Gender equity progress in Ireland, but more to do, says tech leader

Gillian Whelan, managing director and country manager of emagine Consulting.

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Cultural change across society is now key to nurturing future progress with gender balance in the Irish workplace, says one industry leader.

Gillian Whelan, managing director and country manager of emagine Consulting, the IT and business consultancy with operations in Dublin and Cork, says that measures around gender pay balance and boardroom gender equity have helped.

She adds, however, that a cultural shift in schools and throughout society is now needed for gender balance to make further progress, particularly as the nation pauses to reflect on International Women’s Day, coinciding with Ireland’s two referendums on family and care.

“Culture in organisations has a hugely important part to play, where an attempt is being made to address the issue, but more training is needed around unconscious bias for these changes to have the required impact,” says Gillian.

“The rewiring of people’s thinking needs to start in schools as well as across society. In many families, women tend to take on the greater caring role as somebody has to stay at home because of childcare costs.

“We could look at issues around tax incentives, childcare and child benefit payments to allow more women go to work.”

 Gillian said the new requirements around reporting on gender pay gaps have brought very welcome public scrutiny. As a result, companies of all sizes are becoming more aware of reputational damage resulting from being seen to have pay disparity between men and women working in similar roles.

“It is very useful to have information available to inform the policy decisions of Government and policymakers. You need access to good information if you’re going to address barriers,” she said.

Data published by the Central Statistics Office offers some insight on how much change has followed since Irish companies began reporting on gender pay gaps and boardroom equity.

CSO recently produced interesting stats comparing the shift from 2019 to 2023 for men and women in senior roles. In 2019, 92.6% of chair roles were held by men versus 7.4% women. By 2023, this was 81.3% men versus 18.7% women.

In 2019, 80.4% of board members were men, with 19.6% women. By 2023, this had moved to 75.4% male and 24.6% female. For CEOs, the 88.5% male and 11.5% female in 2019 moved to 81% male and 19% female by 2023.

“The margins are very big and the progress may seem slow, but we would be seeing even slow progress without legislation. The share of females on boards would certainly have been lower without public reporting on the issues,” said Gillian.

“Reporting on gender pay disparity is an important issue, but we need to look at a myriad of cultural and policy reasons behind these gaps. When you look at boys-only schools, the subjects on offer seem to be very much akin to the old gender-biased roles for men in society. We need to start there.”

Gillian Whelan has a reputation for being a straight talker, very direct and fearless in her leadership style. As the MD of tech consultancy Aspira, Gillian led 250 employees and contractors based in Ireland, as well as engaging with colleagues in the Netherlands and Portugal.

Last year, Aspira changed its brand to emagine Consulting following its merger with Danish firm emagine, which employs over 800 people generating over €600m in annual revenues, headquartered in Copenhagen, with offices across France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, UK and India.

“As the leader of a large tech company, I’m often asked questions about women having to break through a glass ceiling,” she said. “I’ll be honest, luck has played a big part in where I am today.

“I work hard and, yes, I suppose that outwardly I may come across as fearless to others. You have to be fearless and hardworking, but you must also be lucky. What I would say is that I have many hardworking, innovative women around me in my peer group.

“When I look across my business, I see around 50:50 men and women. Balance is very important. It gives people hope. It really matters — not just to the people who work in the company, it also matters to the general public.

“Businesses are very conscious of their reputation, but it’s not just about reputation. A lot of research shows that when your business is more diverse and balanced, your retention rates are better and your team is more productive.

“Women bring a different perspective. You need greater diversity to solve a greater range of problems. Organisations should really see diversity as being good for business. Balance should be framed as a business opportunity. Ultimately, it’s about profits.”

Gillian also notes that in job interviews, women tend to exhibit greater self-doubt than men. When women have six out of ten skills required for a job, they’ll focus on talking about what they can and can’t do.

“As a result, for women, the interview often tends to focus on their proven experience, their past performance. I must have interviewed hundreds of people over the years.

“In interviews, men are more confident. They focus on what they can do. Men focus on their potential rather than their past performance. Faced with something new, they very often believe they will be able to do it.”

In terms of industry sectors, the stats single out financial services, insurance and real estate as having the greatest gender pay disparity. Most men are also paid notably higher in many tech and ICT roles.

“To be fair, all companies are now trying to do the right thing,” said Gillian. “Progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go.”


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