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A woman's place the boardroom?

  by Nichola Hughes, Director of Sustainable Northern Ireland

On International Women's Day (8 March) we shine a spotlight on Sustainable Development Goal 5 - Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. In this blog, our Executive Director shares her thoughts on gender equality and her hopes and aspirations for the next generation.

As a millennial, I have benefitted from the generations of women that have gone before me, who campaigned tirelessly for equality laws that we now take for granted. The right to vote, the right to equal pay, and so on. But how progressive are we, really, when it comes to gender equality?

Inequality can take many forms, ranging from overt discrimination, the kind exhibited by the police officers who killed George Floyd. At the other end of the spectrum is a more subtle kind of discrimination, the one that’s linked to unconscious bias and often goes unnoticed - covert discrimination.  

Discrimination is defined as ‘the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, sex, or disability’. Equal opportunity laws in the UK mean that there is now a 'level playing field' so that people are employed, paid, trained and promoted only because of their skills, abilities and how they do their job. However, gender diversity and the under representation of women in senior positions and on boards remains an issue to this day. 

Changing times

At a young age I learned about my grandmother, born in 1912, who overcame gender barriers to secure a third level education. A feat not typical for women of that generation. She attended St Mary’s Teacher Training College and went on to enjoy a long career as a teacher, whilst also raising seven children and tending to the family farm.  

My grandmother’s story taught me a valuable lesson from an early age – you can achieve anything with enough determination, hope and perseverance. Everyone has the right to make a better life for themselves. My grandmother and my mother, a successful businesswoman, were strong positive female role models for me and my sisters. From a young age I knew that I wanted to be financially independent and reach my potential, whatever that may be. Success would not be measured by income, I decided, but by a sense of achievement and overall state of happiness. 

CREDIT:  Daniel Pockett/ 2017 Getty Images

Having it all – a career and a family

I went through most of my twenties blissfully unaware of any gender bias in the workplace. It simply didn’t affect me. I enjoyed a run of progressively more challenging roles, allowing me to climb the proverbial 'ladder'. It was only when I started a new job in 2015 that things changed. Although I didn’t know it when I interviewed for the role, I was pregnant. Having married earlier that year, I wanted it all, a family and a career, resolute that these were mutually exclusive objectives.

When I told my new manager that I was pregnant and saw the look of disappointment wash over his face, I began to realise that my gender might have a bearing on my career after all. Two years later we were blessed with a second child, and my current employer couldn’t have been more supportive. My daughters are now in full-time childcare which - like most full-time working mums - takes up most of my earnings. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, in Northern Ireland free childcare isn’t available until the age of 3 and even then, it's only for a few hours per day. 

This means that women who choose to have a family face a difficult choice: work part-time (which because of the cost of childcare can be more financially rewarding than working full-time) or suck it up and see it as a short-term sacrifice, in the hope that investing in our career will someday pay off. 

Politicians argue that shared parental leave provisions level the playing field for men and women, but because men usually (not always) earn more than women, couples typically choose the most financially favourable option, which results in more mums taking parental leave than dads. Until we have salary parity, or fully funded childcare, odds are that women’s careers will continue to take the hit.

Positive discrimination

Sometimes inequality is disguised, in the form of positive discrimination. An employer is guilty of positive discrimination if they hire or seek an individual purely based on their protected characteristic, rather than experience or qualifications. Positive discrimination also includes setting quotas or benchmarks in the recruitment process or promoting a specific number of people within a minority group. In England, Scotland and Wales, positive discrimination is illegal under the Equality Act 2010 as it does not give equal treatment to all.

What is the debate over positive discrimination?

There have been calls in the past for an overhaul of laws regarding positive discrimination, in order to help level the playing field for under-represented groups. Many women, however, feel positive discrimination laws that might tip the scales in their favour are completely self-defeating – that by commanding CEOs to promote women, merit-based promotions are being tainted and diminished. Not only does that weaken leadership, but it is also an insult to the qualified women who have made it to the top without any sort of handout.

I had my own experience of this when I was asked to join a board. Flattered, I asked why the board had selected me and was informed it was because I was a woman, and they needed more women on their board. No other explanation was provided. I said I would think about it, and later accepted the invitation, not wanting to make a fuss by challengnig the way I'd been asked. As time went on though, I realised my confidence had been knocked. I wondered if the other women on the board had been selected on the basis of gender too, or if it was just me? Either way, by not saying anything I had been complicit in the transaction. The discrimination should have been called out at the time. It would have been awkward, but also necessary to bring about change.


Do gender quotas work?

Quotas might work in terms of shining a spotlight on gender inequality and getting numbers up to where they should be, but they are not the solution to getting more women on boards. The solution is complex and requires change from within boards themselves, corporate executives and from women.

Meritocracy should prevail, but it doesn’t in reality because we live in a biased world. All that a woman can do is take advantage of the opportunity when it presents itself, and then in our newfound positions of power, influence decision making and challenge discriminatory practices and unconscious biases from the top. 

The tide is changing though, Generation Z will, we are told, be much more vocal and expect better in the workplace. 

Here’s hoping anyway!