Thursday 29 September 2016

'No equality in the workplace without equality in the home'

Minister tells conference highly educated female workforce is greatest under-utilised resource the nation possesses

Frances Fitzgerald

Published 28/05/2015 | 02:30

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald speaking at the conference in the Mansion House in Dublin yesterday. Photo: Conor Healy
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald speaking at the conference in the Mansion House in Dublin yesterday. Photo: Conor Healy

As Minister for Justice and Equality, I am often asked what it is like to be a woman in a male-dominated environment. It is true that if I look around my Cabinet colleagues, just four out of the 15 senior ministers are women.

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But what might surprise you the most is that, at 26pc, this is the best gender balance that has ever been achieved in the history of our State.

Next year, we commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising, the Proclamation for which, notably, was addressed to "Irishmen and Irishwomen". That was at a time when women did not have the right to vote in the vast majority of democracies. Regrettably, the progress towards gender equality in Ireland in the intervening years was very slow with the major impetus along the way being provided by our entry to the European Community in 1973.

Across the justice sector, change is quietly happening with the announcement over the last few years of a number of 'first female' appointments to prominent positions, including the Attorney General, the Chief Justice, the Chief State Solicitor, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Garda Commissioner, and more recently the chairperson of the newly established Policing Authority. The rise to prominence of women in the legal professions should come as no surprise. Statistics released by the Law Society of Ireland earlier this year show that for the first time in any legal profession in the world, gender parity has been achieved among Irish solicitors. This is an important achievement and one which we must work to replicate and normalise across all other sectors of employment.

My department and Ibec held a conference in the Mansion House to promote the benefits of gender balance in leadership positions in the private sector and on corporate boards.

The conference is a follow-up to the highly successful 'Investing in Talent - Promoting Gender-Balanced Leadership' conference which we jointly organised last November. At the Mansion House conference, we called on senior business leaders to make a personal commitment to achieving greater gender balance in leadership positions in their organisations. We are encouraging companies to look at their organisational culture and to identify the barriers and facilitators to improving gender balance in senior roles.

As women represent 60pc of our graduates in Ireland, we cannot continue to espouse the belief that the low numbers of women in decision-making positions across all sectors represents a meritocracy.

Rather, it is a lingering symptom of an outdated mindset which believes that women should undertake the majority caring role within the home and family, even where this limits their personal career ambitions. It represents a dreadful omission to deal with the cultural mindsets in organisations that fail to address issues around combining work and family and adequately address the particular barriers women face.

We need a seismic change in our organisational culture and right across our society which recognises the rights and responsibilities of men to fulfil their domestic and parenting duties. Without equality in the home, we will never achieve true equality in the workplace.

Our highly educated female workforce is the greatest under-utilised resource which this country possesses. Failure to capitalise on the investment which we have already made in women's education will have long-term repercussions in terms of our economic growth, competitiveness and innovation.

I firmly believe that a diversity of voices, opinions and experiences leads to better decision-making and helps us to avoid the danger of 'group think' which we know has been so damaging previously to our economy and to those right across Europe and the rest of the world. Companies cannot continue to draw their key decision-makers from among a small talent pool. Gender and diversity policies are being widely implemented in some of the largest and most successful companies across Europe because they make good business sense. Can Irish companies afford to be left behind?

I look forward to a time when the appointment of an accomplished woman to a prominent role will not be accompanied by the words 'first female' and will instead be greeted with no fanfare aside from celebrating her career achievements.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald spoke yesterday at the Ibec/Department of Justice and Equality conference entitled 'Reversing the paradox: Promoting gender-balanced leadership'

Irish Independent

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