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Sunday 25 February 2018

Irish women hold less than one-fifth of nation's most influential jobs

Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

IRISH women hold less than a fifth of the country's top jobs, according to an Irish Independent survey into female participation in senior leadership roles in public life and business.

Our study, conducted in the immediate wake of International Women's Day (March 8) across 12 key sectors and covering thousands of senior personnel, shows that, on average, Irish women account for only 18pc of the most influential professional roles in Ireland today.

Women occupy 15pc of Dail seats, a lower proportion than in Rwanda, Cuba or Senegal.

Less than a quarter of civil service leadership roles are filled by women – the same rate as in the diplomatic corps – and less than a fifth of local authority representatives are female.

There are no women in the most senior ranks of the Defence Forces, and only one in the top tier of the gardai, despite 25pc of officers being female.

Most worryingly, women are not well-represented in those institutions that purport to be most open to equality. In our survey, they occupied only 10pc of trade union leadership positions and 10pc of university president/provost roles.

Women's participation was strongest in school leadership, with female primary heads in a majority (53pc), but this was against a background where 85pc of the professionals are women.

At boardroom level in Irish companies, our survey showed women make up only 11pc of directors. Ireland is ranked 11th out of 19 European countries for director level representation.

In contrast to the 20 indigenous companies surveyed, the women who hold the top positions in Irish business life do so at foreign direct investment companies such as PayPal, where Louise Phelan is vice president of operations for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and Apple, where Cathy Kearney is senior director of European operations.

Aside from education, the sectors where Irish women are best represented are the Seanad (30pc) and in senior semi-state sector roles (22.5pc), where Eirgrid had most women on the board and executive at 47pc.

The judiciary is an improving bright spot for gender equality, not least since the appointment of Attorney General Maire Whelan, Chief Justice Susan Gageby Denham and Director of Public Prosecutions Claire Loftus.

The female tally among judges, 27.5pc, is slightly better than the global average of 27pc and higher than the UK's 19.4pc but much lower than that of the United States (33.3pc).


While Ireland's representation of women in top jobs is improving – 11pc on boards now compared with 9pc in 2010 – the ratio is still behind the levels achieved in progressive democratic western states.

Other improvements include the reduction of height limits for garda and armed forces recruits – a factor that had until recently prevented women joining the army.

Barbara McGrath a director of Brightwater, one of Ireland's top recruitment companies and one of the few with a 50-50 gender split on the board, said: "Children are the main reason we have so few women on boards.

"I don't like it, but it's a fact that each child breaks a woman's career path by around a year, and some companies and sectors are better than others at accommodating a career return."

In politics, our 15pc Dail participation is 7pc below the European average, while a recent global study showed Ireland in 89th place for women's representation out of 139 countries.

We have two women at senior cabinet level (13pc) and five out of 29 ministers of state (17pc).

Fine Gael TD Olivia Mitchell said the survey results did not surprise her.

"Women are making progress, but it's pain-fully slow. The biological disadvantage has certainly played a big role," she said.

"I entered the Dail on the day my youngest did her Leaving Cert. If I had young children to look after today, I don't think I could do the job I do."

Social Protection Minister Joan Burton is on a visit to the US that includes a fact-finding mission to the Wisconsin Women's Business Initiative Corporation, whose programmes provide business education and capital to female-led initiatives.

She told the Irish Independent that government initiatives would improve female participation in politics.

"Good politics needs women, and we are proud to pass the Electoral Political Funding Bill, which makes all political parties obliged to have at least 30pc female candidates in the next general election or face financial penalties," she said.

"This legislation will offer a key impetus to all parties to encourage women to enter politics." However, the move towards gender quotas is not welcomed by all.

Mary Fehily-Hobbs of Network Ireland, the organisation for women in business, said they often turned down top jobs because of the family "guilt factor".

"Setting gender targets in isolation is meaningless and arguable reverse discrimination," she said.

"There's little point in introducing equality laws if unreformed work practices and structures, especially childcare, remain very difficult barriers for women.

"From political to business leadership, women have a huge amount to add in terms of skill sets, problem solving and team management.

"But these can only flourish where the environment is conducive with women in mind. That is where we should be concentrating our resources rather than in blunt quotas."

Irish Independent

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