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FactFind: Women are just over 50% of the population. Do they have 50% of jobs and economic power?

The short answer: No.

WOMEN MAKE UP just over 50% of the Irish population, but don’t have anything like 50% of the wealth, jobs or economic power. As you might expect, that’s been changing over time, and Ireland does well on international rankings of economic gender equality.

But on some measures, such as employment rates, the gap between men and women is no longer narrowing much.

As part of this month’s The Good Information Project topic on gender equality, The Journal has dug into the figures to get to the facts. 

The big picture

Ireland is above average within the EU when it comes to parity between the sexes, according to the European Institute for Gender Equality. Its ranking of women’s earnings and risk of poverty in the 27 EU countries puts Ireland 5th, ahead of Sweden and the Netherlands. A similar league table of employment prospects and working conditions for women has us 6th. And on “economic power” – women on the boards of big companies and the Central Bank – we’re 9th, still significantly above the EU-wide average.

All these scores have improved since the Institute started compiling them in 2010. Those for money and work have only gone up a little, but the percentage of women on boards has risen a lot.

Ireland also looks pretty good in the context of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a 38-member club of rich countries. The gender wage gap, for example, is below the OECD average (Ireland can be seen in red; the OECD average is in blue): 

OECD Source: OECD data

Women in work

Back in the day, as you probably don’t need an academic study to tell you, most women didn’t work. Labour force participation – the percentage of women who had a job or wanted one – was 28% in the early 1970s. By 1990, amid major legal and social changes, it had risen gradually to 42%.

Gender balance in the workplace only really took off in the 1990s. Demand for workers to fuel the Celtic Tiger economy pulled women – by now almost as likely as men to have a degree – into the labour market. “Female participation rates rose rapidly during the economic boom, from 42% in 1990 to over 63% in 2007, and then stabilised at this level,” researchers from the ESRI found

ESRI chart Source: ESRI

That still leaves an employment gap compared to men. Around two thirds (67%) of women in Ireland aged 20-64 are employed, compared to 80% of men.

When it comes to closing the remaining gap, “access to affordable childcare is the biggest thing,” says Karina Doorley of the Economic and Social Research Institute. “The National Childcare Scheme introduced a couple of years ago has helped a bit, but that only helps with formal childcare, not with childminders or anything like that. So there’s definitely still progress to be made there.”

Helen Russell, of the same parish, agrees that caring for young children is a “real factor” keeping women out of the workforce – but it’s not the only one. Older women also take on caring responsibilities for parents or grandchildren. “It’s good to look at that difference in [labour force] participation between men and women across the whole lifecycle,” Russell says.

Mind the gap

Better known is the gender wage gap – the difference in average earnings per hour for women compared to men. There are different ways of measuring this: the headline figure for Ireland is 11.3%, according to EU figures.

Doorley, Russell and others at the ESRI report that the basic gender wage gap “has not changed much” in recent years. It’s widest among high earners and affects private sector workers much more than civil servants.

The gap persists even if you compare women and men with the same qualifications and length of experience. This “unexplained” gender wage gap is lowest among the lowest earners, where the minimum wage puts everyone on an equal footing, but rises as you look at richer and richer groups.

“There are a number of mechanisms for the unexplained gender wage gap”, Doorley tells The Journal. One of them is discrimination. This doesn’t mean the old-school kind of giving women less money for doing the exact same job as men. It’s more subtle: things like taste-based discrimination – “my clients prefer dealing with men” – or subconsciously offering a salary at the lower end of the range to a woman of child-bearing age.

Women are also more likely to do part-time work, where wages are lower, and to be concentrated in generally low-paid sectors. “Gender segregation in employment – the types of jobs that men and women are doing, and the rewards attached to them – is really important,” Russell says. “Take something like care working. That’s predominantly female, and controlled for qualification levels, they are paid less than other jobs.”

”The job itself gets devalued precisely because it’s occupied mostly by women, and jobs that are occupied predominantly by men have a premium. People can say there’s no discrimination at an individual level, but there’s obviously structural inequalities going on there, and that’s much more difficult to tackle.”

Think of the children

The fundamental issue is different gender roles. There doesn’t tend to be an employment or a wage gap until “around the time of childbirth,” Doorley says. Women are the ones who take the most time off to look after children, and their wages and employment prospects never catch up.

This isn’t inevitable. Researchers in Norway have found that the “child penalty” – mums experiencing a lasting hit to their earning power, while their husband doesn’t – isn’t down to the simple fact that women are the ones actually giving birth. They looked at what happens to lesbian couples who have children compared to heterosexual couples. A woman who gives birth while in a same-sex relationship has a lower immediate drop in income, and catches up with her partner within a few years.

This suggests that “while biology plays a small role in explaining the relative child penalty experienced by heterosexual couples, some combination of preferences and gender norms explain the vast majority”. In other words, same-sex couples probably share the chores and childcare more equally than male-female couples.

These gender norms and preferences are harder to change by pulling a government policy lever. But Russell says that top-down changes can still ripple out into society.
“Things like gender roles, they’re not directly amenable to policy, but you could do things like giving men paid parental leave so that they take greater roles in childcare”, Russell says. “That’s the sort of thing that can change the idea of what it is to be a man or a woman”.

Women in the boardroom

One area which has seen significant change in recent years is the number of women making decisions in big companies on the commanding heights of the economy.

Granted, that’s not so much the case if you look at female bosses in the workforce as a whole. In 2010, 32% of “managers, directors and senior officials” were women, according to the Central Statistics Office. By 2020, it was 34%, having peaked a bit higher in between.

So about one-third of managers were women ten years ago, and about one-third of managers are women now. (The very latest figures do seem to show a decent rise, but that could be the pandemic messing up the data. “I would like to see a few more quarters of similar results before concluding that the gender breakdown has undergone an increase which will be sustained in the longer term,” Sam Scriven of the CSO tells us.)

Where you do see more rapid change is among fancy executives at large firms. The ISEQ 20 – the very biggest Irish-listed companies – met a government-backed target of having women make up 30% of board members last year. The proportion of companies with 250+ employees with a female chairperson doubled, from 7% to 14%, also in the last couple of years. There are also more women in senior management teams.

Boards vs targets Source: Balance for Better Business report

Why is 30% the aim for boards rather than, say, 50%? “The 30% concept is not around parity. It’s more around strong research that says when you have a decision-making team, 30% is where you get your tipping point. It’s very hard to be a lone voice”, explains Gillian Harford of the 30% Club Ireland, which campaigns for better board balance.

“If you have a team of ten, three voices can really change the conversation so much easier than one voice. 30% is the floor, not the ceiling”.

Hitting that goal puts Ireland in and around the EU average, having moved from 17th to 12th place in the rankings since 2018 (although behind the UK as well). Harford thinks it’s a major achievement in a short space of time.

“Ireland has done that on a voluntary basis. We’re being benchmarked against countries that have mandatory [gender] quotas and very strong consequences for failure on those quotas. We’ve managed to move up five places on the basis of voluntary actions”.

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Women on largest companies board of directors Source: Balance for Better Business report

Ireland also ranks third among the 18 or so countries where the 30% Club has branches, the majority of which are outside Europe.

But Harford cautions that the corporate world can’t take its foot off the pedal.

“It really needs continued focus on integrating it into a regular part of business business life, rather than just standalone initiatives”, she tells The Journal. “That’s why it’s really important not just to look at boards. You really need to look at senior leadership teams, you really need to look at the pipeline”.

The pipeline is particularly important when it comes to preparing women to take the very top jobs – chair or CEO – where they are still rare. A lot of that is down to the fact that women tend to be concentrated in departments that produce executives, but not necessarily chief executives.

women by role Source: Balance for Better Business report

“We still see in certain industries that there are fewer women in revenue-generating roles, for example, and revenue-generating roles are very strong drivers for CEO positions”, Harford explains. “How do we make sure that there isn’t just very strong gender balance in the likes of HR or marketing or legal, and get good gender balance across all functions?”

Having plenty of women on boards but hardly any female CEOs is fitting, in a way, for a country that has had female Presidents and Chief Justices, but never a woman Taoiseach. Arguably the real test for Irish business in the years to come is gender balance in those highly visible positions of individual leadership.

 This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

CJ McKinney  / Legal Affairs Journalist

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