Systemic inequalities persist for women in the workplace in Northern Ireland, a watchdog has warned.
Geraldine McGahey, the head of the Equality Commission, was speaking after a Belfast Telegraph investigation found females are under-represented across a range of sectors.
The disparity exists in senior job roles in politics, business, the health service and law enforcement.
Men account for 60% of the total 2,107 consultant level jobs across all five health trusts and, on average at local government level, there are 29 men and just 11 women elected as councillors for their council area.
Of the seven presiding members of the judiciary of Northern Ireland, only two are female, and the top three positions in the PSNI are held by men, with less than half of the Chief Superintendent positions occupied by women.
Only six on the Belfast Telegraph’s list of top 100 Northern Ireland companies, published last November, are led by female chief executives or directors.
In just one of the areas we examined, the education sector, was there a higher percentage of women in senior roles.
Ms McGahey, the Equality Commission’s Chief Commissioner, said that despite a steady rise in female employment in recent years, “underlying, systemic inequalities and problems” persist for women in the workplace.
She said tackling this must be a priority for policymakers “to ensure women achieve – and maintain - their proper place as full equals within the workforce.”
Ms McCahey said: “Every year, the number of complaints of sex discrimination to our discrimination advice line is the second biggest category, after disability.
“When we look more closely at the breakdown of just Covid-related cases last year, complaints of sex discrimination were the second largest group of Covid-related enquiries (30%). Almost all of these (97%) were employment-related and most were about either pregnancy/maternity or work life balance/family status.
“We know these are difficult times for employers, but it must be remembered that the anti-discrimination laws apply in these times as they did before the pandemic impacted on all our lives.”
She said “building blocks for an inclusive recovery” were needed, including an updated Gender Equality Strategy, a Childcare Strategy and gender pay reporting legislation.
She urged Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey to urgently bring forward the Gender Equality Strategy set out in the New Decade New Approach.
"There is clearly a substantial disparity in the representation of women in senior management positions in the private sector and senior leadership roles in public life,” she added.
“I am heartened by positive changes like the appointment of our first Lady Chief Justice (Siobhan Keegan) but there is clearly a huge amount of work to do to ensure that women are given the opportunities to succeed at the highest level.
“The expert panel report on gender equality highlighted many of the barriers facing women, not least of all in terms of pay, conditions, childcare and other caring responsibilities.”
SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon, the Infrastructure Minister, previously brought forward proposals for maternity leave for female politicians here.
Speaking as a working mum of three, she called for the barriers for women to public life to be removed and for “an end to gender inequalities across the board”.
Ms Mallon said at the time that “for too long politics has been a cold house for women, while the tide is changing, the system isn’t changing fast enough.