Gender disparity at top of Foreign Affairs highlighted

Departmental audit found women twice as likely to say approach to gender equality insufficient

Women were seriously underrepresented in the more senior ranks at the Department of Foreign Affairs, where they made up 27 per cent of counsellors and 8 per cent of assistant secretary and higher grades. File photograph: Getty Images

Women were seriously underrepresented in the more senior ranks at the Department of Foreign Affairs, where they made up 27 per cent of counsellors and 8 per cent of assistant secretary and higher grades. File photograph: Getty Images

 

More than a third of staff at the Department of Foreign Affairs say they have experienced a gender equality-related problem at work, according to a survey by external consultants.

A gender equality audit carried out by Wright Consultants found staff in the department had an “atypically strong” appreciation of workplace gender equality and that senior management had “unprecedented openness” towards the issue.

While a majority (60 per cent) of 420 staff members who took part in a survey for the audit said they had not experienced a gender equality-related problem, a large proportion (38 per cent) said they had.

The report stated that a “significant” proportion of these respondents said they had been discriminated against because of their family situation.

In the survey, women were twice as likely as men to say the department’s approach to gender equality was insufficient.

The audit was produced in December 2013 and was recently posted on the department’s website.

Its author stressed the department had made “concerted efforts” to ensure equal opportunity, treatment and working conditions for all its employees.

Motivational speakers

A number of steps had been taken to improve the situation, including the establishment of a Women’s Network, where motivational speakers shared their expertise, and a Gender Equality Discussion Forum.

A pilot mentoring programme was also set up in 2011 and executive coaching had been provided to recently promoted senior women.

In 2012, interviewers on internal promotion panels were given “unconscious bias” training.

In spite of such efforts, however, the audit found that gender inequalities remained in evidence, with the disparity particularly clear at the senior and middle management levels. Some of these trends reflected wider patterns across the public service, it noted.

The Department of Foreign Affairs had 1,358 permanent staff members at the time of the audit, 55 per cent of whom were based at its headquarters in Dublin.

As of 2012, 61 per cent of staff in the third secretary or equivalent grades were female, and the gender ratio at first secretary level was within Government targets.

Serious underrepresentation

However, women were seriously underrepresented in the more senior ranks, where they made up 27 per cent of counsellors and 8 per cent of assistant secretary and higher grades.

The audit described an intensely competitive culture and noted that this had led to “high levels of frustration” as promotion opportunities declined. “This frustration that staff feel about their career prospects is exacerbating commentary about equality, sometimes in an unhelpful way,” it stated.

“Furthermore, because of the absence of a robust feedback culture in the department, staff often are unclear as to why they got promoted/didn’t get promoted.”

The authors wrote that “at face value” it seemed from the survey that the majority of the department believed there was commitment to gender equality.

“However, on further analysis, it becomes apparent that staff at more junior grades, and the majority of female staff, believe that there is an absence of commitment - and this perception must be met and managed through targeted interventions.”

The report made a series of recommendations, including the adoption of a diversity policy and the appointment of a full-time diversity/gender equality officer at an influential grade.

It also recommended that more flexible work practices should be piloted.