It's been encouraging to see a rise in executive level appointments in Northern Ireland, both in the public and private sector being filled by women - National Museums NI, Titanic Belfast, Institute of Directors (IoD) NI, CBI NI and Belfast City Council to name a few.
A broader look, however, at the top 100 companies across the UK and Ireland and it's clear to see that men still dominate our boardrooms. Is this really a straightforward case of bias towards men or is workplace equality really that achievable and indeed desirable if, as many businesses are claiming, women simply 'don't want the job'?
Women falling out of the leadership race:
Consider these statistics: 58% of Irish women have completed third-level education compared with 44% of men; and 57% of last year's graduates in Britain were female.
It would seem that women and men start out on a fairly equal footing when it comes to their careers. So when you consider that only 7% of the FTSE 100 CEOs are women and 90% of surgeons in Ireland are male, despite 20 years of gender parity among medical graduates, why are major differences emerging when men and women seek to progress to more senior levels, across both the private and public sector?
One well-versed reason is that childcare and care-giving has a bigger impact on the careers of women than men. Women increasingly find themselves in the 'sandwich generation', caring for elderly parents whilst also supporting their children.
According to research from the 30% Club Ireland, a group which campaigns for 30% of top positions to be filled by women, a significant proportion of women believe that availing of flexible working arrangements would lead to their commitment to the organisation being questioned.
Other explanations relate to more complex issues around women's confidence in their own abilities, hence not putting themselves forward for high profile posts, a lack of opportunity and simply personal choice.
A balanced perspective:
It has been well documented that women not only bring different perspectives to male-dominated boardrooms but also significant material improvement to their company's bottom line and operational effectiveness.
Studies time and again reveal that women bring new knowledge, skills and networks to the table, take fewer unnecessary risks and are more inclined to contribute in ways that make their teams and organisations better. Females tend to be rated highly for their empathetic, intuitive and collaborative approach, qualities which have proved particularly useful in challenging, turbulent times.
However, I would urge caution in using stereotypical ways to describe gender differences and suggest the focus perhaps be less on 'what women bring' and more on getting them into leadership roles in the first place and supporting their progress.
Improving workplace equality?
How do we make it easier for women to overcome the barriers to reaching the top?
Change requires boosting the pipeline of women employees at all levels and facilitating their progress through the executive ranks.
With regard to the issue of flexible working, a recent McKinsey report advises that governments have a strong role to play in addressing this issue and creating the conditions for equal opportunities.
But companies also have to play their part, with a commitment to gender equality from the CEO cascading down to all levels of the organisation. Increasing the number of gender-diversity initiatives is not enough. Best-in-class companies initiated these programmes earlier, indicating that it takes time to effect tangible, sustainable results.
In terms of a lack of confidence to go for the top jobs, the more female role models we have in leadership positions the more likely they are to be able to inspire others in achieving similar.
Whilst progress has been made toward gender diversity in the workplace, we still have a long way to go to reach parity.
True change undoubtedly requires both government and business-led interventions, which is why we welcome the transparency the new reporting rules on gender pay discrepancies will bring. Whilst not applicable to smaller businesses yet, they might want to consider a 'front foot' approach should the law change and take one step closer to achieving equality within their workforce.