Pandemic spurs concerns of women ‘stepping back from work’

Gender balance: Concern expressed that pandemic may impede progress in Irish firms

Concerns that some women will reduce their working hours or opt out of the workforce altogether have arisen as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Brid Horan, one of the outgoing chairpersons of a Government initiative which aims to achieve gender balance in business.

Ms Horan, who, along with co-chairperson Gary Kennedy, will stand down from the group called Balance For Better Business, told The Irish Times that the pandemic could cause an upset to some of the progress made in improving gender balance in Irish companies.

“There is evidence of women stepping back from work and that’s a real issue,” she said, citing childcare issues as one of the reasons.

Targets on their own don't work. You have to have targets with engagement, monitoring and reporting

“The other issue with remote working is [whether] people become less visible and less open to career opportunities . . . The fear will be that women could be.”

Ms Horan also noted that “there has been disproportionate job losses in sectors that are more heavily [weighted towards] female [workers] like retail and hospitality”.

Senior positions

While the pandemic may hinder progress, Ms Horan noted that through setting targets an increasing number of women have taken senior leadership or board positions at companies. In 2015, for example, 11 per cent of the members of the Iseq 20 group of companies were women. In March, that figure had risen to 30 per cent. Some companies have progressed further, with 50 per cent of AIB’s non-executive directors being women, Ms Horan noted.

Whereas other European countries have promoted legally binding quotas, Ms Horan suggested that the setting of targets was a better approach.

“A notable example of the target based approach is the UK who first set targets in 2010 and they have made considerable progress. Targets on their own don’t work. You have to have targets with engagement, monitoring and reporting.”

She added that one issue with quotas is that they largely apply to boards of listed companies. “In countries where they have hard quotas they’re not making progress in the companies not bound by the quota. I’m concerned that they mightn’t be the best way to make progress. I would put a much greater priority on monitoring and reporting. I would prioritise the Government’s gender pay gap legislation,” she said.

‘Glacial’ progress

Ms Horan has considerable experience at executive and non-executive level in business. Previously the deputy chief executive of the ESB, she went on to hold non-executive positions on the boards of insurer FBD and IDA Ireland. She was also a co-founder of the 30 per cent club, a campaign group of senior business people taking action to improve gender diversity on boards and in senior management.

Ms Horan noted that since she started working, progress has been “glacial” but that Balance for Better Business is now seeking to accelerate progress.

In addition to setting targets for listed companies, the grouping is also seeking to improve female representation in private companies. For large Irish-owned private companies, the group has set a target of 30 per cent female representation on boards by 2023 and 35 per cent for leadership teams. For multinationals with operations in the Republic, a target of 40 per cent females in leadership roles by 2023 has been set.

Ms Horan and Mr Kennedy will be replaced as co-chairpersons by former Enterprise Ireland chief executive Julie Sinnamon and Aongus Hegarty, president of international markets at Dell Technologies.

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business