Forty years ago women couldn’t sit on a jury, collect children’s allowance, buy contraceptives, or drink a pint in a pub. Now discrimination on the grounds of sex is illegal, and feminism is almost a dirty word. But have women really won the war?
In Ireland women are paid on average 17% less than men. This isn’t just a national phenomenon. On a European level they represent only 11% of the governing bodies of listed companies. Globally women only constitute 2.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs, earn 10% of the world’s incomes, and own 1% of the means of production.
The elusive “glass ceiling” is usually acknowledged but not discussed. Mary Kershaw, national president at Network Ireland, states that its existence can’t be doubted. Her organisation was set up 30 years ago specifically to provide opportunities for business women that didn’t exist elsewhere, and so in a sense stemmed from it. “They couldn’t go then to golf clubs or anything so a few women from Enterprise Ireland set it up so they could meet and discuss things. At that time they found that there were younger men joining the organisations a lot behind them and they were helping them get on and then all of a sudden they were above them… so that was a very big issue then.”
According to their members that discrimination still remains to a lesser extent today. ”I think one of the factors is that they feel that girls in their thirties are going to be taking time out to have families, and that’s probably part of the problem, apart from that and the old boys, the men feel more comfortable in their own company.”
One of the figures put forward by those who doubt the existence of discrimination is the impressive percentage of women now attending and excelling at higher education. Leadership, Learning and Organisational Development Coach Mary Holland provides an interesting theory on why this trend doesn’t continue into the workplace. She points out how the introduction of student numbers have played an unsung but influential part in improving the condition of women, stating that that it was proven in previous research that women were systematically downgraded by about 10% when their name appeared on a submitted paper. “So in terms of the anonymity factor that greatly helped women in education”, but unfortunately in the workplace it is far more difficult to be gender anonymous.
Children do also play a major role in changing women’s priorities, but also their opportunities. In the US 62% of women recognised having children as a barrier to promotion, while a shocking 96% of graduates from France’s elite grandes écoles would agree with them. But with increased equality, why do women continue to shoulder the majority of the responsibility when it comes to kids?
Kershaw says that the sacrifice of career development for a family is a choice, but one that women shoulder a lot more than men. “I think that having kids probably… emotionally it’s more the mother isn’t it? The mother always seems to be the one that will run the home and the work and everything. They’re better at multitasking”. Holland also points to a feeling of guilt that can be endemic in mothers more so than fathers.
Achieving success can also come at a price. A report by McKinsey & Company found that 49% of the best paid women were childless, compared to 19% of men, and a Harvard Business Review Survey concurs that the further women climb up the corporate ladder, the fewer children they have.
Solutions to the status quo are debatable. Holland suggests that mentoring and the introduction of flexible working hours can benefit both sexes whilst decreasing the gap between their incomes, whilst Kershaw proposes that gender quotas may be necessary because of the breadth of the disparity.
Achieving that elusive concept of equality is a complicated process, involving more than just matching statistics. Freedom of expression, and being allowed to play by women’s, as well as men’s rules is a significant factor. Holland states how a cultural expectation of men can lead to an assumption that they’re better leaders and therefore more worthy of promotion. They’re seen as “striving, they’re competitive, they’re authoritative, they take no prisoners, whereas the role perception for women is that they should be much more accommodating, understanding”, a form of leadership that is perceived as weaker and less valued.
And because much sexual discrimination in the workplace goes unexpressed, the lack of awareness that there is a problem itself impedes development. Kershaw described hearing a man speak about his ignorance of the “glass ceiling”; “he said that he never thought there was any discrimination against women in the workplace, and it was only later on that he realised why he thought that, because the women that got into those positions changed their personality and changed themselves to fit in with the male ethos.”