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Positive discrimination: Bringing gender equality to the workplace

Positive discrimination: Bringing gender equality to the workplace

The issue of gender equality in the workplace is coming more and more to the fore in the everyday thinking of companies.

The concept of ‘positive discrimination’ has become part of an attempt by both Government and private companies of late to rectify Ireland’s alarming gender imbalance in its workforce, particularly in management and executive roles.

The concept simply means that if a man and a woman with the same qualifications and credentials apply for a job, the woman will be chosen in order to correct the gender imbalance that exists in the sector in question.

An Irish Times article from November, 2017, noted that just a little more than three out of five women are working here in Ireland, compared to almost nine out of ten in other countries, showing the seriousness of the issue.


Critics of positive discrimination claim it overlooks merit and dismisses the notion of employing the best person for the role on offer. This could not be further from the truth.

Companies will always hire the best candidate for a role, but if it comes down to a man and woman who are equally qualified, positive discrimination means they will choose the female candidate to achieve a more diverse workplace.

While the policy of favoring the female candidate must be welcomed, we also need to delve deeper into why such a dramatic gender gap exists in terms of employment participation.

Studies have shown that Irish girls keep pace with and outperform boys at primary and secondary level in most subjects. This trend continues right through college, so education cannot be identified as a contributing factor to the workplace imbalance that exists.

Studies have also shown that women keep pace with men in terms of employment participation right up until they reach the age of 30, before tailing off thereafter.

A 2016 World Economic Forum gender gap report made the same finding, placing Ireland at the top of the table in terms of educational attainment, but placing us in 49th position for low participation rates in the workforce.

The primary reason behind the major gender gap in Ireland is actually Irish culture itself. It is not a coincidence that the age at which Irish women – 30 – tail off in terms of workplace participation sits in close proximity to typical child bearing age.

There has been great advancement in terms of how involved men are in the everyday lives of their children in the last 20 years. However, for every one man acting as stay at home parent in 2017, there were 40 women doing the same.

The causes of this discrepancy are many, but two major factors are the cost of childcare and the gender pay gap. The cost of childcare in Ireland is so expensive that it often makes more economic sense for one parent to remain at home.

Given the fact that men get paid on average 13.9 per cent more than women, it does not take much guessing as to why it is often women who make the sacrifice.

Irish culture also still puts the onus of caring for children on women in the form of maternity and paternity leave, with women receiving six months leave and men just two weeks.

Recent research has shown that countries with the highest participation of women in their workforces tend to have greater shared leave for both fathers and mothers, again explaining the situation in Ireland.

There has been a major push on in Ireland to rectify gender imbalance in employment, and this is taking place right across the board.

In 2016, then Minister for Sport Patrick O’Donovan highlighted the gender imbalance that existed on the national governing bodies of sports in Ireland, and issued a change of policy whereby 30 per cent of the bodies would from then on have to be made up of women.

In the upper echelons of the Civil Service, Minister Paschal Donohue moved to rectify a serious imbalance which at one point saw just two females in the position of secretary general out of 15 such roles.

Again, progress is being made, with 52 per cent of those appointed in 2017 being female, bringing average female representation on State boards to just below 40 per cent by the end of that year.

Across Irish universities in 2017, just 20 per cent of professors were women, but here as well real efforts have been made, particularly in the last 12 months.

The Government also recently passed the General Scheme of Gender Pay Gap Bill, which will promote transparency in wage levels, first in large companies of more than 250 employees and later in smaller ones.

So, while we are on the road to rectifying these issues, there is still much work to be done. Companies and businesses can and should play a role in this process, by following a policy of positive discrimination to ensure their own gender quota is as balanced as can be.

HERO Recruitment is an equal opportunities employer. For more information on the fantastic career opportunities on offer, contact HERO Recruitment Galway on (091) 730022, Cork on (021) 2066284, or Dublin on (01) 6190279. Email and find HERO on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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