Can workforce diversity stimulate transformation towards a more sustainable future?


The foundation industries, consisting of the glass, cement, paper, metal, ceramic and chemical sectors, play a critical role in the UK manufacturing supply chain with a combined turnover of £67.7bn and employment of approximately 250,000 workers. The environmental impact of the industries far outweighs their size: 50 million tonnes of CO2 are emitted per year, equivalent to 10% of all CO2 emissions from UK businesses and private homes, despite accounting for only 0.26% of national revenue (ERC, 2021). In order to meet the Government’s own net-zero strategies, the foundation industries require a transformation in consumption, production and innovation.

Difficulties in achieving transformation are linked to lost opportunities in workforce management. For several decades, the industries have placed limited attention on the skills required to maintain competitiveness, replacing long-term skills development with a short-term focus on filling vacancies within an already ageing, male-dominated workforce (Balderson et al., 2022).

A persistent lack of diversity only emphasises the challenges faced in supply chain demands, productivity losses, and technological advancements: in 2020, women made up only 16% of all workers, and BAME workers only 7.1% (Office for National Statistics, 2021). Thus, the difficulties in achieving any transformation are compounded by a looming skills shortage, loss of expertise and an inability to meet future demand (Farmer, 2016; TFI Network+, 2022).

Our project studies the underlying causes of attrition for women and ethnic minorities and a lack of diversity in the foundation industries. In particular, the team will focus on gender and ethnic pay gaps, and organisational data on promotions, pay and exit to understand how these factors contribute to women’s and minorities' under-representation in the foundation industries and in leadership. We look to better understand how pursuing workforce diversity and inclusion can support decarbonisation not only in addressing skills shortages, but in accessing innovation through new management and organizational structures.

Research overview

Collaborating with our industrial partner – Ferrovial Construction - we plan to conduct intensive case study research which combines existing administrative data on pay, progression and retention with exit interviews and new empirical insight to understand the factors that contribute to exit and/or lack of progression in the foundation industries.

We will focus on understanding if and why women and ethnic minorities leave the firm and understand how promotion opportunities and pay impact decisions. Additionally, we can understand discrepancies in promotion opportunities in male-dominated roles. 

The project will provide a case study to be utilized across the foundation industries that identify factors of attrition to develop appropriate strategies to attract and retain gender and minority ethnic workers.

This project is funded by the UKRI Transforming the Foundation Industries Network (TFIN+) Small Grant Scheme.


Innovative Thinker - Pay transparency key to closing gender pay gap says academic”, The New Civil Engineer, Professor Jennifer Tomlinson, August 2023