Belfast Telegraph

Equality of sexes in society's most powerful roles remains a work in progress

By Evelyn Collins

Women make up almost half the Northern Ireland workforce, leave school with better qualifications than men and are more likely to enter further and higher education.

Yet they are still under-represented at senior management level, in boardrooms and in public life in Northern Ireland.

There has been progress and achievement in equality for women in the workplace since sex equality laws were introduced in the 1970s. Women are now working in a broader range of occupations and industries than ever before, while the pay gap has narrowed.

But many inequalities remain. Only 33% of managers and senior officials in organisations are women and women are the largest under-represented group when it comes to enterprise and entrepreneurship.

Women are also under-represented in decision-making and leadership in politics and public life in Northern Ireland.

At the last election, only 19% of those elected to the Assembly were women – and women represent only 35% of public appointments in Northern Ireland. And at the highest – and most influential – levels of our society, women are still under-represented, both in the private and the public sector.

It has been argued that, as it takes many years for people to work their way up to senior positions, the imbalance today at the highest level reflects the lower proportion of women at all levels in these employments in the past.

Therefore, it is suggested, due to the fairer balance that now exists at entry level, that time will bring the change we wish for. However, that argument has looked less compelling as years and decades have passed and significant improvements in female participation in many businesses and professions have resulted in only marginal advances for women working at the highest levels.

Changing such deep-seated attitudes is always a challenge. We have seen the importance of firm legislation and public leadership in achieving the progress we have made so far in obtaining gender equality – and we should not underestimate the extent of that.

To achieve full gender equality at all levels of society, we need a commitment to drive that change at the very top.

That requires leadership by politicians in the Executive, the Assembly and the council chambers, and by the boards of businesses and institutions throughout Northern Ireland.

  • Evelyn Collins is chief executive of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland

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