Gender bias at career-entry stage perpetuates equity gap for women at the top

All I want for Christmas is more women in top jobs in Ireland. Gender bias? Yes, I suppose so! But after a lengthy career in recruitment, I am convinced the status quo is not healthy in a modern society or economy.

he latest 2022 figures from the employment networking site LinkedIn show that women are still under-represented at all levels of organisations and workforces here.

The share of women holding manager roles is 42pc. At C-suite level, where the high-ranking executive titles are “chiefs”, female representation is much less, at only 24pc.

You cannot help but question if there is active bias at play, or cultural and sociological factors? And, the more important question that must dovetail with identifying cause is how to effect change? Is it nurture, nature, lack of opportunity or lack of interest?

The LinkedIn analysis involves the 1.84 million Irish people currently on the professional platform; split 55pc male to 45pc female. So, it is a very large, representative picture, and a very “traditional” one too, when it comes to gender roles.

The top female-dominated professions in the country are nurse, receptionist, primary school teacher, carer, office manager, accounts assistant and administrative assistant.

As regards the industries women work in, the top sectors for female representation are healthcare, education, family services, cosmetics, non-profits and civic organisations.

Male-dominated roles include managing director, engineer, software, driver, electrician, carpentry and security. And the industries where men dominate are construction, automotive, civil engineering, automation, security, tech and military.

If there are fewer women in a sector, you would naturally expect fewer numbers to rise to the higher ranks. But the leadership gap is also pronounced in industries where women make up the majority of the workforce too. For example, despite comprising 51pc of staff in retail, and 63pc of employees in wellness and fitness, women only account for 32pc of senior retail roles and 46pc in the growing wellness and fitness sectors.

The LinkedIn data also shows that men in Ireland are 15pc more likely to win internal promotion to leadership roles than women.

Does gender affect an individual’s ability to lead, or to get the job done?

Analysis says female leadership styles veer towards democratic means; whereas a male leader is more likely to use autocratic means. But ascribing talent or business results to one gender over the other does not have an empirical basis, as far as I know.

And it would seem absurd not to encourage and to capture all of the talented resource and potential our working population has to offer.

Industry is crying out for talent, and yet we appear to have this conscious or unconscious gender bias that needs to be fixed. If we don’t close the equity gap at the entry point to leadership, it will be much harder to create a pipeline of talented women in leadership roles later.

So, if that means dedicated schools’ programmes, more affordable childcare, more flexible work practices, and actively closing the gender pay gap, we need real, workable solutions.

Proactive employers, conscious of securing talent in any shape or form, must be keen to end gender stereotyping in the workplace.

Ireland is seeing gradual improvement in the gender pay gap, which the pending legislation will reinforce further. There is equal access to education; and the shift towards more flexibility in work schedules and location was accelerated during Covid, and shown to be manageable and, in many cases, more productive than traditional office presenteeism.

We are all creatures of the culture in which we are raised, and of a parenting style, environment and resulting personal disposition. We all have inherited traits, including biases, which we are often unconscious of. We over-rely on stereotypes.

Gender bias in the workplace is largely unconscious, I believe, which is why we need to work harder to shine a light on it, and build awareness. Because, otherwise, industry and society will lose out on valuable talent.

Male-dominated industries have been shown to be prone to gender stereotyping in workplace studies. Women in these industries encounter barriers to advancement, often credited to factors such as leadership style, management training, and performance evaluation practices.

Unconscious bias is difficult to identify and prevent, and can be ingrained in a company culture.

There are steps that all organisations can take to change this, however.

These include investing in mentoring and training programmes at pre-manager level, having unconscious bias training for hiring managers, reframing job descriptions, and making flexibility the standard for everyone.

At a societal level, the push continues in primary and secondary education to encourage STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) subjects for girls. And, among parents and media, there appears to be more conscious deliberation and efforts to portray girls and boys in non-stereotypical roles.

We can only hope that the more we draw attention to the disproportion of women in leadership in Irish workplaces, the more conscious change can happen. Because, in this day and age, it is unconscionable not to admit that the best man for the job is just as likely to be a woman.​

Geraldine King is CEO of Ireland’s Employment and Recruitment Federation

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