Following the release of a report by the Central Statistics Office, Sally Hayden explores why women remain significantly underrepresented in high-power positions.


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 does this mean that equality has been achieved?

In Ireland women are paid on average seventeen per cent less than men. This isn’t just a national phenomenon. On a European level they represent only eleven per cent of the governing bodies of listed companies. Globally, women only constitute 2.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, earn ten per cent of the world’s incomes, and own only one per cent 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 cannot be doubted. Her organisation was set up thirty years ago specifically to provide opportunities for businesswomen that didn’t exist elsewhere. “They couldn’t go 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 organizations, far 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, such discrimination still remains today, albeit to a lesser extent. “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; 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 as to 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 treatment of women, stating that it was proven in previous research that women were systematically downgraded by about ten per cent when their name appeared on a submitted paper. “So in terms of the anonymity factor, that greatly helped women in education.” She continues by saying that unfortunately, it is far more difficult to be gender anonymous in the workplace.

It is impossible to ignore the role children play in changing both women’s priorities and opportunities. In the US sixty-two per cent of women recognised having children as a barrier to promotion, while a shocking ninety-six per cent 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, the work and everything.” Holland also suggests that a feeling of real or socially-induced guilt regarding time not spent with children can be more endemic in mothers than fathers. 
Achieving business success often comes at a price. A report by McKinsey & Company found that forty-nine per cent of the best paid women were childless, compared to nineteen per cent of men, while 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 not immediately apparent. Holland suggests that mentoring and the introduction of flexible working hours can benefit both sexes whilst simultaneously decreasing the income gap, while 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 are significant factors. Holland states that a cultural expectation of men can lead to an assumption that they’re better leaders and therefore more worthy of promotion. They are seen as “striving; they are encouraged to be competitive, authoritative, to 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 is therefore less valued.

As sexual discrimination in the workplace is rarely discussed by those who are discriminated against, the lack of awareness that there is a problem itself impedes development. Kershaw described once 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.”