We use cookies to improve your experience on this website.
Network Ireland

Women! Know Your Limits!

Tuesday 16 February 2016

If I had a Euro for every time I was asked why I thought there were proportionately less women in certain roles, in leadership, in decision-making – or indeed, why they’re often cited as earning markedly less than male counterparts – well, I’d have quite a few Euro. Probably enough to pay for several train journeys, like the one I’m making back home after my final first semester exam in an Economic Science Masters. The same train journey where a fellow passenger, overhearing my exam post-mortem conversation with a colleague, kindly suggested I might be wise to fail the same qualification in order to avoid alienating the menfolk. This may sound like a joke, and I’d dearly love if it was, given its similarity to the well-known Harry Enfield “Women, Know Your Limits!” sketch. However, this piece of sagely advice clearly illustrates long-engrained normative attitudes – biases, if you will, which continue to permeate various layers of society. That the comments made are a touch on the extreme (and let’s face it, pretty ridiculous) end of the spectrum is inconsequential – they aren’t the first I’ve heard along those lines, and moreover, follow a distinct theme. On the same day as a colleague forwarded an article indicating that women working in financial services roles in London are likely to earn around 13% less in bonus payments than their male colleagues – the irony of my educational aspirations being a little lofty isn’t lost on me. The recent Astbury Marden survey highlights that women are likely not to expect the same scale of bonus, also stating that sectors with “high reward culture” are generally male-dominated, with women often making up a larger percentage of non-commission earning roles such as HR and marketing. Unsurprisingly, this theme is one which corresponds with other sectors – why women are less visible in politics, for example – at board level or senior leadership. Indeed, international research stacks high on issues such as barriers to women undertaking more senior roles, or indeed, the paucity of women in specific sectors, including STEM. While it is generally accepted that women are likely to be more risk-averse, and may not self-select for certain types of roles – societal conditions are not facilitating a more conducive landscape for equal representation. In the immediate aftermath of #WakingTheFeminists, like many others, I’ve been stunned by some of the rebuttals which have ensued, in some way indicating that it is the fault of women, themselves, that they’re not represented more fairly on the programme. Surely, it’s in everyone’s interests to understand why such a dearth exists? However, I digress. The issue of pay parity is one which has long been discussed; Ireland’s current pay gap is just over 14% and this gap widens to over 20% for higher income earners. What does this say about a modern economy in the 21st century? It says: we have a problem. A problem which requires joined-up thinking and leadership rather than policy without conviction. If, since 1973 and the removal of the marriage bar, we had a gender balanced cabinet echoing a similarly equipped private sector and board structures – this piece wouldn’t be written. Gender quotas, often viewed as highly contentious, are in fact a short-term corrective target to right the current quota of, around 85% male political representation. However, they, on their own, won’t work. Without the type of real commitment which sees accepted ‘norms’ challenged (for both genders) and unconscious gender bias dismantled – the sluggish machinery of change will remain painfully slow. But, let’s not forget about my helpful fellow passenger. In Ireland, female graduates excel EU averages for Third Level Education – a 2014 Eurostat survey indicated that Irish women were 18% ahead of the European average, with 57.9% holding a university or college qualification. Interestingly, earlier this year, The Guardian published statistics which indicated that female graduates were finding more work – but at less pay than their male counterparts. In fact, the disparity outlined in the recent financial services survey is echoed in these statistics, which highlight that exactly half the proportion of female graduates earned £30,000 or more. Looking at these figures, I am reminded of a comment made by Minister Kathleen Lynch at an EU Presidency conference on Gender Equality in 2013 – “we employ least those we educate most”. The Minister was referring to exactly the patterns which emerge in a multitude of studies: that women are earning less and are more likely to be in casual or precarious employment. Despite the fact that our education level is higher. How do we bring change about if, quite often, many of us feel like we’re listening to a broken record? In the first instance, making equality a reality means collective awareness and an adjustment of the lens which views gender equality as a woman’s issue. In fact, it’s a societal issue. It means sincere cognisance of unconscious gender bias – for both genders – and real action taken within all areas of society. It means tackling stereotyping and gender-typing. It won’t surprise you to know that the same Eurostat report indicated that less than half of female graduates, across Europe, are science and math graduates – while in Ireland, 76% of graduates are in the education and training field. In essence, gender equality is about equality of opportunity and the removal of barriers – perceived or actual – and that’s everyone’s job.


Olwen Dawe,