Workplace Wellbeing: Sonya Lennon on bridging the gender pay gap

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Irish Examiner

Monday, November 21, is Equal Pay Day. It marks when women effectively stop earning in relation to men for the rest of the year as the gender pay gap comes into force.

Many of us are still confused about how and why this happens, says fashion designer, TV presenter, and social entrepreneur Sonya Lennon. She is the founder of WorkEqual, a national charity that raises awareness of workplace gender inequalities and develops solutions to address them.

“It’s not to do with equal pay,” she says. “The right of a man and a woman to earn the same pay for doing the same work is protected by legislation in Ireland.”

Instead, it’s the difference in the average hourly wage of men and women across the workforce. In its just-published guide Navigating the Gender Pay Gap, the business representative group IBEC says it compares the pay of all working men and women, not just those doing the same jobs or those with the same qualifications or experience. Cleaners and receptionists are included along with managers and CEOs.

The gender pay gap is usually measured across the economy as a whole or an industry and it’s expressed as a percentage of men’s earnings. Eurostat figures from 2019 estimate that Ireland’s gender pay gap is 11.3%. That means that women in Ireland earn around 89 cents for every euro earned by men.

“This is because women aren’t equally represented across organisations,” says Lennon. “They hold more of the lower-paid jobs. There are fewer of them in senior management roles and more working part-time.”

Gender Pay Gap Information Act

Lennon became aware of the problem after she set up Dress for Success Dublin in 2011 to provide professional styling and career consultancy to women planning to enter or return to the workplace. “I wanted to help them get jobs but I realised that the gender pay gap meant that what we were doing wasn’t enough. If we wanted to help women, we needed to change the system, and that meant pushing for policy change.”

She rebranded Dress for Success Dublin into WorkEqual in 2016. “We started campaigning for legislation and were ridiculed at first,” she says.

They aren’t being ridiculed anymore. According to a survey of 1,011 Irish adults by WorkEqual in 2021, 74% now believe that closing the gender pay gap should be a priority for government and employers.

The government demonstrated its support for pay equality by passing the Gender Pay Gap Information Act in 2021. As a result, organisations with more than 250 employees will have to report on their gender pay gap from December of this year. Organisations with more than 150 workers will be required to do so from 2024 and those with more than 50 employees from 2025.

“This won’t fix the problem by itself but it’s a great start,” says Lennon. “Reporting on the gender pay gap will allow us to raise awareness of the problem, prompt us to identify its causes, and find solutions.”

A solution she advocates is one she has seen in use in Iceland where businesses that have succeeded in closing the gender pay gap are given a kitemark to use on their goods and services. “It’s become a badge of honour there and it allows consumers to vote with their wallets when deciding where they spend their money,” says Lennon.

Dr Kara McCann is the head of social policy at IBEC. She agrees that reporting is the first step in solving the gender pay gap. “To get to the real nub of gender inequality in the workplace, we need a whole of society approach, but this is a critical starting point,” she says. “What gets measured is what gets acted upon, and measuring the gender pay gap could help drive change at a faster pace than what we’ve had to date.”

Employers have a vested interest in addressing this form of gender inequality. “They recognise that women account for half the potential workforce and not investing in their talent would be short-sighted in the extreme,” says McCann. “They also know that companies with greater gender balance at senior levels perform better. Businesses pay attention to this and it drives them to identify where barriers to female advancement might exist within their organisations. The new legislation will drive more employers to do this.”

Dr Kara McCann is the head of social policy at IBECDr Kara McCann is the head of social policy at IBEC

Shared parental leave

Lennon recently formed part of a group that visited Iceland to learn how it has become what the World Economic Forum regards as the most gender-equal country in the world. She and a range of people from the worlds of business, sports, media and the arts will discuss her findings as part of a WorkEqual event taking place in the Smock Alley Theatre this November 21. (More details can be found here.)

“From our encounters in Iceland, which included a talk with the prime minister, it became evident that shared parental leave and accessible childcare were the two key policies that had the most impact on progress on gender equality in the country,” she says.

“They have shared parental leave,” she says. “Women take four-and-a-half months. Men take four-and-a-half months and they toggle six weeks between them. This means that when a male and female graduate come in front of an employer, one is as likely to take parental leave as the other. The bias that exists against women, which contributes to them earning less than men in the long run, is no longer relevant.”

McCann recognises that issues like childcare will have to be tackled to solve the problem of the gender pay gap as they are what cause them to take time out from the workforce and in the process hinder the advancement of their careers.

“We also have to look at things like dismantling the idea of women’s work and men’s work,” she says. “We have to ask why girls outperform boys at school but are less likely to choose subjects that lead to higher earnings. If subjects like mechanical drawing or domestic science aren’t an option, it narrows career decisions for men and women very early on.

“Women spend more time caring for their families too, with mothers spending 10 years less in full-time work than men, all of which generates an earnings gap. There’s so much that needs to be addressed.”

While there may be little that employers can do to address these societal issues, the new pay equality legislation requires them to question reasons for any pay gap within their organisation.

“It’s important that they interrogate the data,” says McCann. “Once they understand why it’s happening, they can decide on measures to reduce or eliminate the gap.

“The value of the gender pay gap isn’t about the figure itself so much as the actions that will come about as a result of looking at that figure. It’s not a destination, but a starting point.”

Karen Hackett Permanent TSBKaren Hackett Permanent TSB

‘We wanted an inclusive workforce’

Permanent TSB started looking at its gender pay gap in 2018. The bank has 2,318 employees, 52% of which are female.

“We started reporting on our gender pay gap because we wanted a more inclusive workforce,” says Karen Hackett, the head of people experience in Permanent TSB.

Read more – Irish Examiner


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