How we can close Ireland's gender pay gap

Salary reviews, knowing your rights and political change are all key, according to Alan Hickey of Peninsula Ireland...

How we can close Ireland's gender pay gap

Gemma Arterton (centre) with Dagenham women strikers and the cast of the musical Made in Dagenham outside Britain's Houses of Parliament. Picture by Yui Mok PA Archive/PA Images

"You have to know what people are earning to be up-in-arms about it," says Peninsula Ireland's Alan Hickey, reflecting on PwC's "counter-intuitive" new findings that the country continues to rank as one of the worst OECD nations when it comes to female economic empowerment.

The Women In Work Index 2017 states that our gender pay gap stands at 14.8%, gleaned from analysing the difference in median salaries between men and women up to 2015. This, however, doesn't quite chime with the senior employment law advisor's day-to-day experiences.

"In Peninsula," Hickey says of the HR, employment law and health & safety services firm, "we would come across discrimination claims and so on, but equal pay claims are quite rare. I suppose that's what would be counter-intuitive: if there is such a gap, you would expect more of these matters to be before the Labour Court. I think that we need – on a political basis – to examine why that is the case."

Ireland remains rooted in 25th position on the index, the same spot it occupied way back in 2000. Despite strong ground being made up during the prosperity of the Celtic Tiger, once that big boom time cat bit the dust, much of the progress in terms of equal pay was undone.

Hickey continues:

"The most concerning aspect of that report is that we had done so well from 2000 to 2008, when we dropped from 19.7% to 8.3%. Then in and around the time the recession hit – which may or may not have been connected – it started to widen year upon year..."

"Glaring" problems

So where do the issues lie today and how can we address them?

Parsing the data, Hickey points to two "quite glaring" areas that could be creating the imbalance.

"It's the boardroom participation and the volume of part-time workers," he says. "Only 18% of boardroom representation is made up of female employees.

"Now that would lend itself to the belief the glass ceiling does very much exist. And there have been a few noteworthy equal pay or equal access claims in universities in the last couple of years that maybe led to that glass ceiling hitting the forefront in recent years.

"Obviously if more men are in the upper echelons of companies then their median pay is going to be higher."

The other finding he is keen to highlight is the fact that a mere 37% of women are involved in full-time employment. This stacks up against 60% of men.

"If most women are working in part-time roles," Hickey ventures, "then their median pay will be significantly less on average than men."

To get to the root of the issue, Hickey calls up a Low Pay Commission (LPC) report from October 2016 on the preponderance of women on the National Minimum Wage. 

In the study, 24% of the part-time female workers surveyed said that it was because they were caring for either a child or an incapacitated person. A further 28% cited "some responsibility at home", meaning that over half of all women in part-time work  have that kind of employment due to responsibilities at home. In contrast, only 4% of males stated they were in part-time worker for that reason. The vast majority said it was because they couldn't get full-time work.

"So you compare those figures form the LPC's review last year and it's quite stark," says Hickey. "It seems to be the onus is quite predominantly – in Ireland as a social issue – on women looking after kids or looking after an incapacitated parents..."

Changing tradition

That the culture is still clinging to traditional family roles can be seen in the slow progress made on shared paternal leave.

"If you look at the UK, they have shared parental leave. So male and female partners can essentially share leave between the two of them. Therefore, the father would end up caring more for the child at home and he would take time off work. That is something that doesn't happen here. We're down to two weeks of paternity leave in Ireland and that''s only in place about six months. Like you said, we're way behind."

It was reported in January that only one in four Irish fathers had opted for paid paternity leave in Ireland since the scheme was launched last September. Figures for the first three months of the scheme's operation showed just 3,581 claims for the two weeks of paid leave were approved up to November 31st.

Are men concerned that taking time off would be frowned up or even hurt their career prospects?

"I think that fear exists moreso in professional environment to be perfectly honest," Hickey says. "Just from my own experience in terms of advising our members. I don't tend to find that employees in non-professional roles would be all that concerned with applying for parental leave or paternity leave – and that's not got anything to do with the role itself.

"People in professional roles, I think they're more concerned about their competitors in the working environment and getting that promotion and so on. A bit more focused on that. Now that's anecdotal, there's nothing to back that up."

Fathers with babies and young children attend a meeting of the European Union Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality to support paternity leave legislation at the European Parliament in Brussels, 2010. (AP Photo/Thierry Charlier)

The real problem, according to Hickey, is a lack of knowledge of employment rights. 

"I think a lot of people just don't know what they're entitled to," he says. "I imagine that the vast majority of fathers would want to take the two weeks that they're entitled to off with their child. But do they know they're entitled to it? And how is that information being communicated?"

"If  there is a more positive obligation on employers to post information in the workplace on what the statutory minimum rights are, it may help with that.

"There are very few obligations on employers in terms of what information they have to give to an employee. That may be something that has to be looked at."

For Hickey, increased transparency is key to solving many of these employment problems, the gender pay gap included.

A call for openness

While PwC found that Ireland was heading in the right direction once again between 2014-15, forecasting that the gender pay gap would be closed completely by 2032 if that rate of improvement continued, conscious change in the country could, of course, make it a lot less than a 15-year wait for balance.

Political will is required, but employers and employees can also play their part. Hickey's advice?

"We would strongly recommend our members do this: do a salary review of your workforce.

"How many employees are in part-time roles, how many of your employees are in full-time roles?

"What is the breakdown of males to females in senior positions?

"What is the average rate of pay?

And why are those figures coming up for those three different things? If it's the case that there's more men in senior positions, then why is that the case?"

Picture by Daniel Leal-Olivas PA Wire/PA Images

"If it's a case that men are being paid more than average, then [figure out the reason behind it]. Start looking at it a little bit more analytically.

"It doesn't require an awful lot of work to do that. Then you might be able to identify if there's a potential problem. It could be a discrimination issue and that might not be by design, but that's not the point. What's important is the effect."

Another useful tip:

"Have salary scales or entry level rates. 'If you get a job, then this is the rate that you will get in that job.' 

"That takes out any potential subjective views on what salary to give somebody, either male or female. And be completely objective, completely transparent and fair."

If you are a worker who believes there is a problem, you are entitled to find out:

"An employee, under the Employment Equality Act, does have the right to request information where they have the belief that they are being paid less than a [comparative colleague]."

Hickey concludes:

"More openness, more concern and a bit more of a focus on it from employers, employees and maybe even the National Women's Strategy, which was set up to look at these kind of things, would be of benefit."