Women Leaders Index Gender Equality Case Study: Ireland

By on 05/09/2017
The Women leaders Index examines gender equality in Ireland's senior civil service

Every country has a different story to tell on women leaders in the civil service. Interviewing experts on the findings of our Women Leaders Index – which tracks the proportion of female senior civil servants, national politicians and business leaders in G20 and EU member states – we’ve examined the agenda’s achievements and the remaining obstacles in 11 national case studies

The Republic of Ireland has realised it has work to do. Languishing at 25th amongst the 28 EU countries, with just 26.9% women among its senior civil servants, Ireland is kicking off a raft of initiatives designed to push it up the league table.

David Cagney, chief human resources officer at the Irish government’s Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, blames the country’s poor score on several years of austerity, during which there was very little staff movement of any kind within the service. Now that’s drawing to a close, he says, “things are starting to loosen up and in that context we can take some steps to address these issues”.

Now the service has set a target of a 50/50 gender balance for its senior appointments, at secretary general and assistant secretary level – although the principle of merit will still apply.

“We’re not in the business of positive discrimination per se,” Cagney says, “but in a situation where a male and a female candidate are of equal merit in relation to a position, we will have regard to the gender balance of the senior management team of the organisation to which the appointment is going to be made – and that may well influence the decision of the appointment board.”

David Cagney, Chief Human Resources Officer, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Ireland

At secretary general level, the current ratio is 20% women; at assistant secretary it is 33%; principal officers are 40% female; and assistant principals 48% – so Ireland does have large pools of female managers from which it can draw through the next generation of organisational leaders.

However, meeting the targets will not form part of leaders’ appraisals, and there will be no sanctions if the target is not met. “Our view is that that would be counter-productive; and that’s the view of quite a lot of females too, who are anxious they are not seen as token appointments,” says Cagney.  “We don’t want to take a ‘stick’ approach. We want this done as part of good practice, not as part of compliance.”

The initiative will be subject to ongoing review and benchmarking, though, and the results from each department will be well promulgated. It “will be obvious if some departments aren’t making progress”, comments Cagney.

The service is hoping to encourage more women applicants by reviewing all its policies to ensure they support a gender-balanced workforce. “We are looking at the language in which competitions are described and skills requirements are expressed, to ensure they are not impediments to women applying for senior positions.”

Unconscious bias training is also being rolled out to all secretaries general and their senior management teams, and a talent management programme for assistant secretaries and principal officers has been launched. There is, says Cagney, a “very strong expectation” that those joining this programme will be split 50/50 along gender lines. “A lot of effort is going into raising awareness and increasing communication of the whole gender balance agenda within the civil service,” he adds.

The Irish Constitution, however, sets out rather a narrow social-economic role for women; and in the European Institute for Gender Equality Index 2013, Ireland received its lowest score for power – reflecting the level of representation of women across the decision-making system. Yet the new focus on achieving greater equality is gaining traction, and not just within the civil service.

In 2016, a quota system was introduced under which at least 30% of candidates of political parties in the general election must be female; parties that fail to comply will see their state funding halved. The number of women who stood in the subsequent general election was twice that of the previous one, and there was a 40% jump in the number elected. Women now hold just over 22% of seats in Dáil Éireann, the lower house.

If women are given more opportunities to get into the top ranks, Cagney believes, they won’t be held back by a lack of confidence: “We have asked the Economic and Social Research Institute to do some quantitative and qualitative research for us. And one of the interesting results is that while we do have a dearth of female managers at senior level, there is no sense that it’s because they don’t believe they are capable of doing the job; and no sense that they feel in any way inhibited from doing it.”

The main finding from the study, he says, was that women are discouraged by the intensity and scale of the workload in senior jobs, and the fear that they won’t be able to carry any “atypical work arrangements” which they currently enjoy into a bigger job.

Starting from a low base in 2003, Ireland’s progress in getting women into the very topmost civil service jobs has broadly paralleled the EU average – though Ireland slipped backwards during 2005-09, whilst the EU accelerated.

Click here for the full results of Global Government Forum’s 2016-17 Women Leaders Index

Or click through to our case studies on Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Mexico, Turkey and the UK.

About Tania Mason

Journalist and an expert in organisational and management issues.

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