As we approach International Women’s Day, it’s fair to say that we all need to take a good hard look at how women are progressing in Ireland’s workplaces, particularly in terms of career advancement and obtaining positions of seniority.
There’s no point in sugar coating it: we’re not doing very well. The results of a CSO survey from May 2019 make for particularly grim reading. Only one in nine CEOs in large enterprises in Ireland in 2019 were women. Women occupied just 28% of senior executive roles compared with 72% for men. The vast majority of chairpersons (93%) were male, and the overall composition of boards of directors was 80% male and 20% female. Enough said.
Women made a great deal of progress in the 1970s and ‘80s in advancing their careers and roles in the workforce. The momentum slowed in the ‘90s, however, and in the new century, progress has practically stalled.
The men and women of my generation, the latter who benefited so much from the feminist movement of the mid-twentieth century, have a lot to answer for. Time has moved on.
With women now in every office and business across the land, the larger battle of equality between men and women in positions of seniority is still to be won; in the boardroom, women remain a rare species.
As women, we must still resist the urge to wretch when we hear comments like “they have a female CEO, you know” or “their CEO is a woman”, as if the natural order of things had been suspended. Replace “woman” or “female” with the word “man” and you begin to appreciate how condescending such comments sound, even if they are said with the best of intentions. Real progress will be achieved only when a CEO’s gender is not something worthy of comment.
So why, after such a strong start in the latter half of the twentieth century, have women failed to achieve equality with men in senior roles—and what can be done about it?
Of course, these questions cannot be condensed into one single issue or, equally, solved with one single action.
However, what all businesses can and should do is ask themselves and their employees why they think women do not hold senior positions within their companies. We can’t fear the answer if we are serious about tackling it.
Both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that women and men progress relatively equally in salary and seniority until women have their first child and take maternity leave, which, in Ireland, is usually in the early to mid-30s. At this point, the divergence begins and the gap is never closed.
There’s no denying the fact that as women begin to have children, many (not all) step back to greater or lesser degrees from their “pre-children” workplace roles. Some opt out of the workforce completely, others choose to work part-time, and others still avoid promotions or more senior roles.
If these women are not as available to their employers as they once might have been, it’s hardly surprising that they don’t rise through the ranks as quickly as their male colleagues. In contrast, many men continue to work as they did before the arrival of their children.
Some companies have adopted flexible and family-friendly workplace policies, allowing part-time or reduced hours, generous maternity benefits, paternal leave, and career breaks.
However, we need to consider whether these policies, far from supporting workplace equality between the sexes, are actually ingraining inequality .
Put another way, think about your circle of colleagues, friends, and family. How many of those who work part-time, reduced hours, or have taken extended leave for their children have been women? How many have been men? Research tells us that in the majority of cases, it’s the women who downsize their work commitments.
The data bears this out. About 40% of dads in Ireland take paternity leave when a new baby arrives, and fewer than 20% of dads avail of parental leave, which is available up to a child’s 12th birthday.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with flexible working per se, but rather it seems that in the main, it’s more acceptable for women to use it given that they continue to be viewed as natural caregivers. Conversely, it is viewed as much less acceptable for men to opt for flexible working. This is neither right nor fair for either of the sexes.
Lessons from Scandinavia
As a society, we must consider the benefits of encouraging greater numbers of men to be more comfortable in requesting family-friendly working options.
In doing so, we might not only be giving men an equal right to spend more time with their family, but it might also end the stereotype of caregiving roles being largely viewed as exclusively female, which perpetuates inequality between men and women in the workforce.
Unsurprisingly, the Scandinavian countries have led the way in creating a culture where both women and men share caregiving roles. Take Norway: there, fathers now have the right to “use it or lose” non-transferable parental leave of 18 weeks. This has seen the number of fathers availing of leave grow from 3% to over 70% in recent decades.
Culturally and socially the impact has been marked, too. The sight of fathers pushing buggies around a park on a Monday afternoon has become the norm rather than the exception. For men as much as women, the popular phrase of “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it” comes to mind.
While we are beginning to see some Irish employers provide equal access to family-friendly and flexible working options for both partners, these companies are still typically multinationals.
As we reflect on women’s roles in society this Sunday, we should consider more fully, perverse as it may sound, how more forcefully championing the rights of men in the workplace will promote women’s journeys to the top of the corporate ladder.
About the author
Amanda is Director of Policy and Campaigns at 360. She develops comms plans that are underpinned by strategic and policy considerations and achieve meaningful change. Her greatest strength is her ability to speed read, honed by many years of scanning newspapers for client coverage.