Ireland has come some way in tackling inequality in the past 40 years but still has a long way to go towards gender equality at the top of organisations, says Kyran Fitzgerald
Back in 1972, an English businessman called John Bloom had a bright idea.
He would open a chain of Tudor-themed eateries, one of which was called 1520.
As his obituarist noted recently, the restaurants were “overtly sexist establishments presided over by a Henry VIII figure”.
Customers, particularly women, were “pilloried and pelted with buns if they did not enter into the spirit of things”. The chain eventually went bust. An early victory, if you like, for an early version of the #MeToo movement.
Mr Bloom, one suspects, would find it hard going securing support for such a venture these days.
The world has changed a lot in the past 40 years, but then much, too, has remained the same.
The world of wolf-whistling and bottom-patting may now belong to yesteryear, but have old-time attitudes really been banished from the boardroom?
Not in the view of the new chair of the UK Institute of Directors, Charlotte Valeur.
She insists that Britain’s top companies need to be more honest when it comes to the issue of recruiting females to their top ranks.
Ftse 100 bosses have insisted that they simply cannot find suitable female and ethnic minority candidates for their boards.
Ms Valuer insists that it is not true to say that the right people are simply unavailable.
Currently, fewer than a quarter of directors of Ftse 250 firms — 23.7%— are women, of which just 6.5% are full-time executives with the companies concerned.
The figure for Ftse 100 firms is a bit higher at nearly 30%.
Over here, progress has been, if anything, slower.
At the start of 2018, just 18% of directors of Iseq companies were female. Last summer, the Government established a review group headed by Bríd Horan, former deputy CEO of the ESB, and Gary Kennedy, a former senior AIB executive.
They will be seeking to emulate a similar UK group under Mervyn Davies, which has recommended that one-third of board seats on Britain’s top companies be filled by women by 2020.
Most organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry favour a voluntarist approach in this area, but the Fawcett Society backs compulsion.
In Norway, France, and Belgium, compulsory targets are now in place.
It will be interesting to see what the Horan/Kennedy group comes up with.
Presence of women at the top of the organisation is a useful measure, but a few swallows do not a summer make. The key goal of feminists is the capture of senior-level posts across the organisation.
Some estimates suggest that just one in six senior executive posts in Ireland are held by women.
Against this background, there has emerged much greater interest in what is known as ‘gender pay gap reporting’.
As Mary Brassil, a partner with solicitors McCann FitzGerald points out, the gender pay gap is distinct from the concept of equal pay for equal work as it “captures whether women are represented evenly across an organisation”.
In Ireland, the gender pay gap is around 14%, according to the latest estimates. This is actually slightly below the EU average of 16.7%, where the figures are skewed by those from part of Eastern and southern Europe.
Speaking at the annual conference organised by Industrial Relations News, Ms Brassil identified some causes of the gender pay gap. These range from segregation of occupations to the concentration of women in part-time or lower-paid jobs as well as discrimination, or bias, intentional or accidental.
In 2016, Labour Party senator Ivana Bacik published a Gender Pay Gap Information Bill which proposed an amendment to the 1998 Employment Equality Act to provide much more information on how the pay of employees is calculated and what sort of gaps exist.
Designated officers would be appointed to check the information for accuracy and any complaint arising would be referred to the Workplace Relations Commission which is responsible for inspections. Fines could be handed out for breaches.
Enactment of a Government version of the bill is expected soon.
Outside the legislative arena, changes are already occurring. Survey data points to a shift in attitudes among young jobseekers. Around 85% of women aged 10 to 30 will look at an organisation’s gender pay gap situation before deciding whether to join that firm or body.
At a time when demand for skilled labour is close to record levels in Ireland, this could become a real factor in recruitment markets. It may well be that greater changes will be stimulated via social media and ordinary conversations among millennials than may emerge as a result of consultations among the great and the good.
Gender advancement can take many different forms, from trailblazing businesswomen of the 1980s like fitness guru Debbie Moore and Body Shop founder Anita Roddick to the contemporary social media influencers who are bypassing established businesses.
That said, the existence of senior managerial role models continues to be of relevance. One only has to think of people like IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, or close to home, Bank of Ireland CEO Francesca McDonagh, Glanbia’s Siobhan Talbot, and Derville Rowland, the Central Bank’s head of regulation.
Ms Lagarde played a key role as French finance minister after the financial crash in 2008. She stated recently that financial organisations would be more stable if their were more women on their boards. “Where there are more women, the banks’ capital buffers are larger, the number of non-performing loans smaller, and risk indices lower,” she said.
But the consequences of gender inequality are arguably much greater when viewed from ground level across the developing world.
Take Africa where the population is predicted to double in a generation.
A key driver is the perpetuation of large family sizes, particularly outside the big cities. Promoting education among girls can counter this damaging trend.
Education leads to greater economic activity and empowerment, leading ultimately to lower fertility, more manageable families, and greater possibilities of capital accumulation.
In a recent address in honour of former chief executive of the Economist magazine Helen Alexander, Ms Lagarde quoted the English author HG Wells, who famously stated that “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”.
These comments have acquired added resonance in today’s troubled world.