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

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

he latest 2022 figures from job networking site LinkedIn show that women are still underrepresented at all levels of organizations and workforces here.

The share of women in management positions is 42%. At the C-suite level, where the top executive titles are “chiefs,” female representation is much less, at just 24%.

Can’t help but wonder if there are active biases at play, or cultural and sociological factors? And the most important question that must go along with identifying the cause is how to make the change? Is it education, nature, lack of opportunity or lack of interest?

LinkedIn’s analysis looks at the 1.84 million Irish people currently on the professional platform; divide 55 pc male to 45 pc female. It is therefore a very broad and representative image, and very “traditional” too, as far as gender roles are concerned.

The main female-dominated professions in the country are those of nurse, receptionist, schoolteacher, carer, office manager, accounting assistant and administrative assistant.

When it comes to the industries in which women work, the main sectors of female representation are health, education, family services, cosmetics, non-profit and civic organizations.

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

If there are fewer women in a sector, it is naturally expected that fewer women will rise to higher ranks. But the leadership gap is also pronounced in industries where women also make up the majority of the workforce. For example, despite making up 51% of staff in retail and 63% of employees in wellness and fitness, women make up only 32% of management positions in retail and 46% in the growing wellness and fitness sectors.

LinkedIn data also shows that men in Ireland are 15% more likely to be promoted from within to senior positions than women.

Does gender affect an individual’s ability to lead or do the job?

The analysis indicates that female leadership styles are moving towards democratic means; whereas a male leader is more likely to use autocratic means. But attributing talents or business results to one gender over the other has no empirical basis, as far as I know.

And it would seem absurd not to nurture and capture all the talented resources and potential our workforce has to offer.

The industry needs talent, and yet we seem to have this conscious or unconscious gender bias that needs to be corrected. If we don’t close the equity gap at the entry point to leadership, it will be much more difficult to create a pipeline of talented women in leadership roles later on.

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

Proactive employers, concerned with securing talent in all its forms, must be concerned with ending gender stereotypes in the workplace.

Ireland is seeing a gradual improvement in the gender pay gap, which ongoing legislation will further reinforce. There is equal access to education; and the transition to more flexibility in work hours and location has been accelerated during Covid, and has proven manageable and, in many cases, more productive than traditional office presenteeism.

We are all creatures of the culture we grew up in, and of a resulting parenting style, environment, and personal disposition. We all have inherited traits, including biases, that we are often unaware of. We rely too much on stereotypes.

I believe gender bias in the workplace is largely unconscious, which is why we need to work harder to bring it to light and raise awareness. Otherwise, industry and society will lose valuable talent.

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

Unconscious biases are difficult to identify and prevent, and can be embedded in a corporate culture.

However, all organizations can take steps to change this.

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

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

We can only hope that the more attention we draw to the disproportion of women in Irish leadership positions, the more conscious change can occur. Because in our time 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 the Irish Federation of Employment and Recruitment

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