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In 1992 former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds said "That's women for you" when brushing off a heckle by Nora Owen, Fine Gael TD. Today, women are a little different in how they do business. Read what our Psychologist, Dr Yseult Freeney of DCU has to say!

Old wine in new bottles is a phrase that often accompanies reviews on the latest hot topics in work psychology to capture the attention of both researchers and practitioners alike. My own area of expertise, work engagement, is certainly no stranger to having to defend itself as more than a buzzword. Yet while buzzwords and crazes in the field come and go, there are some age old issues that are never resolved and remain as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

While Ireland is a good place for promoting female managers, stark inequalities remain between men and women in contemporary workplaces. The scale of workplace inequality still faced by millions of women has been laid bare by countless pieces of research, yet the issues persist. Project 28-40, undertaken by Opportunity Now in the UK, has been completed by more than 25,000 women. Almost 20% of women surveyed say that their careers have stalled because managers failed to promote them or offer training opportunities.

This insight follows news that the gender pay gap is widening again (Office for National Statistics, UK). Evidence clearly demonstrates a wide gender pay gap and one that only widens the higher women climb. Clara Kulich’s research also confirms that the better a company performs, the greater the bonus for male leaders but this increased reward does not exist for female leaders. It appears that men simply do not have to prove their performance. However, there is more to this issue than mere pay inequality.

Readers are probably very familiar with the Glass Ceiling but I speculate that only a small proportion is acquainted with the Glass Cliff, coined by Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam in Exeter University. This term is used to describe the phenomenon whereby women tend to be appointed to leadership positions that are associated with an increased risk of criticism and failure and often where the company is already performing poorly.

Women's leadership positions can thus be seen as more precarious than those of men. The scope of this editorial does not allow for an in-depth review of the varied explanations for this gap but role congruity theory is worth a mention (Eagly & Karau, 2002).

Role congruity describes a prejudice toward female leaders and proposes that perceived incongruity between the female gender role (communal, nurturing etc.) and leadership roles leads to two forms of prejudice: first, women are not perceived as natural occupants of leadership roles and second, women who enact leader-type behaviours are evaluated less favourably than men enacting the same behaviours because these behaviours are not considered ‘feminine’ or appropriate for women.

How can female employees and leaders be assisted in facing off this discrimination? Well there are a number of points to note.

1. Firstly, research points to the simple fact that women do not ask when it comes to negotiating pay. Thus, assertiveness and negotiating skills would benefit women in this regard. Women often need to be more assertive — they tiptoe around things rather than being straight about what they think.
2. Secondly, men are generally more confident about their performance and are more likely to make their successes and achievements be known. Female employees need to reflect on their achievements and be confident in communicating these to their colleagues and superiors.
3. Finally, theories of transformational leadership and more recently, authentic leadership may offer some hope in that they are far more accommodating of the strengths that women bring to leadership roles. Women are still vastly under-represented in the senior echelons of business, political and educational organisations but through further coaching, personal development and open-mindedness on the part of organisations, perhaps the 21st century will at last bring about meaningful and positive change for female employees, their organisations and the societies they serve.

One of the main contributory factors to low representation of women in senior positions is the lack of flexible working options, particularly for women returning to work after maternity leave. However, flexible working options and greater autonomy for employees creates a win-win situation for organisations, where such practices are linked to greater engagement and higher productivity. For many women, flexible, part-time options are the only option for them when balancing family and work demands.

For managers, it is time to ditch the inclination to view worker productivity as purely an input model, focussing erroneously on time put into work. Challenge this assumption by embracing an output model, valuing the productivity that can be achieved in shorter working weeks. and flexible working practices become a no-brainer. Senior management can play its part in supporting women in their careers but women too have to be proactive in pushing for advancement.


Yseult Freeney a Lecturer in Organisational Psychology in Dublin City University Business School in Ireland and completed her PhD in Psychology in University College Dublin as a Scholar.

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