Women in the workplace

With the pay gap closing and women taking the lead in professions of authority, are we closer than ever to workplace equality, asks Anna Carnegie

There is no doubt that, in professional terms, women in Ireland have come a long way. After all, it was only 40 years ago that women employed in the public service and banking sectors had to give up their jobs after they got married.Not only that; the range of professions women are employed in has also expanded dramatically. There was a time when your career path was completely predetermined by your gender. Teacher, nurse, and secretary were the so-called female roles; while jobs such as doctors, bankers, lawyers, and politicians all fell into the male remit.Although Ireland’s political landscape may have issues with female participation, arguably the most powerful political force in Europe is Angela Merkel. On a wider scale, women are taking up more and more jobs as doctors and lawyers. In fact, research by Cambridge University found that there are actually more women than men in these high-status roles.So is that the end of the story? Have we as a developed society reached a state of professional gender equality? Well, not exactly. Despite the improved conditions and the rising opportunities, dig a little deeper and existing inequalities will begin to emerge.Although women may be employed in what were previously considered male jobs, there remain two fundamental differences between the sexes in this regard. Firstly, despite moves to the contrary, it is an unfortunate fact that women are still paid less than men. Related to this, it is rarely women who make the senior positions of a given company or service.Yes there are exceptions, like Merkel, but on the whole, men are still the top dogs of the working world. They are the consultants, the chief executives and the honourable justices. For their female counterparts, on the other hand, the concept of the ‘glass ceiling’ persists.While some strides toward equality have been made, it seems like there are still a lot of barriers to break down. Doing this is no easy task. Perhaps it should be asked, is this somehow our fault? Have women brought this on themselves?For those of you not familiar with Sheryl Sandberg, she is the chief operating officer of social networking site Facebook and has spoken extensively on the need for women to “lean in” professionally.According to Sandberg, a large part of the reason women don’t go for the promotion in their office, or take on tasks which may gain them acclaim, is down to a lack of self-confidence and a fear of looking domineering or not meeting the standard. She also asserts that women often over-think decisions surrounding whether to push forward professionally, and are more likely than men to be dissuaded by perceived family and childcare commitments.There is definitely some semblance of truth in this. A lot of women are reluctant to go for the top job. Many do have to think about practicalities as regards their parental responsibilities. But why? Such decisions are not made in a vacuum; they originate from much deeper-set ideologies about women’s place in professional society.Let’s take the earlier example of political powerhouse Angela Merkel. Have you ever noticed how she is portrayed in the media? References to her “stern” temperament are not uncommon. Neither are patronising comments about her appearance.Therein lies the rub. In order to break through that glass ceiling, women must be prepared to take a hell of a lot of slack. Qualities that are deemed admirable in males, such as assertiveness and decisiveness, are framed in a completely different vocabulary when applied to women where words like bossiness, coldness and heartlessness are used.Then there is the issue of childcare. Unlike our Scandinavian contemporaries, there is little emphasis placed on paternal leave in our society. Equally, childcare in Ireland can be expensive and difficult to access. There is hope that the government-introduced free pre-school year will help to change that. Ultimately, however, there is a large proportion of time when someone needs to be with the children, and usually that someone is female.What about the younger generation and the fact that girls are now outperforming boys in the Leaving Certificate? Surely this is a sign that things are on the up for female career trajectories? You might think so, but in actuality, it only makes the details outlined above all the more worrying.This is for the simple fact that in spite of getting better exam results, women continue to be outperformed by men later on in their working lives. Yes, there have been improvements and it is fantastic that girls are becoming more interested and engaged in subjects like physics and technology, once deemed masculine. However, let’s not get complacent; there is still a way to go.If you need proof of this, look no further than the Irish Constitution, in which, according to Article 41.2, a woman’s place is still located within the home. This is one of many sore reminders that women have a long way to go before reaching true equality in the working world.