Sinead Sharkey-Steenson tells Emma Deighan why she’s
calling time on gender inequality
Sinead Sharkey-Steenson, founder and director of Generation Women, says one of her clients found herself working on an ironing board as her partner took the spare room as his office during lockdown.
She uses that scenario as a classic example of how women’s careers are rarely prioritised in “the traditional home” and says lockdown and its additional pressures on women have been the final straw in the equality battle.
“Everybody has had to do a certain amount of juggling throughout the pandemic,” Sinead says. “And Northern Ireland still has a fairly traditional culture and women are still picking up the slack.
“We already do a double shift, but during this pandemic it’s been a double double shift. We’ve had home-schooling, looking after the family, everyone’s shopping to cover, caring for people as well as our own jobs and this isn’t over. While we may not be home-schooling en masse right now, there is still the possibility of self-isolating and who’s doing it all the work? It’s the women.”
Sinead’s observations have been verified by many studies carried out over the past year.
According to PwC progress for women in work will be back to 2017 levels by the end of the year. And according to analysis conducted for its annual Women in Work Index, which measures female economic empowerment across 33 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the damage from Covid-19 and government response and recovery policies, is disproportionately being felt by women.
It said between 2019 and 2020, the annual OECD unemployment rate increased by 1.7 percentage points for women (from 5.7% in 2019 to 7.4% in 2020).
And women, on average, spent six more hours than men on unpaid childcare every week (according to research by UN Women).
"During Covid-19, women have taken on an even greater share and now spend 7.7 more hours per week on unpaid childcare than men - this ‘second shift’ equates to 31.5 hours per week; almost as much an extra full-time job,” read the report.
The International Labour Organisation says 43.2% of the world’s working-age women will be employed in 2021, compared to 68.6% of working-age men.
Its study ‘Building Forward Fairer: Women’s rights to work and work at the core of the Covid-19 recovery’ shows that besides extra workloads at home, women have suffered disproportionate job and income losses because of their over-representation in the hardest-hit sectors.
One of its response strategies is ‘promoting women’s participation in decision-making bodies, social dialogue and social partner institutions. Sinead agrees.
She says the buck stops at employers when combating gender inequality in the workplace.
“Women take up the caring responsibility and suddenly they are having to do a lot more caring. Their attention is divided, and, for many, their careers have gone on the back burner.
“Men are trained to look after number one while women are trained to look after everyone around them. Even in partnerships where they would share responsibilities there are arguments about whose workday takes precedence.
“What we need to do now is include women in creating a solution to these issues. Quite often, it’s a group of men getting together to say here’s what we must do. It’s that cliché in the boardroom; pale, male and stale and it needs to change.”
Sinead launched Generation Women five years ago to help women further their careers and indeed leave careers that weren’t serving them well.
The birth of her first daughter (now aged 8) prompted a move into career coaching and mentoring.
She says that since its launch Generation Women has helped thousands of women here, and more recently abroad, to elevate their careers.
“I studied psychology at Queen’s University. My interest has always been how people think and I loved that course, but I didn’t know what to do next,” Sinead says.
An additional course in computing and information systems saw Sinead land a job at Bombardier where “the money was good”, but her confidence took a knock because “I wasn’t in my zone”.
She credits a “few great bosses” throughout her career for allowing her to expand in the workplace, experimenting with new things while a role in HR systems reignited her interest in psychology.
“I thought this is where I could use my expertise and from then my career really took off.
“I decided to leave my job after having children, partly because I was working in male dominated workplaces and that was holding me back. I believe I did everything I could to get ahead but it felt like everything was such a battle to get the recognition I deserved.
“While I was on maternity leave with my first daughter I started to get interested in injustices and looked at the world through her eyes. I thought ‘what have I been putting up with’ and decided to take action.”
Sinead says she’s always been a “battler for the underdogs” and is driven by challenging injustices.
Her first foray into women’s rights was with the Women’s Equality Party. While working there, she gave birth to her second daughter (now aged 6) and decided to make a business out of her passion.
“I thought I can’t have this world for my daughters. I need to do something about it,” she adds.
“The results I get from Generation Women; seeing women totally come into their own and have the strength to battle against structures that are set against them, is so satisfying.
“We help women to achieve in a way that they feel comfortable.”
She does this through coaching, mentoring and a series of programmes.
Advising employers about how they can make their workplace a more equal setting after Covid, Sinead says they “need to recognise that it has been a hard time but also how differently the pandemic has impacted women and the question now is about how they can support women.
"Snap decisions to pull everyone back into the office is not the way to go. You need to be flexible.
“There is a lot of talk of hybrid working but look at what works for the people who work for you.
"They’ve already proven they can be effective workers at home.”
But there’s a balance, she’s quick to point out: “Being completely based at home, however, can be challenging on people’s confidence and sense of self and I’ve had a lot of clients who are very capable tell me that.
"It’s about blending the best of both worlds, allowing people freedom and flexibility but it has to come from a place of trust.”
She says a lack of consultation among workers could result in some firms losing their best staff.
“When the pandemic started, I spoke to a few clients who were totally micromanaged and expected to document all of their time at home. What happens there is, you lose your best people so consult with your people about what will work and what won’t and, of course, you can’t give everything but at least if you have a rationale and you’ve listened, people will feel they have been treated like valued supportive members of your team.”
And when it comes to promotional opportunities, she believes no-one should be judged on their performance over the past year and a half.
“If someone was working well up until the start of Covid, then they took on those extra responsibilities at home and couldn’t perform, is it fair to let that hold them back and make them go through more years before another promotional opportunity arises? I don’t think so but unfortunately I think that’s what women will face.”
Looking to her own future, Sinead says virtual coaching will play a big role in the business and it will also allow her to expand her global reach.
She jokes that global domination is on the cards but before that, she concludes: “I’ve a book in the pipeline based on our career elevator programme. It will help women scale up to the next level in their career.
“I will also be looking at doing podcasts on similar subjects,” she says.