How Women’s Day exposes gaps between rhetoric and reality

Labour Party leader Ivana Bacik TD Senator Marie Sherlock Cllr Emma Cutlip with Labour Women mark International Women’s Day by launching a campaign to hold a gender equality referendum this year at Leinster House, Dublin. Labour called on Government t

Sarah Collins

For the last two years, a Twitter bot has been trolling UK companies by replying to corporate social media post marking International Women’s Day with details of each firm’s gender pay gaps.

For many firms - particularly those in the law, transport, construction and financial sectors - it shows the yawning gap between rhetoric and reality for their female staff.

Ireland’s first round of gender pay gap reports was published last December, revealing that men make, on average, between 12.3pc and 12.6pc more than women in Ireland’s largest 500 companies (according to Irish Independent and PwC analysis).

That means for every €1 men earned last year, women earned around €0.87.

The gap is the highest in traditionally male-dominated sectors, such as construction (23.2pc) , law (27.9pc) and transport (17.2pc), which are some of the best-paid parts of the economy. Media is far from immune.

For barristers, 36pc of whom are female, according to the Bar of Ireland, progress has been slow.

Only 20pc of women have made it to senior counsel roles, which are far better paid and give qualified barristers preference.

With many women concentrated in areas of law that are viewed as ‘softer’ - such as family or employment law - it can be difficult to move up because their cases are not as high-profile as, say, commercial cases, which tend to go to hearing.

“In personal injury cases, medical negligence cases, a lot of those end up being settled and therefore you don’t have reported decisions,” says Sara Phelan SC, chair of the Council of the Bar of Ireland, a body that helps to advance barristers’ interests.

“The same with family law. And then, if you’re working in the area of employment law, maybe you are appearing in the [Workplace Relations Commission] more, maybe you’re not appearing in the High Court as much.”

The Bar has just launched a new ‘equitable briefing’ policy urging solicitors to recommend a female barrister to clients if they recommend a male - or vice-versa, where the case is for a traditionally female-dominated area of law.

“What we’re hearing is that larger clients want to see a more representative panel of counsel being recommended to them, and that they will pick from that panel of counsel.”

“Men make up the majority of the construction industry, at approximately 91pc and therefore, it is not surprising that there is a gender pay gap in favour of men,” said a spokesperson for the Construction Industry Federation.

“We are working tirelessly to encourage more women to join the industry at all levels. Some progress has been made. It is likely that in time, when more women enter the industry, that the gender pay gap will reduce.”

In the haulage sector, where there is a persistent shortage of drivers - leading to an 11.6pc increase in the basic driver’s salary last year - the push for more women to join their ranks is growing.

Just 2.2pc of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) licence holders are women, according to figures from the Freight Transport Association of Ireland (FTAI).

“I don’t know any other job that is so under-represented, from a gender perspective. It’s just incredible,” said Aidan Flynn, FTAI’s chief executive.

“It is stark, but it also shows the opportunity we have,” he says, pointing to a new HGV driver apprenticeship course with the Atlantic Technical University Sligo, the first academic qualification linked to driving.

Several legislative changes are coming down the line that could further women’s careers.

By 2026, Ireland will have to ensure that large company boards are 40pc female and that bigger firms publish salary ranges on job ads and give employees access to average pay levels, broken down by sex, for workers doing similar jobs.

The recently appointed Minister of State for Finance, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, is asking banks to sign up to a charter that commits them to boosting the number of women in management and board-level positions.

Men made 23.1pc more than women in the sector last year, on average, and the difference in average bonus payments was 40.4pc, in favour of men.

“I welcome the effort made by financial services firms to celebrate the role of women in their industry by embracing the global phenomenon that is International Women’s Day,” Ms Carroll MacNeill said this week.

“But having an event is not a step towards delivering change and risks being inauthentic if the women working in financial services cannot see a path to equality at all levels of financial services organisations. Having an International Women’s Day event might feel necessary, but is it sufficient?”