‘It’s about stepping out of your comfort zone’

Women in the workforce: It is often left up to individuals to challenge company culture themselves

With 77 per cent of women aged between 25 and 54 employed outside of the home in 2018, a record number of women are now part of the Irish workforce.

Despite increased participation, there are still certain fields where women are severely outnumbered by their male counterparts.

In Ireland, management and supervisory positions continue to be overwhelmingly held by men. This trend can be seen at the very top of management structures, where men are more often promoted than women and are paid better.

According to a gender balance survey published in May by the Central Statistics Office (CSO), just one in nine chief executives in large enterprises in 2019 were female and women account for just 20 per cent of positions on boards of directors.


While it is illegal to discriminate it is often left up to individuals to challenge company culture themselves. While this can be difficult, support groups such as the Irish Women Lawyers Association and the 30% Club can play an important role in addressing the imbalance.

Groups set up to get women involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have flourished over the last number of years. Their aim is to encourage women to pursue degrees and careers in STEM, and not for the perception that they are traditionally “male” jobs which can colour their choice.

However, it is not just in STEM subjects and careers where women are in the minority. Both the finance and legal world are still dominated by men, particularly in the upper echelons of companies and the law.

According to Bar Council figures from 2016, 65 per cent of law graduates are women, yet this number drops immediately as soon as women begin to work. Only 39 per cent of barristers are women, and 16 per cent of senior counsel. Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures from 2016 show that women make up 49.7 per cent of business, administration and law graduates, yet fewer than one in five CEO positions in the financial sector went to women in 2017. Women make up just 25.9 per cent of senior executive positions in finance and insurance, according to CSO figures for 2019.

Some companies are taking a pro-active approach to addressing the issue. One of Ireland’s largest law firms Arthur Cox has measures in place to reduce the gap in leadership positions and it runs initiatives to encourage women in the workplace.

Eimear Power, graduate recruitment manager at the firm says these programmes include initiatives for female lawyers such as mentorship programmes, networking events and HR policies such as agile working and shared parenting leave.

“The firm has gender quotas for all of our senior decision-making committee membership and we are proud supporters of the 30% Club Ireland,“ Power says.

Walters People is a specialist recruitment consultancy that works exclusively in the areas of finance, banking, management support and human resources. They have compiled several documents on the subject of gender equality in the workplace, and as a result of their extensive research, they have a number of recommendations aimed at helping women to succeed and progress in the workplace, particularly in male-dominated industries.

Sarah Owen, Director of Walters People Ireland, recommends finding a mentor in a more senior position in the company. "With a quarter of women claiming confidence is the biggest barrier to negotiating salary or progression, a mentor can give professional women an avenue to practice their communication skills in a safe environment by focusing on growth and improvement."

She also advises women to ask for what they want, be that progression opportunities or salary negotiations, and to volunteer yourself and make yourself seen where possible.

“Put yourself forward for presentations, leading team meetings, or having to step into a manager’s role when they are off. All of this can be very daunting and may feel like you are setting yourself up for criticism or failure, but there is seldom not any opportunity around you in a business. It’s about stepping out of your comfort zone.”

Balance for Better Business

So what is the Government doing? The National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020 contains 139 actions to advance gender equality.

One initiative saw the recent publication of the first report of the Balance for Better Business Review Group – an independent business-led group charged with making recommendations to tackle the issue why there are so few women in senior executive positions and at board level in Irish companies.

The group, which was established in July 2018 by the Government, has set a target of 33 per cent female representation on boards of ISEQ 20 companies by 2023 and 25 per cent for other listed companies. It has also set a target of no all-male boards by the end of 2019.

The group’s first report points out that it makes good business sense to achieve gender balance and that the under-representation of women in decision-making positions in Ireland represents a vast pool of untapped potential.

While Ireland’s business community is seen as outward-looking and open to change, serious gender disparities in corporate leadership is a challenge that needs to be “tackled urgently,” the report notes.

Be yourself and don’t panic

Arthur Cox’s Eimear Power advises graduates to be true to themselves and not to panic.

“My advice to graduates is the same regardless of gender - try your best, be yourself and don’t panic, what is for you won’t pass you. While the decision on what to do after college is an important one, it is the first of many.

“Your career will span more than four decades so your first job after college is unlikely to be your job for the rest of your life. If you don’t get your first choice, don’t be disheartened, things have a way of working themselves out.”

My experience

Fiona O'Malley is undertaking a Diploma in Legal Studies in King's Inns. She attended an all-girls secondary school in Tullamore, Co Offaly, before studying the BA International in NUI Galway, where she studied English, Irish and French. She pursued a career in journalism and communications, and developed a keen interest in women's, children's and environmental rights. She realised that each of these had a legal element and decided to pursue law. She believes that deciding to study at King's Inn was "one of the best decisions I ever made".

O'Malley serves as the auditor of the Law Students Debating Society of Ireland (LSDSI) in King's Inns. Of the society's 189 past auditors, she is the 14th female one. Despite this, she hasn't noticed an obvious gender disparity in her classes – "I think my class is quite balanced in terms of gender, and the faculty is well represented by powerhouse women." She believes that the gender gap is more obvious as you rise higher up the totem pole. "Almost two-thirds of partners (solicitors) in the largest seven firms in the country are men. The same trend is seen in the seniority of barristers. More progress is needed towards gender equality among senior counsels – there are relatively fewer women 'taking silk' or called to the inner bar compared to their male counterparts." However, O'Malley emphasises the work of the Irish Women Lawyers Association and their work striving to reduce the gender imbalance.

Ellen Matthews is an associate consultant in Milliman Ireland, an actuarial consultancy. She studied Actuarial and Financial Studies in UCD, and graduated in 2017. She decided to pursue this degree when she came across it in her research while still in secondary school. "I have always enjoyed working with numbers and knew that whatever I studied would involve this in some way. The actuarial profession jumped out at me when I was in fifth year as something which would allow me to use mathematical and statistical concepts in a practical way."

Matthews attended an all-girls secondary school in Dundalk, before she studied in UCD. Her university course was then predominantly male, however, she does not feel that this gender imbalance affected the atmosphere within the class. "There was a very collaborative culture and people often worked together. There were opportunities for everyone to excel and both males and females thrived equally."

Her office now is still majority male, but Matthews does not think that this affects how she behaves day to day. “One day I might be the only woman in the room and the next I might be at a majority female meeting. In either situation, I have never felt that I couldn’t express my thoughts and have them heard.”

Betty McLaughlin is a former President of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors*. She acknowledges that gender bias can affect students and graduates in their career decisions, but she strongly advises identifying "interests, strengths and aptitudes" when making a decision, and not allowing gender bias into the equation. She believes that "research is key to finding a suitable post-Leaving Cert educational pathway to align their aptitudes and interests with a suitable fulfilling career that will enable them to succeed, flourish and grow in confidence."

“There is a gender disparity across the financial industry but I do not believe that this should deter any woman who wants to enter the actuarial world,” says Matthews. “From my experience, actuarial careers may also offer scope for better work-life balance than some other areas of finance.

“Regardless of gender, this is something on which I think my generation places a high value.”

Tips for graduates

1. Complete a full audit of your employability skills

List your interests. What are your transferable skills – do you work well in a team? Do you excel at written and verbal communication? Can you demonstrate a capacity to lead? Are you a good listener? Are there examples you can cite where you demonstrated strong research and analytical skills? Are there areas you need to improve upon?

2. Build a strong, informative CV

Include your achievements and don’t be shy about including any extra-curricular activities as employers often look to these when deciding between candidates.

3. Don’t hold back and don’t overlook any job that interests you

If you are new to the job market, ask yourself, what type of company you would most like to work for? Do their corporate-social policies concur with your beliefs? What kind of career progression possibilities do they allow for? Is there a mentoring programme in place? Where do you see yourself in two years’ time?

4. Seek out a mentor

Consider joining mentorship programmes, such as GradLink in Trinity and DCU Structured Mentor Programme, where graduates mentor students in practical career and application skills. Networking can be invaluable when applying for positions and hearing about others’ first-hand experience can only further your own knowledge. Support groups such as Network Ireland, WXN Ireland, Professional Women’s Network, Lean In, National Women’s Council, and Women mean Business can offer great networking and support for young female graduates.

5. Don’t be afraid to change course

Employers often look to “soft skills” such as a candidate’s ability to lead, to problem-solve, to innovate, to build relationships, to adapt rapidly and communicate effectively. These are skills you will have acquired over many years in the education system. The changing needs of the workplace are such that far greater emphasis is now placed on an ability to cultivate a workforce with a significant soft skills capability. You should feel confident in your ability to work in areas/industries that you might not have previously considered.

6. Seek feedback

Asking questions indicates a willingness to learn and shows you are interested in your job. Feedback is a very valuable tool for graduates and employers alike as it enables both parties to understand what they are doing well and not so well. Before you ask for feedback, list the areas you want to address. If there is no formal feedback programme in place or if you feel it has negative connotations in your workplace, reframe your request by asking your employer for advice instead of feedback.

Useful websites


How employers can make a difference

Companies can introduce cultural and organisational changes to address gender inequality in the workplace.

1. Audit your company for gender pay gaps and fix them.

2. Have an Equal Opportunities Policy, with clear objectives and targets

3. Promote diversity of gender, social and ethnic backgrounds

4. Introduce a mentorship programme for all

5. Make work/life balance a priority

6. Cultural changes – promote belonging and acceptance in the workplace

This article was amended on 25/09/19 to correct an error. It was incorrectly stated that Betty McLaughlin is President of the IGC. Beatrice Dooley is the current President of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors.