Illogical position

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The gender balance issue, not only in technology but business in general, must be addressed says Paul Hearns

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8 March 2019 | 0

As far back as 1993, I recall an initiative to encourage young women into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers.

I was working in the aerospace industry, and a pilot scheme by the agency Fás was allowing women to do a condensed version of an aircraft maintenance technician course to provide a practical experience on which to base a decision. As I recall, less than half did.

It is very worrying to think that in terms of natural progression from managerial positions, the proportion of women in the upper echelons is unlikely to increase much more without a significant boost at the managerial level.

It is too distant a recollection from which to deduce much, if I am honest, but the fact that it was so long ago is telling. How much progress have we really made since?

On this International Women’s Day, we have to take stock and see why there has been so little progress on gender balance, not only in technology, but in business in general.

The European Union statistics agency Eurostat released a report yesterday saying that in 2018, of some 9.4 million people that hold a managerial position in the EU, only 3.4 million, or 36%, are women.

When this goes to senior managerial level, it shrinks to 17%. Among publicly listed companies, only 27% of board members are women.

Looking across the 27 member states, the average proportion of women in managerial occupations is 36%, with Latvia at the high end of 56%, and Luxembourg on the low end at 15%. Ireland scores slightly above average with 41%, the UK comes in at 37%.

In terms of board members, France scores highest by some margin at 44% compared to an EU average of 26%. Here Ireland is well below the average at 19%, with the UK at 30%.

Women senior executives in publicly listed companies has an EU average of 17%, with Lithuania at the high end with 28% and Austria on low end at 5%. Ireland falls below average at 16%, with the UK at 18%.

A key element of these statistics is the rate of change. The report says that since 2013, the 36% proportion of managerial level women has remained stable since 2012. The board member figure has increased in the last five years, by nine percentage points, from 18% in 2013, and the women senior executive level proportion has increased by five percentage points in five years.

However, it is very worrying to think that in terms of natural progression from managerial positions, the proportion of women in the upper echelons is unlikely to increase much more without a significant boost at the managerial level. So if that has remained static from 2013 to 2018, where are the women for board and senior executive positions to come from?

However, the dry stats do not tell the full story, and if recent events have told us anything, it is clear that we need to do more than simply make opportunities available, we need to change cultures too.

It has become clear that there are still toxic cultures in various industries, companies and organisations that need to be tackled if women are to be encouraged into taking the senior positions that would accurately reflect their proportion in the workforce, and the population.

For anyone considering taking on the responsibility of leadership, the prospect of adversity based solely on their gender would be daunting indeed, and yet even today in the closing years of the second decade of the twenty first century, this is still the case.

While I have always been in favour of meritocracy and the right the person getting the job, the sheer level of imbalance in gender in so many areas of business may require a form of positive discrimination to address this historic injustice.

This does not mean for one moment accepting lesser qualified or capable people for roles, rather that where two equally qualified people, irrespective of gender, are available for a role, that women might be considered more favourably for a time. Each organisation could make a conscious decision to do this until such time as their gender balance issue is addressed, and then return to the more meritocracy-based approach where selection is based on suitability and capability alone.

It is entirely illogical to think that any industry, sector or organisation can fully thrive without the potential of half the planet’s population being properly utilised.

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