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Column: Women are still blatantly discriminated against in the office

All the figures show that women are paid and promoted less than their male colleagues. It’s time we took action, writes Mary Mitchell O’Connor.

Mary Mitchell O'Connor

A RECENT EU Commission study found that women in Ireland are earning 17 per cent less than men, with twice as many men earning over €50,000 a year.

Even more surprising is the fact that women in their 20s now earn about 90 per cent of what their male colleagues do, with this gap widening the older women get.

This suggests two things. One, that the tide is slowly turning and that our young women, while not yet getting full recognition for the work they do, are now on the way to getting the credit they deserve. And two, that the older a woman gets, the less she is valued in the workplace.

If there is any truth in point one, it represents a real sea-change in our approach to equal work for equal pay. Sadly, it is likely that point two also holds weight, meaning that as a woman approaches child-bearing age, her worth in the workplace is significantly diminished.

The reasons for the age-old gender pay gap is manifold; women are still considered to be the primary care-givers in society, they are often paid less simply because they do not ask for more, and they are sometimes passed over for promotion in their 30s due to a cultural mindset that they will be taking extended periods of leave to have babies. This attitude is completely unacceptable and needs to be challenged.

Similar to our representation in politics, Irish female representation on corporate boards is dismal. In fact it is worse. Women make up only eight per cent of senior positions on Irish listed companies and hold less than a third of the membership of State boards. Last year it was reported that almost all of our 35 largest stock exchange listed firms were without women board members at all.

Where the civil service is concerned, women outnumber men at nearly two to one. But we are far out-weighted when it comes to filling the highest ranks. At the highest level of General Secretary, women account for only 17.6 per cent of posts in the civil service, while at the lowest rank we occupy 77.3 per cent of positions.

‘The workplace is no longer made up of men as the traditional breadwinners’

In Norway in 2003, progressive measures were adopted to address the imbalance, where women’s earning potential and pathway to the top was concerned. This was through the introduction of a 40 per cent gender quota for public limited, State-owned and inter-municipality companies which imposed tough sanctions for non-compliance. In one instance, the dissolution of the company was the price paid for attempting to keep women marginalised and side-lined.

In all cases a grace period was given to reach the target, which saw female board representation in Norway skyrocketing from 15.9 per cent in 2004 to 37 per cent in 2007. The targeted quota of 40 per cent was finally reached in 2008.

Legislated board quotas have since been introduced in Spain (2007), France and the Netherlands (2010) with quotas for public limited companies are also being discussed in Belgium, Canada and Italy, where laws are at different stages of the ratification process.

It was argued, in some circles, that the Norwegian initiative would force companies to appoint less qualified people to their boards. In fact, studies have since revealed that 36 per cent of female board members in Norway have a university education lasting six years or more, compared to just 22 per cent of their male counterparts. The gender quota initiative has since gained broad acceptance.

It is widely known that girls perform better at school than boys and that Ireland enjoys the highest percentage of women graduates in Europe, yet despite this, the sad truth is that Irish women are blatantly discriminated against when they enter the world of work. By challenging discrimination instead of blithely ignoring it, we can work towards changing the lot of the women to come.

In the next few weeks we will introduce a gender quota for women in politics through the Electoral Amendment Bill to ensure a more even spread is presented to the electorate, in terms of candidates at election time. However, we need to go further and carefully examine the ways in which we can improve opportunities for female advancement in the business.

We now live in a world that has changed beyond recognition. The onus is now on men, as much as women, to tend to the needs of their families where care-giving is concerned. The workplace is no longer made up of men as the traditional breadwinners who go to work to provide for their stay at home wives. Women now play as much of a role in the workforce as our male counterparts.

If we are to get to grips with this issue, we must challenge discrimination where there is evidence of its existence. Greater income transparency within companies could facilitate a fairer and more balanced apppproach. A woman’s work is equally as valuable as a man’s. It’s time that fact was reflected in the pay we receive each and every week.

Mary Mitchell O’Connor is a Fine Gael TD for Dun Laoghaire.

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Mary Mitchell O'Connor

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