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Powerful roles for women remain a work in progress

Powerful roles for women remain a work in progress
Dr Evelyn Collins reflects on how women are still under-represented at senior management level, in board rooms, and in public life.

Although women make up almost half of the Northern Ireland workforce, leave school with better qualifications than men, and are more likely than men to enter further and higher education; they are, as the facts reported in the Belfast Telegraph today reveal,  still under-represented at senior management level, in board rooms, and in public life in Northern Ireland.

It is true that there has been progress and achievement in equality for women in the workplace over the past few decades – since sex equality laws were introduced in the 1970s. Women are now working in a broader range of occupations and industries than ever before. And the pay gap has narrowed, with the median hourly earnings of all women, excluding overtime, now around 90% of male earnings – in 1997 that figure was 77%.

But many inequalities remain. Only 33% of managers and senior officials in organisations are women and women remain the largest under-represented group when it comes to enterprise and entrepreneurship in Northern Ireland.  Women are also under-represented in decision-making and leadership in both politics and public life in Northern Ireland.  In the last election, only 19% of those elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly were women and women represent only 35% of public appointments in Northern Ireland.

And at the highest – and most influential levels – of our society, women are still under-represented, both in the private and the public sector. It has been argued that, as it takes many years for people to work their way up to senior positions, the imbalance today at the highest level reflects the lower proportion of women at all levels in these employments in the past.  Therefore, it is suggested, due to the fairer balance which now exists at entry level, time will bring the change we wish for. That argument has looked less compelling as years and decades have passed and significant improvements in female participation in many businesses and professions have resulted in only marginal advances for women at the highest levels.

The reasons for this lack of progress are deeply ingrained and not easily addressed. They include stereotypical ideas of what management and leadership looks like and long established systems which shape how and when organisations do business in ways which do not suit many women.

Accessing affordable, quality childcare remains a significant barrier to employment for many women, and Northern Ireland continues to have one of the lowest levels of childcare provision in the UK. That has to be addressed if participation by women in our economy and our institutions is ever to reach its full potential.

The provision of flexible working arrangements by most employers has brought great benefits but the fact that these measures are accessed mostly by women points up an underlying truth – that caring for a family is still seen to a great extent as primarily a woman’s responsibility. It continues to be the case that, of the large number of calls the Equality Commission receives from women who feel that they have been discriminated against, the most common ground of complaint is that they have suffered discrimination because of pregnancy or maternity.

Changing such deep-seated attitudes is always a challenge. We have seen the importance of firm legislation and public leadership in achieving the progress we have made so far in achieving gender equality – and we should not underestimate the extent of that. To achieve full gender equality at all levels of society we need a commitment to drive that change at the very top. That requires leadership by politicians in the Executive, the Assembly and the council chambers; and by the boards of businesses and institutions throughout Northern Ireland.

Article published in The Belfast Telegraph, Monday 8th September 2014

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