Tuesday 15 October 2019

Mind the gap: can women ever bridge the pay divide?

In the wake of the recent furore at RTÉ over pay, transparency is emerging as the best ­weapon against gender pay discrimination. Irish firms have not shown themselves too willing to adopt it

Bryan Dobson and Sharon Ní Bheoláin
Bryan Dobson and Sharon Ní Bheoláin
John Meagher

John Meagher

Hoa Hoa was a Swedish weightlifter who was inescapable in his home country in 1974. This arrestingly monikered figure was the focal point of an advertising campaign to introduce paternity leave there - and over the next 40-odd years, Scandinavia's largest nation became a world-leading model for equality.

Today, Sweden leads the way when it comes to the narrowing the pay gap between the genders. Campaigners in Ireland who strive for greater parity of pay between men and women see countries like Sweden as an aspiration, but concede that true equality may be a very long way away.

While Stockholm legislators were changing the culture about men and childcare, Ireland was, effectively, penalising women who were having children. In mid-1970s Ireland, a generation of women were compelled to give up civil service jobs once they started a family, and the idea that men would take paternity leave was unthinkable.

It was only last autumn - 2016 - when men were finally granted paternity leave by law. And that two weeks is derisory compared to Sweden, where three months' paternity leave is not just standard - it's obligatory.

Such deep-seated differences between Ireland and elsewhere are among the primary reasons why the pay between genders remains so stubbornly high. According to a detailed study last year by the Dublin-based consultancy Morgan McKinley, the average salary of the professional Irish male is 16pc higher than a female counterpart doing exactly the same job. When bonuses are taken into account, the gap widens further, to 20pc.

The gender pay gap issue has become an especially contentious topic of late. The revelation this week that RTÉ news anchor Sharon Ní Bheoláin is paid far less than her male colleague Bryan Dobson has highlighted the differences in pay experienced by men and women in all industries. At one point, Ní Bheoláin was on €80,000 a year less than Dobson, although the findings were complicated by the fact that her male counterpart was been in the job for several years longer.

Outrage at BBC

RTÉ has promised to investigate the pay gap throughout its organisation and says it will be more transparent about the earnings of its 10 best-paid stars. The most recent figures it provided, for 2014, reveal that of its 10 top earners, just two are women - Marian Finucane and Miriam O'Callaghan.

The revelations come just weeks after damning evidence that the BBC has been paying its male staff far more than women. There was outrage when it was reported that one of its leading sports presenters, Clare Balding, has a salary that is a 10th of that of Match of the Day host Gary Lineker. And while current affairs presenter John Humphrys enjoyed a salary of over £600,000, the high-profile Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis did not even make the listing: only those earning more than £150,000 per annum had their salaries published.

And it's not just broadcasting where a massive gulf lies. Last week's Higher Education Authority report highlighted pronounced gender gaps in our higher education institutions in terms of pay and promotion to senior positions.

The National Women's Council of Ireland is leading the charge for change. "We call on the Government to introduce sanctions for companies who receive public funding if they don't take action to address gender gaps within their companies," says chief executive Orla O'Connor.

"Ireland should follow the UK, by requiring public and private companies by law to publish figures in relation to the gender pay gap."

Since April, UK firms have been compelled to publish details of employee salaries, broken down by gender, and it's likely that Ireland will follow suit.

The Gender Pay Gap Information Bill 2017, proposed by the Labour Party in March, would require - if enacted - medium and large companies to publish wage transparency surveys to highlight any difference in pay between men and women.

''Concrete action is required from public and private employers to ensure women are promoted to senior positions and to ensure that the gender pay gap is closed," says Laura Harmon, the NWCI's Women in Leadership Officer.

"Gender gaps in Ireland are prevalent across many sectors including in the media, sports organisations and private companies. The National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020 commits to increasing and monitoring progress in relation to the representation of women across the public sector and promoting women on corporate boards and in the senior management of private companies."

Lughan Deane of the Impact trade union says change is urgently needed, especially when it comes to protecting pay and career advancement for working mothers.

He says there is "a deeply embedded, socio-structural expectation in Ireland that women will take up the unpaid domestic labour associated with raising a family". Consequently, Irish mothers are left with less time in which to earn outside the home.

"As career progression works on the basis of momentum, women who take breaks from work to have children are less likely to reach the highest levels of the workforce, and consequently the gaps widen significantly at senior level," Deane adds.

A pan-European survey last year by the recruitment firm Glassdoor demonstrated that working mothers suffer a significant pay reduction compared to other women who do not have children. It showed that in Ireland, women aged 25 to 44 with one or more children earn 31pc less than women without children. Intriguingly, child-free women in that age category earned 17.5pc more than their male counterparts.

"The lack of affordable childcare options in this country make it very difficult for women," Lughan Deane says, "because more often than not it's women who have to make greater career sacrifice than men when it comes to childcare."

In 2017, women are four times more likely than men to take leave from work to raise children. According to Tracy Gunn, the co-founder of Mumager - a Dublin-based agency aimed at helping support mothers on their return to work - it can be particularly difficult for women to resume their careers after taking maternity leave.

"I found that my confidence had gone and my concentration was not as good as before. It took me quite a bit of time to get to the point where I was functioning as normal," she says.

And, she adds, many of her clients have very real concerns about taking time off to look after their newborn: "Many of them take less maternity leave than they would like because they worry that their careers will suffer."

Trayc Keevans, author of the Morgan McKinley report, says women are discriminated against time and again when it comes to pay. "One of the things that really surprised me," she says, "is that having a high level of education did not guarantee greater parity of pay. In fact, the pay gap widened as the educational qualifications increased."

While there's a 4pc gap in pay in the service industry, particularly in the low-skills area, the figure rises to 32pc for those who have a Masters Degree in Business Administration (MBA).

"Unfortunately, when it comes to negotiation of salary and conditions, men are better at it than women," says Trayc Keevans. "Of course there are many very confident women, but more often than not you'll find that men are more confident in those settings. Women will doubt themselves more and don't apply for jobs where they might be better suited than a man who is happy to apply."

She also believes that the networking opportunities men have created can be a barrier. "A lot of networking takes place outside of working hours and don't suit women with caring commitments - and I'm not just talking about children. Females still tend to be the main carers. But if you're not part of the club, you can feel disadvantaged."

Girl Crew is trying to change that. A social group for young professional women, it numbers 12,000 members in Dublin alone. Co-founder Áine Mulloy says it has provided a forum for them to talk about salary and work conditions.

"In Ireland we don't like to talk about pay - you'd feel it was rude to be asked straight out by a colleague what you were earning. But when our members get together they feel they can talk about it. They might not ask directly, but they'd say they were being offered such-and-such a salary by their new company and they'd be able to establish if it was the going rate."

Áine says she knows of members who have discovered that they were paid far less than their male colleagues. "It an be incredibly disheartening to find you're making less than someone who isn't performing as well as you. In one case, she brought it to the attention of HR and they increased her pay in increments to bring it up to her male colleague's level."

Call for transparency

Áine worked in a number of industries prior to establishing Girl Crew, including a role in a female-dominated publisher, and believes she was never discriminated against. "Then again a lot of women don't realise they've been paid less until it comes out into the open. And it's only through transparency that we can truly know how our pay compares to male counterparts. If you have that transparency, companies are far less likely to have such significant pay gaps."

But while campaigners are united in their belief that openness will help shift the culture, there is scepticism. IBEC, the country's largest employer's association, has billed the proposed legislation "inappropriate" and argues that employers should not be forced to reveal details of pay.

Meanwhile, Impact's Lughan Deane believes progressive employers will be keen to show that they are transparent. "In a climate where companies in all sectors are battling to secure the best staff, isn't it more likely that those who make a virtue out of having a fair, egalitarian wage structure will attract the best staff?"

Forced disclosure: the UK's solution to decades-old issue

In April, laws forcing employers to reveal the gender pay gap in their workforce came into force in the UK, and equality campaigners there say they could do more to reduce the earnings gulf between men and women than four decades of ­equality legislation.

Thousands of employers were compelled to record their gender pay gap figures for the first time and will have to publish their first figures before April 2018.

The BBC were among the first to make their figures available - and the pay discrimination in favour of men has been seen to be highly damaging for Britain's national broadcaster.

The rules, which will be enforced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, require companies who employ more than 250 people to provide data about their pay gap, the proportion of male and female employees in different pay bands, their gender bonus gap and a breakdown of how many women and men get a bonus.

The legislation will affect around 9,000 companies, who collectively employ more than 15 million people. The changes could have a significant impact on the UK's gender pay gap, according Sarah Henchoz, employment partner at law firm Allen & Overy.

"The gender pay gap reporting provisions are likely to do more for pay parity in five years than equal pay legislation has done in 45 years," she told the Guardian.

- JM

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