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Gender inequality still exists in Irish society, writes Cullen.

Opinion Addressing the gender pay gap may cost Irish companies, but the costs of failing to do so are greater

Much is yet to be done to tackle inequality, writes Dr Michelle Cullen.

FIFTY YEARS AGO, Mary Robinson ran for the Seanad. She wanted to “challenge the then status quo,” she said at the time, and against the odds, “managed to win that election.”

Up until that point, men named John outnumbered all women that had been elected to the Seanad since its inception in 1922. It’s a sign of how far we’ve come that since then we’ve had two women Presidents and dozens more female TDs. 

A year after Mary Robinson was elected to the Senate, the first Commission on the Status of Women was established. Women in Ireland faced uphill battles to win certain rights they had been denied based on their gender.

The barriers to success

Women could not keep their jobs in banks or in the civil service once they married. They couldn’t choose their own official place of domicile. They were often not paid the same wages as men for the same work. 

The changes that shaped Ireland – from free secondary education to legislation to end gender discrimination – were not brought about by chance. They were driven by the bravery of those who spoke out against inequality and who also took action.

And as we welcome a new decade, we need to recall that bravery once again if we are to create a level-playing field for women in business.

Glass ceiling yet to be smashed

Gender inequality is still rife in Irish society, particularly within our workforces and in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. In fact, the number of girls taking STEM subjects has barely changed since 2014.

Recent research by Accenture paints a picture of career-focused young women who know what they want to study (80%) and are confident speaking to people about their future career prospects (78%), but they don’t seem particularly interested in STEM.

shutterstock_1331249339 Recent research shows young Irish women, while confident and sure of what they want, are not aiming for careers in STEM. Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images / Monkey Business Images

When asked what they considered the most important skills for the future, advanced maths, engineering and science were bottom of the list.

Outdated perceptions and stereotypes linking gender and abilities persist, and these are being passed on to our young people. In Ireland, more women than men have third-level qualifications, but this is not reflected in the seniority of women in employment.

Women in this country account for only 16.4% of board members of the largest publicly-listed companies when the EU average is 23.3%. And while business leaders generally agree that equality is good for business, some four in 10 companies on the Euronext Dublin (formerly the Irish Stock Exchange) do not have a single woman on their Boards of Management.

Social change comes slow

So what is holding us back and depriving us of real change? Businesses do not exist in a vacuum. They exist in a society that has also socialised men and women into assuming certain roles.

Stereotypes and deeply-rooted biases prevail in our education systems, in our own family systems, and also in the media. Raising the next generation is essential to our continued survival. As a society, we have done little to change work and home life to account for the dual-career reality of many of today’s employees.

Working fathers worry about not spending enough time with their children. But uncertainty over how others will view them can make some less likely to take advantage of childcare-friendly policies. Equality is not a one-way street. This is about equality for all.

Women’s presence and visibility matters in business, and in our society at large. If women are left out of critical spaces, that hinders innovation and decision-making.

Accenture research has found that a culture of equality is the single most powerful driver of innovation. It is more important than geography, demographic factors or business sector. No one has all of the answers and we know that there is no silver bullet.

Corporate Ireland responsibility

But, corporate Ireland wields significant national influence over society and must be a key influence in driving out gender inequality, together with academia and government.

The upcoming legislation requiring Irish companies to publish information relating to their gender pay gaps is just one pathway to driving out the inequality which is suppressing our economy.

The promotion of financial education from a young age and the equalisation of care leave for all parents irrespective of gender are other steps we can take to get the balance right. There is a cost to doing this, but there is also a social, economic and moral cost of failing to do this.

Those who have campaigned for equality in the past have improved our country for all of us. But we have more to do.

Women on Boards and in other leadership roles, and working in STEM careers, should not be the exception but the norm. And the first step to realising this reality is a commitment by business leaders to prioritise gender balance in their companies and to lead by example. 

We have a tendency to underestimate the bravery of those who challenge inequality. But we should remember that bravery is contagious. 

Dr Michelle Cullen is a Managing Director in Accenture Ireland. She has extensive international experience in innovation, corporate social responsibility and organisation design and is co-founder of Accenture’s Women on Walls initiative.

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