The Index »

  • Worker-directors make bid for survival beyond privatisation

    July 16, 2012 @ 2:17 pm | by Laura Slattery

    Are worker-directors good for business? Yes, was the unequivocal answer given by a focus group of chief executives, other company directors and corporate governance types to a study conducted by think-tank Tasc and commissioned by the National Worker Director Group.

    Worker-directors were “felt to be loyal to the company, trustworthy and diligent in their duties; their contribution was viewed as positive and unique by over three-quarters of respondents”, Tasc found. And, as Seán Barrett, the Ceann Comhairle, said as he launched the report this morning “there’s no State organisation that has gone down the tubes because there were worker-directors on the board”.

    Some argue that worker-directors are more independent and resistant to groupthink than other directors; others feel the advantage worker-directors bring to boards lies in their long-term commitment to the organisation, and in their insider knowledge. This is exemplified in their role in industrial relations, where they “act as a two-way conduit for information in times of conflict”.

    So why aren’t there more of them? And why are employee-directors almost always excluded from boards’ powerful remuneration and audit sub-committees? “I’m a qualified auditor, but I wouldn’t be allowed on my own audit committee,” said John Moore, employee-director of the Dublin Port Company since 2007. “I’m not saying you have to be an auditor to be on an audit committee, but it helps to have financial knowledge.”

    Indeed. There are times, it seems, when a little bit too knowledge among worker-directors is seen, by their co-directors, as a dangerous thing. Tasc’s report, based on interviews with nine worker-directors and 13 non worker-directors, found that “almost all” worker-directors felt excluded from audit and remuneration committees, “and in particular felt that CEOs would not welcome a worker-director on a remuneration committee”.

    No prizes for guessing why. The perception was borne out by the other interviewees, more than half of whom felt that worker-directors shouldn’t sit on remuneration committees “due to a potential conflict of interest”.

    UCD professor of corporate governance Niamh Brennan has previously written that conflicts of interest for elected worker-directors are “so systematic as to completely undermine their ability to carry out their duties as directors”. But, as Barrett suggested at the launch of Tasc’s report today, worker-directors are no more at risk of a potential conflict of interest than any other director. “Don’t tell me the other directors don’t meet at the Stephen’s Green club or the golf club.”

    Not everyone was happy when worker-directors were first introduced in Ireland more than 30 years ago. “In some quarters it was seen as a Communist takeover, if not of the country, then of certain State bodies,” recalled An Post employee-director Jerry Condon.

    Tasc has now recommended that the worker-director model should be extended across the public sector, with a minimum 25 per cent employee representation on public boards to ensure worker-directors are not isolated. There were concerns in the room, however, that in the State assets privatisation journey that lies ahead, the days of worker-directors at some companies might be numbered.

    Barratt insisted privatised and part-privatised State companies should retain their worker-directors. “The old fears of 30 years ago didn’t come to fruition,” he noted. Perhaps ominously for supporters of worker-directors expecting the Government to take the lead rather than just welcome new reports, he added that worker participation on boards should happen “automatically”, rather than needing to be backed up by legislation.

  • Is Sheryl Sandberg as good for feminism as she is for Facebook?

    May 19, 2012 @ 10:25 am | by Laura Slattery

    I can’t say I often spend my days off watching stock market tickers on TV, but that’s essentially what I found myself doing yesterday afternoon as CNBC provided some characteristically frenzied coverage of the Facebook IPO, from the Menlo Park gathering of newly minted employees to that awkward moment when its shares had to be propped up by its bankers.

    But fun as it was to watch “hoodie billionaire” Mark Zuckerberg ring the Nasdaq’s opening bell; intriguing as it was to hear the analysis of various CNBC pundits on the “first day crazies” and “amateur hour” that delayed trading; my interest in all-things-Facebook is rapidly boiling down to one question: how important is Sheryl Kara Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, to feminism?

    Sandberg is more accurately described as a female business role model than a feminist per se. The first qualification is not in doubt. She is the fifth most powerful woman in the world, according to the business magazine Forbes. CNN describes her as Zuckerberg’s “right-hand woman” and “the number two”, and though she does not currently have a seat on the board of Facebook, she may well do soon enough – in any case, she moonlights as an independent director of the Walt Disney Company.

    While she may not be granted the “genius” tag reserved for company founders, she’s commonly referred to as “the grown-up” at the company; the one who looks after, what’s that, oh yes, the figuring out how to make money bit. David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, believes that if Zuckerberg hadn’t hired Sandberg from Google in 2008, the company’s flotation would never have happened. Kirkpatrick also thinks Sandberg, an ex-Treasury employee, could be US president one day. “She’s got it. She’s got the whole package,” he told CNN.

    Whether President Sandberg ever does take up residency in the Oval Office, I think it’s fair to assume that everything she says publicly is uttered with political aspirations in mind. And in this context, it is a relief that Sandberg, like would-be president Hillary Clinton, tends to be vocal on gender issues.

    What she actually says doesn’t exactly read like a feminist manifesto 100 per cent of the time. She’s dismissive of the need for affirmative action, for example – not that that’s a crime – and has attributed women’s lack of progress to limits that they place on themselves, rather than the barriers posed by corporate sexism. She’s risen so high she can’t see any evidence of a glass ceiling beneath her. Indeed, both The Atlantic and Nerve.com have teased through the minuses of Sandberg’s gender philosophy – the key article they both draw on is this brilliant long-read New Yorker profile from July last year.

    But Sandberg isn’t the first and won’t be the last to argue that power is something that’s meant to be taken, not something you sit around waiting for someone to give to you. And you don’t have to be rich enough to employ a nanny, as Sandberg and her husband do, to be able to take basic advice such as “make sure your partner [at home] is a real partner”.

    Speaking of home, Sandberg recently claimed she leaves work at 5.30 pm every day to go to hers and have dinner with her children, an admission that won a generally positive response. She shouldn’t, of course, feel in any way obliged to counter the snipes of the anti working mother brigade by highlighting traditionally feminine domestic duties. But on balance it’s terribly healthy that a senior female Silicon Valley executive doesn’t feel the need to keep family life hidden away as a great unmentionable. Sandberg is a mother as well as an elite businesswoman – her subtext was clearly that she goes home at a reasonable hour because she’s super-efficient at her job.

    Unsurprisingly, she is now much in demand as a speaker on the US college commencement address circuit. Here’s a quote from a speech she gave to graduating students of the college Barnard last year: “A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world.”

    Feminism is a broad church, with plenty of room for semantic debate. But to my ears that ranks as one of the most feminist statements you’re likely to get out of a millionaire (soon-to-be-billionaire) businesswoman. Though Sandberg’s actions, beliefs and life experiences are inevitably going to be as much if not more influenced by her immense wealth than the fact that she possesses female anatomy, I’m still glad Zuckerberg chose a woman to be his number two.

    It’s not hard to like Sheryl a hell of a lot more than Facebook itself.

  • Aer Lingus lifts its nose, advertises for interns

    August 31, 2011 @ 1:53 pm | by Laura Slattery

    With no volcano-related airspace closures to contend with, Aer Lingus has enjoyed a strong second quarter to the year. Passenger numbers are up 8.3 per cent compared to the same period last year, the amount of cash earned per passenger increased 6.6 per cent to €113.13 and revenue has climbed 14 per cent to €351 million.

    These are reassuring numbers for the airline, which has, of yet, failed to invent time travel, though it is currently advertising for more assistants than Doctor Who.

    In common with a number of major employers, Aer Lingus has alighted upon a new way to get work done on the cheap: the JobBridge internship scheme. Its website is currently advertising 19 internships, with titles including IT project assistant; revenue evaluation assistant; and most eye-catchingly of all, air safety assistant.

    Some 14 of the 19 advertised positions are for nine months, the other five for six months. And 12 of them specify a requirement for degree-level qualifications in fields such as accountancy, IT and business.

    To recap the terms of the JobBridge scheme again, the Government, via taxpayers, will throw in €50 per week pocket money on top of dole entitlements, and, er, that’s it. Crucially, the interns are not supposed to be doing work that the company would otherwise have to hire someone to perform at a proper wage – so, on that basis, I guess that air safety assistant position isn’t really necessary at all.

    According to interim accounts published this morning, Aer Lingus’s losses in the first half of 2011 were higher than they were in 2010, with the airline citing the impact of industrial disputes. But this is still a company happy to declare that it is “positive” about its trading prospects for the rest of the year, as well as talk up, for the benefit of shareholders, its success in whittling down operating costs. Staff costs, which represent a fifth of its operating costs, fell 6 per cent in the first half, as the airline cut wages and headcount.

    One can only assume – given how optimistic chief executive Christoph Mueller is about the outlook for the airline – that he will at least consider adding this team of interns to the payroll at the end of the six- or nine month-period of paying them nothing.

    This is not the same company that during the boom would hire cabin crew for nine months, terminate their contracts en masse, and then prevent them from applying for cabin crew positions advertised soon after they were let go. Is it?

  • Dark forces in the departure lounge: a seven-point guide to resignation

    July 22, 2011 @ 8:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    With institutional corruption in the British media / police / parliament becoming increasingly difficult to veil in shabby apologia, the personnel involved are falling over each other to fall on their sword – well it’s better than falling into custody. Rebekah Brooks, Les Hinton, Sir Paul Stephenson, John Yates… all of them have clocked out with varying degrees of haste, style and dignity. But getting your resignation right is about more than securing a golden goodbye sealed with a loving confidentiality clause.

    You can resign to spend more time with your family, like a 1990s Tory minister, or to spend less time with your family, like David Miliband. You can be the first out of a revolving door, like Siobhán Donaghy, the first popstar to claim the title “ex-Sugababe”. You can cite principles, like crisp salesman Gary Lineker, who quit his column at the Mail on Sunday after it secretly recorded the head of the FA – only to sign up for the, er, News of the World instead.

    You can declare that there are “dark forces” at work, like one of 2011′s leading sexists, the ex-Sky Sports presenter Richard Keys. Or you can attempt a temporary blaze of glory like Steven Slater, the Jet Blue air steward who upon landing announced his resignation via the plane intercom, grabbed a couple of beers from the trolley and activated the emergency inflatable slide – only to later change his mind about wanting to quit.

    For those who have the opportunity to figure out the best way to shuffle off the official payroll, there’s a menu of eclectic exit strategies to choose from:

    1. A distraction, not a disgrace.

    Classic PR manoeuvre: Attribute your resignation not to your alleged mistake/offence, but to the public outcry about that mistake/offence, then follow this up with a bold claim to selflessness. In a spot of medal-winning rationale, Met commissioner Stephenson felt it best to go now rather than get stuck into the security preparation for the London 2012 Olympics with a Murdoch-shaped cloud hanging over him – that just wouldn’t be fair to Londoners. Similarly, Anthony Weiner, the former US Representative obliged to resign after sending what we will politely call a graphic tweet, regretted that “the distraction” had made it impossible to continue “to fight for the middle class and those struggling to make it”. He was abandoning the cause, he said, “so my colleagues can get back to work”.

    2. Stylistic flourish 101

    While the Twitter monster has doubtless not yet claimed its last scalp from office, a tweet can also be the medium by which you announce your sacking departure. Jonathan Schwartz, the chief executive of Sun Microsystems edged out last year when Oracle bought Sun, decided to merge social media platform with historic cultural artform when he tweeted his resignation with a haiku. “Today’s my last day at Sun. I’ll miss it. Seems only fitting to end on a #haiku. Financial crisis/Stalled too many customers/CEO no more.” The poetry must have sapped his inspiration, however, as @openjonathan hasn’t tweeted in quite some time.

    3. Stylistic flourish (Honours)

    It’s always a good idea if you can combine your resignation letter with a de facto application for your next career. This, essentially, is what ex-Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiatt did when he decided he’d had enough of reporting fantasy as news. “I see a cascade of shit pirouetting from your penthouse office, caking each layer of management, splattering all in between,” he wrote to proprietor Richard Desmond. Nice. If you’re a man who wants to write for a living, rather than spend your days impersonating Muslim women for the sake of an inflammatory headline, it’s a smart move to make sure everyone knows you can master such basics as a) rational argument, b) sentence rhythm, c) dry, cutting humour and d) the personal touch. Peppiatt’s letter was published by more than one “quality” newspaper and he is now found frequenting television studios providing an insider’s commentary on all things dodgily tabloid – thanks to News International, he is a pundit much in demand.

    Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks appears before a parliamentary committee on phone hacking on Tuesday. But was it her tardy resignation that did the most PR damage? Photo: REUTERS/Parbul TV

    4. Scorched earth policy

    Sarcasm and contempt are cheap if you’re so rich you never have to pretend to work again. Hedge fund trader Andrew Lahde made an 866 per cent return in 2007 by betting that the US subprime market would collapse. His farewell open letter on quitting the industry in 2008 was withering about “the low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA”. They were “there for the taking”, he said. “These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behaviour… only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America.”

    5. Exit, pursued by Ant and Dec

    With so many household villains seeking opportunities for redemption, the contestant wishlist of the producers of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here must be getting longer by the day – and if you think it’s unlikely that, say, an ex-head of the Metropolitan police would venture into the jungle in order to be dowsed in kangaroo saliva, then consider that former deputy assistant commissioner of the Met, Brian Paddick, did almost exactly that three years ago. Paddick, whose resignation from the Met falls into the “jumped after being pushed” category, survived the Queensland cameras with minimum humiliation and was last seen making a return to the more serious endeavour of being a London mayoral candidate for the Liberal Democrats.

    6. Leverage your experience

    As Bank of Ireland governor, Richard Burrows must have learned a thing or two about toxic industries. So upon leaving the bank in 2009, what better career move than to take up residency as chairman of British American Tobacco? Former Halifax Bank of Scotland chief executive Andy Hornby swapped mortgages for moisturisers when he joined Boots, only to resign from that job less than two years later, saying he needed a break. This week, he was appointed the boss of bookmakers Coral, making him the ultimate casino banker. In a corporate culture where the former head of risk management at Lehman Brothers can get a job as treasurer of the World Bank, it’s hard to sneer whenever someone whose career seems in the toilet talks about “pursuing new opportunities” round the other side of the U-bend. The chances are they will. 

    7. Why not get your life back?

    After the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, BP chief executive Tony Hayward’s entire lexicon, his entire demeanour, seemed like one big long resignation monologue staged to attract maximum levels of transatlantic opprobrium. The man dubbed “Big Oil’s Mr Bean” notoriously declared he would “like his life back” not long after the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 workers. The leak from its rig was still pumping thick black crude oil into the gulf at a rate of up to 60,000 barrels a day when Hayward decided to spend a day watching his yacht compete in an Isle of Wight boat race. His inevitable resignation statement contained a peerless mea non-culpa: “I will always feel a deep responsibility, regardless of where blame is ultimately found to lie.”

  • Corporate dress codes are back in fashion – but so is rebelling against them

    July 12, 2011 @ 8:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    Are we back in the 1950s? Stories about female employees expected to conform to arduous standards of self-presentation are rattling around the news schedules like misplaced hairpins, betraying the perfect image – of the companies, that is, not the women themselves. Earlier this month, we heard the story of Melanie Stark, who worked in the HMV outlet in Harrods until it was made clear to her by the department store that her unmade face did not satisfy the store’s requirement for full make-up.

    This week, we have the case of Sandra Rawline, suing for discrimination after she was fired from a Texan firm allegedly for refusing to dye her grey hair to comply with its “upscale image”. The firm, Capital Title, flatly denies the claim. But if the allegation is true, then Capital Title’s concept of corporate presentation is not only discriminatory but also behind the curve. This is a month, after all, when Christine Lagarde has ascended to the position of head of the International Monetary Fund sporting a silvery crop that no right-seeing person could describe as anything other than a visual enhancement of her status.

    IMF managing director Christine Lagarde. Photo: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque.

    Corporate dress codes extend to men, too, of course, but – as with the much-mocked and now scrapped 44-page dress code of Swiss bank UBS – their instructions to women often seem to involve specifications that are either creepier (UBS told its female employees what colour underwear was acceptable), more time-consuming (The Guardian beauty writer Sali Hughes calculated Harrods’ make-up instructions to female staff is a 45-minute job) or simply more expensive to follow (though admittedly UBS did tell male employees to get a professional in to iron their shirts).

    Reading feminist objections to Harrods, UBS et al is an exercise in déjà vu. It’s been over two decades since third wave feminists declared women could wear high heels, mascara and underwear-as-outerwear and still confidently call themselves good feminists – because it was campaigning for equal pay, fracturing the glass ceiling and securing the option to sidestep pension-free domestic slavery that counted, not how much you chose to embrace or rebel against the beauty industry.

    Assailed by years of what Ariel Levy dubbed raunch culture, postfeminists like Natasha Walter later revised their earlier positions and said, yes, there was something to fight against here too – women weren’t controlling their image, their image was controlling them. For if employers are going to treat female staff like they’re 1950s housewives who just happen to be on secondment to the workplace, then the old arguments of rebellion are going to have to be dragged out for a revival, too. Women like Stark, Rawline and the “slutwalk” protesters all, in different ways, want the same thing: the right to choose how they appear now, without having to give testimony later.

  • Is JobBridge, the national internship scheme, an excuse for cheap labour?

    June 29, 2011 @ 7:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    Carnage in the labour market has been so complete during this recession that employers are no longer employers, but host organisations. At least, that’s what the companies who take on temporary workers under the Government’s internship scheme, JobBridge, will be called. But is the National Internship Scheme an excuse for cheap labour? That’s one of the questions posed in a Q&A attached to the Department of Social Protection’s press advisory on the scheme, launched by Joan Burton at Facebook’s Dublin offices this morning.

    The Department’s answer to its own question, unsurprisingly, is no. “The National Internship Scheme provides an opportunity for those seeking employment to gain valuable work experience in a host organisation. The scheme aims to keep participants close to the labour market with the goal of improving their employability so that they enhance their prospects of securing employment upon completion.”

    Places will be advertised on www.jobbridge.ie from Friday.

    Internships, it would seem to me, are a good idea in principle, but in practice the exploiting devil often lies in the exploitative detail – the pay, or lack of it; the length of scheme (too long on little or no pay and clearly the host’s motivations lie solely in cutting its payroll); the quality of the training and experience provided; and the resulting employability potential (whether at the “hosting” company or at another employer who likes the look of an internship on a CV).

    In this case, the pay is just €50 a week above social welfare entitlements and the term of the internship is six to nine months. It’s impossible to know what the resulting employability potential will be, partly because it’s impossible to know what the state of the labour market will be in six to nine months’ time, which just serves as a reminder that 5,000 places in JobBridge, however advantageous it may prove for some individuals, isn’t a substitute for a job creation policy.

    Indeed, the Department is obviously concerned by the risk that the scheme may actually deter employers from recruiting at full pay. One of the conditions for employers is that the internship can’t be provided to displace an existing employee, nor should the intern carry out work for which a vacancy is being advertised. The organisers say they reserve the right to review the participation of companies where these practices are alleged.

    The level of interest from companies in JobBridge is described by Burton as “strong”. Some 320 small businesses have committed to 590 places, while the larger companies to have signed up to the scheme include Dawn Foods, KPMG, Arthur Cox, Mercury Engineering, Hertz, ESB, Bord na Móna, Tesco, PricewaterhouseCoopers, A&L Goodbody and Aer Lingus. And why not? With the Department paying the €50 per week payment, there is no direct cost to playing host.

    Burton, whose job it is to be optimistic, says she hopes that some of the employers who “find talented and motivated interns” will then offer them an actual job: “In other words, the period of internship would be a job interview for a longer period of employment.”

    The pressure that this thought will put interns under will undoubtedly be immense.

  • The light at the end of the media tunnel

    June 18, 2011 @ 10:33 am | by Laura Slattery

    “There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Independent News & Media chief executive Gavin O’Reilly at the company’s recent agm.  At this point, my mind turned, as it tends to do in these situations, to a song by relentlessly sardonic indie perennials Half Man Half Biscuit. It’s called The Light at the End of the Tunnel (Is the Light from an Oncoming Train).

    Then it switched to The Thick of It’s spin doctor Malcolm Tucker explaining to Westminster hacks that he’s invited them around for a curry because he thinks they should have one big square meal before they end up living off their own faeces. “I know that these are hard times for print journalists, yeah. I mean, I read that… on the internet.”

    Meanwhile, O’Reilly qualified his tunnel metaphor. “It’s not a blinding light – we’re not going to emerge blinking into 2012.” But all his publications were profitable, he assured shareholders. “There is a light.”

    In the end, the INM agm was so overshadowed by corporate tensions – a fist-fight expressed via proxy votes rather than actual punches – that anything positive O’Reilly tried to say about his underlying business just became a shield in his battle with Denis O’Brien. That was a shame. Selfishly, as an employee of a newspaper I am more interested in the uncertain fate of traditional media companies than the latest tit-for-tat between millionaire-billionaire businessmen – though, of course, the two have been historically intertwined.

    This week, I met Alan Crosbie, chairman of Thomas Crosbie Holdings, which as the publisher of The Irish Examiner and The Sunday Business Post is in direct competition with INM and, to a lesser extent, The Irish Times. Speaking in TCH’s corporate HQ on Cork’ s South Mall, there was some similarity between his views and the comments O’Reilly made at his company’s Aviva Stadium agm.

    Alan Crosbie said this: “I think the biggest problem in Irish markets is the UK papers. They pay no VAT over there, there’s no VAT on the bulk of their circulation. Then they publish here and pretend to be Irish… The only other place this happens in the world is a little bit on the border between Austria and Germany… I respectfully suggest that if it happened in any other democracy, people would be jumping up and down. It’s treating newspapers as if they were any other industry. They’re one of the pillars of democracy as far as I’m concerned.”

    Faced with an assembly of not-angry-just-disappointed shareholders, O’Reilly didn’t invoke any pillars of democracy. But when asked a delightfully optimistic question by the representative of a South African shareholder about when circulation would start to grow, the INM chief executive said this: “You are right to observe that circulation figures have come off. At the time we have had increased competition, particularly from the UK titles, all of which are loss-making I might add – all of our competitors are loss-making.”

    Only recently the INM board of directors had observed it was “remarkable” that no titles had gone out of business this year (apart from the INM-funded The Sunday Tribune, of course), O’Reilly noted. “It’s a fairly unreal market,” he sighed. “If dysfunctional competition in Ireland continues, it will be hard to see volume increases, but I suggest [such competition] is unsustainable.”

    The loss-making UK publications that O’Reilly and Crosbie say are creating an unreal, dysfunctional market can’t pull out of Ireland without taking an unpleasant hit on their all-important circulation totals. Still, the idea that they might to do so is a flickering light of hope for the newspaper groups that compete with them. If the bid to keep circulation up by vanquishing physical competitors is the short-term battle, however, the longer-term, more serious threat of total eclipse comes from online.

    From INM’s Independent Woman micro-site to TCH’s decision to brand its main news website as Breakingnews.ie, Irish newspaper groups are following the Daily Mail and The Guardian path of differentiating the tone and style of their websites from their newspapers, in order to preserve the perceived worth of the latter. In recognition of changed reader patterns and in preparation for a print-free future, The Guardian has already reached the stage of signalling it will remove some of the space devoted to “straight” breaking news reports in its print edition – making it more Newsnight rather than News at Ten was how editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger phrased it. Some £25 million of cutbacks from the print operation will be reinvested in its digital activities.

    Faced with plummets in advertising and circulation deemed likely to be irreversible, the Guardian Media Group has calculated that the risk of doing nothing is greater than the risk of banking more of their business on still revenue-challenged online models. But as Alan Crosbie said to me this week, “nobody really knows… No one knows how to make money out of online”.

    It’s either time to stop listening to Half Man Half Biscuit, take down the copy of the Future Exploration’s Newspaper Extinction Timeline on my office wall, and pretend none of this happening, or it’s time to start sucking up to some Malcolm Tuckers for a dinner invitation.

  • Manifesto promises that allow fathers share maternity leave are good for all women

    February 18, 2011 @ 3:33 pm | by Laura Slattery

    Speaking as a non-parent, if someone was to ask me what my favourite manifesto promise is – one that I think that I would personally benefit from were it to be introduced this side of 2020 – I’d instinctively plump for Fine Gael and Labour’s pledge to allow paid maternity leave to be shared between mothers and fathers. I may never have kids, yet as a woman I still have a vested interest in the idea that fathers would be able to get paid (or partially paid) time off during the first year of their baby’s life, while their partners take their breasts back to the office.

    Specifically, Fine Gael says: “We will review maternity leave to permit parents to share leave entitlements, recognising the changing needs of modern families.” The party’s potential coalition partner sounds slightly more cautious: “Labour favours moving to a paternity leave model, where parents can share paid leave when a new baby is born, as resources allow. [my italics]”

    It’s a remarkably simple concept that already exists in the divinely woman-friendly Sweden and will be introduced in the UK from April. Under the new UK system, if a mother returns to work without taking a full year’s maternity leave, the father will be able to take leave for the remaining time, up to a maximum of six months. It’s a measure that was pushed through in the dying days of the Labour government by its deputy leader Harriet Harman, who is that lesser spotted creature in politics these days: a feminist.

    To the horror of the business lobby, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg – who himself took time off after the birth of his first child so his wife Miriam could return to work – says he wants to bring in further flexibility from 2015. He describes the current rules as “Edwardian” , saying the “paltry” UK rules granting two weeks’ paternity leave on statutory pay “patronise women and marginalise men”.

    Imagine how it feels then to be living in sub-Edwardian Ireland, where paternity leave, either paid or unpaid, isn’t recognised in employment law – at all. Bibs and beakers and buggies are for women only as far as our legislators are concerned. Too bad if you belong to a family where the female partner is the higher earner or the sole earner, or where it’s the father who wants to submerge himself in Monday-to-Friday baby bonding.

    The new government would ideally start by introducing a period of paid paternity leave, to be taken after the baby’s birth. The next step is the introduction of flexible maternity leave transfers, which in my view is no longer a question of encouraging the greater involvement of Irish fathers in their children’s lives – it’s actually about facilitating a desire that’s already there. To paraphrase the Fine Gael manifesto, it would mean catching up with the needs of parents. It’s not compulsory; it’s just about what suits, what fits.

    Why would maternity leave transfers benefit all women, not just mothers? Employers like the rules on leave to be as gender-rigid as possible, so they can “plan ahead”, which is a phrase that’s cropped up in the UK debates on the issue. This “planning” essentially means cost-based discrimination against women in the workplace – and by cost-based discrimination, I mean the practice whereby companies limit the number of women they appoint and promote primarily to minimise the risk that they might all decide to breed their own Von Trapp singing troupes.

    Even if you work for an employer that doesn’t stipulate “Y-chromosome necessary” on the application form, the current rules perpetuate a state-sanctioned culture of motherhood that means legions of your female colleagues – whether they want to or not – will not only disappear from view during their maternity leave, but follow a well-trodden path that starts with job-sharing and ends with the disillusionment of under-promotion. The disillusioned ones may not necessarily be the mothers – after all, they’ll have their children to pour their creative and administrative energies into – but the full-time women stuck in a work atmosphere of intensifying machismo.

    The sooner Ireland follows the UK and allows the transfer of leave entitlements, the better. Affordable childcare options are probably going to be another decade’s work.

  • Pictures of trainees shame newspapers more than PwC

    November 11, 2010 @ 10:10 am | by Laura Slattery

    The text goes something like this: “We’re OUTRAGED by this SEXIST behaviour.” The subtext? “Oh yeah and here, why not take a gander at the lovely ladies. Our favourite in the newsroom is the blonde. We’re so sorry they’re just company headshots, but people might notice if we reprint images from Ryanair’s annual charity bikini calendar every day.”

    “Rated like prize cattle,” announces today’s Irish Daily Mail headline above the staff photographs of the female PricewaterhouseCoopers trainees whose attractiveness was rated – complete with a slang reference to female anatomy – by a group of male employees at PwC’s Dublin office. The bovine imagery is the Daily Mail‘s own.

    Presumably, the women college graduates were not so long ago delighted to have secured a place at one of the Big Four accountancy firms and excited to be gaining three years’ worth of professional experience. Of course, even without this shivering display of workplace chauvinism, as women they would have already been up against the statistics. The accountancy profession is no bastion of equality: while women now represent 50 per cent of the student intake, according to a study by Prof Patricia Barker, just 16 per cent of people who make it to partner level in the Big Four boardrooms of the English-speaking world are women.

    However, the male PwC employee who originally circulated the offensive email is not, it is understood, a senior partner in the company or anything like it.  What makes him and the other men involved so pathetic was their belief that compiling a “shortlist for the top 10” in an email and confidently forwarding it around was anything other than spectacularly dumb. There will be an inquiry into what the US gossip site Gawker labelled the “frat boy behaviour”, and the PwC partner in charge of HR, Carmel O’Connor, says the company is “taking the matter extremely seriously”.

    The same attitude has not been replicated by the media (led yesterday by the Evening Herald) that reprinted the women’s photographs, thereby inviting readers to play the very same “hot or not” game that they claim brings PwC into disrepute.

    Last night’s Tonight with Vincent Browne saw Browne question Irish Independent columnist David McWilliams about whether he was “embarrassed to be associated with a newspaper that does this”. McWilliams at first noted that the pictures were “all over the Internet already” before conceding that if he was editor, he wouldn’t have printed them, as he agreed with Browne’s view that publishing the photographs was “compounding” the insult the young women had received. That they had not asked for the spotlight is not a difficult concept to grasp.  

    Thanks to PwC’s colossal size, the story has now gone international. Gawker, which has more readers than all Irish newspapers and online media put together, is the kind of website that publishes stories that make even bitter political opponents of the US Tea Party’s Christine O’Donnell feel sorry for her. Repeated publication of the email would be negative for the company, Gawker observed: “Once it hits the British tabloids, it’ll certainly be a PR nightmare for PwC.”

    I don’t imagine the women involved are having much fun at the moment either. Again, just think what it must have felt like, starting out in a new job, buoyed by their fresh academic achievement, proud to pose for their company ID mugshots and eager to prove how capable they are. It must have been beyond their imagination to think that their faces would be collated en masse to be judged, compared and criticised not only by their male colleagues, but millions.


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