The workplace culture that is holding women back
Women make up most of our graduates but remain poorly represented at senior levels in business
Grace O’Rourke Veitch: ‘We need to be measuring people on output and productivity, not their presence in the office.’
Girls here outperform boys in school and in Ireland, as in many other countries, more women take undergraduate university degrees than men. This has been the case for more than a decade of CSO statistics (according to a 2011 CSO report on gender, 53 per cent of women aged 25-34 have a third-level qualification compared with just under 39 per cent of men in this age group). In the US, more women than men also take master’s and PhD degrees.
Yet year after year, women remain poorly represented at senior levels in companies and participate to a lesser degree than men in the workforce. In 2011, 46.7 per cent of Irish women worked – a considerable fall below the 60 per cent level the EU set as a target for 2010. (That said, Ireland did meet the 60 per cent marker in the final boom years of 2007 and 2008, but not since.)
A new Irish study indicates that a retrograde business culture is likely to be a significant contributor to the problem. Ireland’s poor record in providing flexible work environments, coupled with declining government support for working mothers, discourages women’s participation in the workforce and almost certainly is linked to why women also end up stuck at lower level jobs than their male counterparts.
Some 84 per cent of working professional women interviewed for the study, commissioned by technology company Citrix Ireland and conducted by iReach, said a flexible working policy was crucial to managing motherhood and a demanding job.
Asked if Ireland’s business culture was improving, 55 per cent said they felt companies across the country would never fully trust employees to work outside of the office.
Rather depressingly, that perception fits with a survey of Irish business decision- makers done earlier in the year, in which 73 per cent of employers said the main reason they did not have flexible working policies was just that: their lack of trust in employees to work outside the office.
Only 5 per cent of Irish employers in that study said they provided a flexible working environment for employees.
Yet 63 per cent of the women surveyed in the Citrix report said a flexible work environment would have a direct, positive impact on productivity. The women said other benefits of such an environment were lower stress levels and a greater feeling of being in control (47 per cent) and a better ability to juggle work and family (40 per cent).
“Being a woman working in technology for 21 years, I’ve had my own personal experience of this,” says Grace O’Rourke Veitch, country manager at Citrix Ireland.
Discouraged from working
Her reflections on the difficulty of
finding enough job candidates for the positions they currently have open led
her to consider the degree to which
many women may be actively discouraged from working.
“We felt there is an untapped pool of talent out there among women who feel prohibited due to the inflexibility of the workplace and also child care costs,”
The huge numbers who bought houses in outlying towns around Dublin during the housing bubble may also find the prospect of an enforced, long daily commute – especially with a young family at home – to be unappealing.
“We need to be measuring people on output and productivity, not their presence in the office,” she says, noting that the IT sector in Ireland has more than 6,000 vacant jobs. “I really want to get out there and encourage businesses, and explain the benefits [of flexible work policies]. We clearly have gaps in filling available roles, and I don’t think we can afford that.”
This article was corrected on November 14th, 2013.
Yet from a different angle, affordability is likely to be a key consideration for women otherwise interested in getting back to work after having a child.
“Our childcare costs in this country are astronomical,” says Veitch.
Given that maternity benefit has just been reduced by €32 a week, or €832 over six months, and adding to that the Government’s decision last year to start taxing maternity benefit, the loss of income – potentially €2,482 annually – is likely to keep more women at home.
“Many will feel you’re better off staying at home,” she says. “The tax system is incredibly important in influencing those decisions. If a benefit is cut, it adds another reason to stay home.” We are behind our European counterparts and the US and Canada in offering more family-friendly, flexible working options, she adds.
That is something Ireland cannot afford as it goes after talented employees in a global market. Too often these are seen as “soft” issues, but they are centre stage and potentially deal-breaker problems for a significant part of the working population.