Sunday 25 August 2019

Women in the workplace: 'I feel we're moving to a different climate'

Union boss: Patricia King. Photo: Mark Condren
Union boss: Patricia King. Photo: Mark Condren

Niamh Connolly

Since the Harvey Weinstein revelations, women have found their voice on sexual harassment. 'Calling out' men who abuse their power has emerged as a global phenomenon in 2017.

Even though the 1998 Employment Equality Act put a process in place for reporting workplace bullying and harassment, women are still reluctant to come forward with formal complaints.

Women are still not fully protected because, under the Act, they must first lodge an official complaint as a grievance in writing to their employer, according to Patricia King, General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).

"Very often your employer or someone strongly associated at senior level with your employer can be the perpetrator. This can be a strong obstacle for people who fear there may be reprisals to reporting," she says.

King wants the Government to bring such sexual harassment complaints under the Protected Disclosures Act to address this problem. Using this Act would also mean redress for dismissal could run to five years of service, and cases could be taken by those who have less than a year of service.

"You can have young females subjected to unwelcome behaviour and they're only a few months in the place. Currently they're not protected and this can often be a key time when they're subjected to it," says King.

Meanwhile, progress has been glacial in narrowing the pay gap between women and men. A recent report by University of Limerick researchers led by Dr Christine Cross found an average 20pc gender pay gap in Ireland.

Men working in like-for-like professional jobs earn an average €12,000 more than women when salary and bonus are combined. But when separated, the average salary gap stands at 16pc and the bonus gap runs as high as 50pc.

The pay gap has reduced somewhat in the last decade, from 29.3pc in the 1990s to 24.9pc in the 2000s, according to the CSO.

But in a sharp reminder of the continued pay gap, November 10 was unofficially declared the day that women stop earning for the rest of the year.

Women still make up the bulk of low-paid and part-time workers, take on caring duties for children, sick and elderly parents, and retire with lower pensions. And changes by the Government in 2013 have made it even more difficult for some women to qualify for a full pension.

A massive 73pc of the 70,000 workers on the minimum wage are women. At the other end of the earnings spectrum, women make up only a tiny fraction of private sector boards.

"Until we see an equal ratio of men to women at the political top, we'll never change this, because that's where the power is," says King. "Look at the number of women in Cabinet. Unless you have equal representation of men and women, you won't start to see that seep through."

Women's Caucus

A new cross-party Women's Parliamentary Caucus in Leinster House is targeting the local elections in 2019 for gender quotas.

Inspired by the success of gender quotas in the general election in 2016, the Women's Caucus is planning to introduce a bill to encourage more women into local politics. A total of 35 women were elected in 2016 following the introduction of gender quotas. Parties met the 30pc quota of women candidates, though it was under pain of a withdrawal of state funding if they failed to step up.

Whereas women's representation in the Dáil has hovered between 12pc and 18pc for over the past decade, it reached 22pc in last year's election.

Yet Ireland still ranks just 80th out of 132 countries for representation, according to Inter-Parliamentary Union figures.

"Generally, we sit alongside Turkmenistan, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. We're not in a pack of other European countries," according to Niamh Gallagher, co-founder and director of Women for Election.

For local elections, the withdrawal of state funding is not an option under the existing legislation, which would suggest voluntary quotas might be the only option.

"At the moment I think we have something like 80pc of local councillors who are men," says Catherine Martin, Green Party TD and the first chair of the Women's Parliamentary Caucus.

"The problem is the state funding doesn't come into play in local elections so we're looking at some way to incentivise the quota - either through the parties or the councils - using the carrot rather than the stick," she says.

The Nordic countries blazed a trail with quotas to huge success as far back as the 1980s. Ireland's paltry 22pc female representation compares to 47.6pc for Iceland, 43.6pc for Sweden, while Norway, Denmark and Finland are around the 40pc mark.

For years, influential political voices have delayed gender quotas, some eventually changing their position, belatedly, on the basis that Ireland's position was an embarrassment.

At ministerial level, women hold five out of 15 Cabinet positions, whereas half of all ministers in Sweden are women, while other Nordic countries are in the range of 40pc. Even worse, just three women were appointed to 19 junior ministerial positions by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Back in the 1992, the 'Spring Tide' raised hopes that the country was on a fast track to equal political representation, only to be dashed at the next election.

But the picture looks a little more hopeful in 2017. "I do think that progress is being made. The Cabinet and junior appointments were a step back, but the furore afterwards shows it wasn't really in line with where public opinion is now," says Gallagher.

Martin is also optimistic: "I feel we're moving to a different climate now and that political parties want to step up, and don't want to feel they're lagging. What party would not want to reach the quota for the local elections?"

What party indeed.

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