Belfast Telegraph

Why gender balance makes for a better management team

By Angela McGowan

The early part of 2010 has brought with it a significant milestone for the US — for the first time women in the world’s largest economy now account for over 50% of the workforce.

In Northern Ireland, the equivalent figure is 46.3%. Of the 355,000 women working in the local economy, approximately 38% are working part-time. Regardless of part-time or full-time status their contribution is invaluable and recognition by employers of the unique skills women can bring has never been higher.

Over the last 50 years a number of factors have come together to allow for female economic empowerment — the growth in service industries (requiring less brawn and more brain), expansion of higher education and advances in technology, with the latter playing an important role in reducing the time spent on domestic chores.

Diversity in the workforce not only produces a more balanced approach to organisational strategy, but also reflects the customer base. Research by Catalyst has shown large US companies with the greatest representation of women in top positions generated a third more returns to shareholders. Furthermore, a global study by McKinsey & Company has also found a high correlation between female company leadership and profitability.

Unfortunately evidence also exists to validate assumptions that having male dominated industries is ultimately unhealthy. During the recent downturn the financial services industry has faced accusations that male domination of this industry has been one of the contributing factors for excessive risk taking. In Iceland the Government was quick to appoint two females to chief executive positions of nationalised banks signaling a change in direction from previous male dominated roles. When commenting on the appointments one government official remarked, “It’s typical, the men make the mess and the women come in to clean up.”

Of course most industries now accept the benefits of a balanced workplace. Employers now offer a range of flexible working practices to attract female staff. Flexible working, career breaks and working from home have all been adopted in recent years by |the majority of forward-thinking employers.

However much remains to be done. For many working women the challenge of balancing a work life with affordable childcare remains an issue. The pay gap between males and females, although declining, has not disappeared and for many women part-time work has left them with an inadequate pension and financial uncertainty for the future.

Despite the challenges, the economic role of women is expected to flourish over the next decade. Hopefully we will see exaggerated caricatures of women — domestic goddesses to Ms Career woman — disappear.

Perhaps ‘real’ women should spend less time comparing themselves with stereotypes and instead take their rightful place with their male counterparts in driving industry forward to create an equal playing field for all.

Angela McGowan is chief economist for the Northern Bank

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