Report finds 'glass ceiling' obstructs women in management

A report by the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC), published in March 2002, concludes that the presence of a 'glass ceiling' means that there is a low level of female representation in senior management positions in Ireland. This 'glass ceiling', it is argued, is created by a number of structural and attitudinal barriers.

On 19 March 2002, the Deputy Prime Minister (Tánaiste) and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Mary Harney, launched a report from the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC), entitled Women in management in Irish business and compiled by Anne Coughlan of IBEC in 2001. The report: examines recent changes in the pattern of women's employment; outlines the results of an IBEC survey on women in management; explores some of the structural and attitudinal barriers to women's advancement that have created a 'glass ceiling'; and sets out some practical measures that employers can take to bridge the 'gender gap'.

The report highlights the increase in the labour market participation rate of women in Ireland, from 28% in 1971 to just over 50% in 2001. This compares to a 73.3% participation rate for men in 2001. In the period between 1971 and 2001, the number of females at work in Ireland grew by 140%, in comparison with 27% for men. The highest female participation rate is among women in the 25-34 age group (nearly 77% in 2001). The participation rate for married women is 46.4%, compared with 25.7% in 1991. The increase in the female participation rate is attributed to factors such as higher educational attainment, falling fertility rates, the removal of the 'marriage bar' in the public service, equality legislation and higher earning capacity for women.

Gender gap at top

Despite this substantial increase in female participation, the IBEC report suggests that women are still under-represented in senior positions. Table 1 below, taken from the report, provides data on women in senior positions by sector.

Table 1. Women in senior positions, by sector
Year Sector Position % Women
1998 'Corporate Ireland' Managing director 3%
Senior manager 21%
Middle manager 23%
2000 Judiciary Supreme Court 29%
High Court 7%
Circuit Court 19%
1998 Higher education Professor 5%
Senior lecturer 16%
Lecturer 37%
1997 Civil service Secretary general 4%
Assistant secretary 10%
Principal officer 12%
2000 Dail Eireann (parliament) Government minister 20%
Junior minister 12%
TDs (members of parliament) 12%

Source: 'Women in management in Irish business', IBEC.

These findings are complemented by the results of a survey of over 6,000 managers and professionals conducted by IBEC, which indicates that very few women reach senior management positions. Women now account for just 8% of Irish chief executives, 21% of senior managers, and 30% of middle managers. When these three categories are combined, women make up only a quarter of all managers. Moreover, the more senior the position the wider is the gender gap. The proportion of women and men is less unbalanced at junior management and professional levels, however, where 45% of employees are female.

In relation to differences across functional areas, human resources/personnel is the only function where there is a higher proportions of women than men at function/senior management level. In addition, almost four out of 10 heads of function/senior managers in service sector companies are female, as opposed to two out of 10 in manufacturing, sales and distribution. At middle management level, women predominate in two functional areas, personnel and customer services, which are 'people-oriented' occupations. The gender gap narrows significantly at the level of junior management and professional employment, where there are more women than men in human resources/personnel, finance and customer services.

Company profile is also an important factor. For instance, more female chief executives are likely to be found in small companies, in Irish-owned companies and in the service sector. At the next level of management, the larger the company, the less likely it is to have female heads of function/senior managers.

'Glass ceiling'

The report blames the 'glass ceiling'– a range of overlapping structural, institutional and attitudinal factors acting as barriers to women achieving senior management positions – for women's lack of advancement to the upper echelons of organisations. The structural and institutional factors contributing to a 'glass ceiling' include:

  • unclear selection criteria for promotion, which allows for considerable scope for discretion by senior management;
  • 'occupational segregation', whereby the selection process can favour men or women for certain jobs;
  • women can be cut off from the informal networks or 'old boys clubs' that have often been necessary for advancement within organisations in the past;
  • a woman's ability to combine both management and family responsibilities is often questioned by her male senior management colleagues;
  • because women are mainly responsible for domestic and family issues, lack of affordable, good-quality and consistent childcare can act as a barrier to women's participation at senior management level;
  • women often cannot work the long hours required of managers because of the lack of back-up or family support structures;
  • women are said to be more job-focused than career-focused and are often not aware of the strategic importance of the decisions they make related to their careers; and
  • the lack of female role models. Male senior managers are often the 'gate-keepers' to women's entry into senior management

The attitudinal factors contributing to a 'glass ceiling' include:

  • characteristics considered to be 'masculine' (for example, being forceful, aggressive, independent, objective or competitive) are generally regarded as traits required for management, rather than so-called 'feminine' characteristics (such as being cooperative, flexible, subjective, intuitive or emotional), which can be viewed as ineffective management traits;
  • women's tendency to move into 'support' or 'non-strategic' functions such as human resources and administration at junior management level, rather than into line management functions that lead to more senior positions;
  • perceptions of the social and occupational roles of men and women influence appointment and promotional decisions;
  • the 'perceived' risk of placing women in non-traditional roles;
  • 'occupational socialisation', whereby applicants themselves frequently prepare and apply for jobs along gender lines - ie women may limit their applications to what are perceived as 'female' type positions;
  • women 'select themselves out' of some training initiatives and promotional opportunities, because of family commitments; and
  • women do not promote themselves.

Bridging the gap

A range of practical measures are outlined in the report, which could be adopted to help with the advancement of women's careers.

A number of recruitment and promotion measures are identified, including establishing procedures to make recruitment and promotion more objective and making the recruitment and promotion process more structured and transparent.

Potential positive action measures include: establishing goals and setting targets for recruiting and promoting women; setting up a task force to identify and remove barriers, put an action plan in place and assign deadlines for meeting targets; and instructing recruitment officers and agencies to make special efforts to find women candidates.

In terms of equal opportunity measures, companies could: launch an executive development programme, with the objective of providing equal development opportunities for all employees; ensure that performance assessment procedures use neutral and measurable criteria; and make employment and development policies gender-neutral.

A focus on 'diversity management' is also recommended. It is suggested that determinants of a diversity programme could include: strong senior management support; an assessment and modification of organisational culture; the provision of education and training; and the development of the business case for promoting diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity.

Training measures are also identified as a means to increase the pool of qualified women. To this end, companies could: identify potential women managers and ensure that they receive 'cross training' (training in different areas to gain broad experience) to equip them with higher line management skills; remedy any factors that might limit women's access to training; and provide equal opportunities training.

'Family-friendly' and 'work-life balance' policies are viewed as important for bridging the gender divide, as are 'career tracking' and 'mentoring'. Career tracking involves identifying women with high potential and helping them gain experience through challenging and high-profile assignments. It is suggested that mentoring could take the form of a planned long-term corporate mentoring programme for talented individuals.

Table 2 below, contained in the report, shows the factors that women in Europe believe are important for improving women's advancement at different management levels.

Table 2. Factors women in Europe believe are important for improving women's advancement in management (% identifying factors)
Factors Junior management Middle management Senior management
Equal opportunity programme 41% 39% 29%
Company childcare 44% 36% 24%
Special courses for women managers 78% 68% 43%
Revised selection/ promotion process 24% 33% 41%
Mentoring 39% 47% 46%
Quotas for female representation 13% 14% 22%
Reducing workload 10% 16% 13%

Source: 'Women in management in Irish business', IBEC.

The table indicates that women in junior and middle management positions would appear to favour special courses to support women in management, followed by company childcare provision and mentoring. Women in senior management positions appear to favour mentoring, followed by special courses to support women in management and revised selection/promotion procedures.

IBEC is involved in a number of practical initiatives aimed at addressing the challenges identified in the report. These include a 'leadership' initiative in partnership with a number of individuals and organisations, including the International Women's Forum, targeted at developing the skills and abilities of potential and existing leaders in Ireland – with a particular focus on women. The development phase of this initiative has been supported by the equality at the enterprise framework committee set up by the current national agreement, the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF) (IE0003149F).


The IBEC report confirms the low level of participation amongst women at senior management level in Ireland. This is due to a number of structural, institutional and attitudinal factors, which will be difficult to overcome. (Tony Dobbins, IRN)

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