Why does the glass ceiling and gender pay gap still exist for women?

We are better educated than men, but earn less and don’t climb the career ladder in the numbers we should. Is this our choice or is the fault of a culture that believes a good mother is always available to her children, asks Aileen Lee

IRISH women are better-qualified and more likely to have a third-level qualification than Irish men. Not bad when you consider that it was only in 1977 that the Employment Equality Act prohibited discrimination on the grounds of gender or marital status in most areas of employment.

But women still earn less than their male counterparts.Women are still under-represented in management, even in the sectors where they are the majority, such as the public, health and education sectors. They are similarly under-represented in the Oireachtas and in local and regional authorities.

What has stopped women from getting to the top in our chosen professions? Having a family is certainly a factor; most opportunities for career development take place during a woman’s child-bearing years.

The director of The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), Orla O’Connor, says: “One root cause of the gender pay-gap is the lack of a publicly subsidised, accessible and affordable childcare system. Ireland spends only 0.4% of GDP on childcare, compared to a 0.7% EU average and, as a result, we have some of the most expensive private childcare in the world, with many families paying up to €1,200 a month.

“This lack of affordable, accessible childcare has been identified by the EU and OECD as a major factor affecting equal labour-market participation by women in Ireland. The financial pressures of childcare often leave women, in particular, feeling that they cannot afford to work”.

There is also the ‘second shift’ for women when they come home from work — the domestic tasks and childcare responsibilities. A Europe-wide study last year revealed that Irish women spend five hours doing unpaid house work, more than double that of men.

Those results support 2013 CSO figures, which show that women’s working lives are impacted by childcare responsibilities. While the figures show equal labour market participation of 86% for men and women without children, this plummets to 59% for women with a child under three, and remains at that rate after the youngest child is six years or over.

A career and life-goals study of 7,000 Harvard Business School graduates (aged between 26-67 years) found that men expected their careers to take precedence over their spouses’ careers, and that their spouses would handle more of the childcare. In contrast, women expected that their careers would be as important as their spouses’ and that the responsibilities of childcare would be shared equally.

There is a societal perception also that women ‘check-out’ of their career after having a baby, as if sustaining a career while raising a family held little interest for them. True, your career may move down the priority list, but wanting to put baby first doesn’t mean that you want to put yourself, or your career ambitions, last.

The Harvard study also found that only 11% of the female graduates surveyed left the workforce to care for children, and few of them did so by choice.

As the study’s researchers explain: “Our survey data, and other research, suggest that when high-achieving, professional women leave their jobs after becoming mothers, only a small number do so because they prefer to devote themselves exclusively to motherhood; the vast majority leave reluctantly and as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement.

“The message that they are no longer considered ‘players’ is communicated in various, sometimes subtle ways: they may have been stigmatised for taking advantage of flex options or reduced schedules, passed over for high-profile assignments, or removed from projects they once led.”

Brigid Schulte is a Washington Post reporter and the author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One has the Time, a book that was the product of her own harried, frantic experiences of trying to achieve that elusive work-life balance and trying to figure out why it always remained out of her grasp.

Schulte’s observations extend beyond personal experience to ‘role overload’, whereby she noted how people are stretched in every role they play in their lives these days.

Again, this sense of being overwhelmed is particularly felt by working women. She writes: “When women began working in a man’s world, their lives changed completely. Yet workplace cultures, government policies, and cultural attitudes, by and large, still act as though it is, or should be, in 1950 Middle America: men work. Women take care of home and hearth. Fathers provide. A good mother is always available to her children.”

Schulte references time studies, which show that a mother, working outside the home, especially a single mother, is so weighed down by the “intense responsibility she bears and the multitude of jobs she performs in each of those roles” that she is overwhelmed seven days a week, hence the decision by some to step off the treadmill.

But what to do — how do we close the gap between expectation and reality?

All of the above suggests a change in work culture, so men and women are encouraged to balance careers with family.

One positive, last weekend, was the announcement by Tánaiste Joan Burton, at the Labour Party conference in Kerry, that they would set out steps by the end of this year toward the introduction of two weeks’ paid paternity leave.

Another crucial step will be tackling the gender pay gap, Orla O’Connor says: “European Commission figures show that the gender pay gap in Ireland is widening from 12.6%, in 2009 and 2008, to 13.9%, in 2010, to a shocking 14.4%, in 2012. In real terms, the ‘CSO Men and Women in Ireland’ report shows that 50% of women in Ireland earn €20,000 or less and women are only half as likely as men to earn €50,000 or more”.

We need to sit down and have serious discussions with our significant others and family members to make our childcare arrangements work, about what each person wants in the situation, what they are willing to give (or give-up) and where the compromises may be.

If we’re completely honest with ourselves, though, maybe the trickiest thing of all to balance in this equation of life and work is our right to be ambitious.

WHAT ONE WORKING MOTHER THINKS ...

Irish working mother-of-three, Andrea Mara (below), thinks that it’s not a case of women ‘checking out’, but rather that the situation as it currently stands is dependent on several factors – familial and/or spousal support; trying to achieve a better work-life balance; and in some cases, a change in priorities.

Mara, who has also won awards for her blog, OfficeMum.ie, on the question of being a working mother, says: “I think some women go back to work and continue to progress their careers exactly as they did before having children and often climb to top positions. In my experience, they tend to be women who have good support networks – a husband who is at home with the kids or has flexibility at work or a full-time nanny who can stay as late as needed, or an employer who is flexible and doesn’t equate presence in the office with productivity.

“Some women go back and realize that they are no longer prepared to put in a 50-hour week, because that means spending all of that time away from their kids. These are women who are still very much interested in their careers, but if the choice comes down to long hours and promotion versus shorter hours and stalled career path, many choose the latter.

“Of course, there are women who go back to work and no longer seek career progression. They want a job that they can do well within an allotted time, and go home, without having to log back in or work late. I don’t think that’s checking out – it’s simply the case that we’re all different and while some want to keep moving up the ladder, others are happy to stay where they are, if it means a less stressful life and more time with the kids.”

READ NEXT: When Irish convicts were banished to Botany Bay

Find more great stories in our Features section

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

Email Updates

Receive our lunchtime briefing straight to your inbox

More in this Section

Take a load off: Two people tell their individual weight loss journeys

Forget quick fixes as bikini season beckons

All the president's children: What have the offspring of US presidents been getting up to?

Making Cents: Take emotion out of spending for better finances


Lifestyle

Four events to check out at the Cork International Choral Festival today

Forget quick fixes as bikini season beckons

Take a load off: Two people tell their individual weight loss journeys

All the president's children: What have the offspring of US presidents been getting up to?

More From The Irish Examiner