood labour market and caring inequalities faced by women’. In a January 2021 report, Coronavirus and the gendered economic impact, the Commission found that:

  • women have borne the greater brunt of childcare in the pandemic, with the gender gap in total childcare hours widening, putting an additional burden on working mothers.
  • the 2020 recession hit traditionally female-dominated sectors hardest.
  • the government has not clearly articulated furlough as a right for those with caring responsibilities. (This is at odds with the majority of EU member states, who made parental leave a right over the pandemic.)
  • the Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) that informed the furlough scheme was ‘insufficient and not fit for purpose’.

The report summarises: ‘We are concerned that the government’s priorities for recovery are heavily gendered in nature. Investment plans that are skewed towards male-dominated sectors have the potential to create unequal outcomes for men and women, exacerbating existing inequalities.’

The gender pay gap in landscape

The gender pay gap is the difference in average earnings between men and women across a workforce. Gender pay gap reporting is an important mechanism for identifying and addressing inequality and discrimination in firms. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), reporting helps employers understand the size and causes of their pay gaps and identify issues to address.

There is an identified pay gap in the landscape sector, with far more men than women represented in the highest salary bands. The LI’s 2018 talent and skills report, The Future State of Landscape, concludes the following about pay inequality in the landscape sector:

Chartership has a significant impact on income, especially within the £35 to £50,000 range. Nearly half of chartered members fall into this salary range, compared to just 14% of licentiate members.

While gender balance within this salary bracket is relatively comparable, it falls away significantly in the £50,000+ range. More than twice as many men as women fall into this category, showing significant inequalities in terms of career progression.

‘Moving forward at a snail’s pace’

Romy Rawlings CMLI, former chair of the LI’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Forum, has worked in the landscape and construction sector for 30 years.

Writing for Barbour ABI on 8 March (International Women’s Day), Romy gave a sobering reflection on issues in recruitment, retention, and recognition for women, in our sector and others. Romy’s observations mirror those she made in a 2018 article on the LI’s own blog – showing what little progress has occurred in almost three years.

‘It’s clear that women have much to offer every part of our sector,’ Romy writes. ‘Surely it’s time we were treated as equals – in terms of opportunities, pay, and respect. If you feel we already are, . . . please think again and book that unconscious bias training.’

‘We need a shift in society’

Another LI member, who has asked to remain anonymous, has found that accommodation of flexible working in her firm has improved in recent years – though the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns have strained that flexibility.

‘I’ve been a landscape architect for over 10 years now. When I had my first child and wanted to come back to work flexibly, it felt like a huge fight against a management that at that point comprised mostly men with grown children. I had to work extremely hard to convince them that my role was sustainable with reduced hours.

‘When returning from maternity leave the second time, senior management had filled out with young parents and guardians who also wanted to work around family commitments.

‘When the first lockdown sent us all home, my husband was working ridiculous hours to compensate for his furloughed colleagues. Meanwhile, I was trying to fulfill my senior role and keep the children entertained. I tried to make up my hours, but I was facing total burnout. I volunteered for furlough and didn’t return till November.’

Though this member feels fortunate in the flexibility her firm has offered, she feels the onus is not on companies alone.

‘I was very grateful that my company allowed me to stay at home to look after my family. And I was intensely grateful to all my colleagues who worked relentlessly throughout the pandemic. My company has been very flexible and staff have repaid this trust in kind.

‘But I don’t think it’s down to employers alone that there’s such a skewed childcare burden on women. Their partners and husbands are just as guilty of leaving them in the lurch. I think that deep down, women are still “programmed” to take on the childcare burden. We need a shift in society towards more equality at home as well as at work.’

Take part in this conversation

Landscape is facing a severe skills shortage at perhaps the most crucial point in the profession’s history.

While it seems that attitudes towards flexible working have improved in some parts of the landscape sector, we know this is not the case everywhere. Aside from the obvious moral argument, can we really afford to marginalise a large percentage of our talented and passionate workforce?

The LI’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Working Group has identified gender equality as one of its five priority activity areas. You can help us continue and build upon our work in this area.

Do you have a story to share?

If you’d like to share a story of your own experiences of childcare (in)equality – in or out of lockdown – that could inform the LI’s response, please get in touch with us at diversity@landscapeinstitute.org.

Landscape firms and employers

We’d also like to hear from our registered practices. What guidance and support would help you better support working parents? Could you offer best practice advice and examples to other companies? Please let us know at diversity@landscapeinstitute.org.

Information and resources

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