Gender equality in business: The work isn’t finished yet

Gender equality in business: The work isn’t finished yet
Anne-MarieTaylor . Photograph Moya Nolan

Achieving gender equality in the upper echelons of the business world is no easy feat. According to research conducted by the 30% Club, Irishmen and women enter the workforce at the same rate, which is about 50:50.

This gradually changes at each level of management, with the number of men outweighing the number of women higher up the scale. Only 8% to 12% of employees at CEO level in large Irish companies are women. Why is this occurring? There seems to be many reasons, with few solutions.

Some say the traditional image of the CEO or senior business executive is overtly masculine. Others say there is a need to increase parental leave and flexible working options, to improve women’s chances of promotion, and to ensure they are not penalised for having children.

Anne-Marie Taylor is a former Accenture employee turned management consultant, and the programme director of Balance for Better Business, which aims to improve gender equality in the Irish business sector.

She believes that one way to improve gender equality is to increase flexible working options, something which has recently become far more common due to the Covid-19 epidemic.

Many Irish companies’ employees are now working remotely for the first time, due to social distancing guidelines. However, research conducted a few years ago showed that working from home was not a popular choice among employees in financial services.

“The 30% club did some research a couple years ago with the financial services employers and employees, they found that 43% of respondents felt by taking advantage of flexible working arrangements, they would be seen to be damaging their career, both men and women,” says Ms Taylor.

“It’s all very well for companies to be offering flexible working, but in the pre-coronavirus world that would have been seen to be damaging to your career.”

She believes that with the now-widespread promotion of working from home, the whole world of work could change. “The chances are flexible working will become much more of a norm for all sorts of organisations, for men and women. Possibly this will level the playing field.”

She also said paternity leave was just as crucial. “Diageo recently announced 26 weeks of paid paternity leave. If men and women are taking leave equally then nobody is going to be disadvantaged.”

Helping returners ease back into the workforce may also help combat the gender imbalance and senior levels of business.

“Businesses [need to] very consciously accommodate people back into the workforce after an extended absence. This can apply to both men and women, but it’s mostly women who are taking the time out.”

However, some of the accommodations that companies are making to help women are actually hindering their career progression.

Harvard Business Review research, released this month, looked at what was really holding women back.

“They worked with a big consultancy firm [where employees] worked really long hours,” says Ms Taylor.

“They found that the accommodation companies were making for women, such as flexible working, not working overseas and working from home, were derailing women’s careers. The real culprit was a general culture of overwork that hurt men and women and locked gender inequality in place.”

She said due to subtle gender stereotypes and biases, many women feel guilty for progressing their careers. A question that is often asked of women, and rarely of men, is how they will balance their home life and minding their children with their careers.

“It contributes to women’s guilt, [they may think] am I ignoring my children, it adds a layer of guilt to the women who are asked that question.

“It just adds to the subtle ways women are stereotyped and women are made to feel that everything is going to be much harder for them.”

Ms Taylor says setting targets may be the best in aiding the promotion of women, as companies can pinpoint why women are not being promoted and put mechanisms in place to solve these issues. “Unless they do it very consciously it won’t happen by accident.”

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