'This is the time of year when women effectively start working for free. That needs to change'

The gender pay gap in Ireland currently stands at around 14%.

By Sonya Lennon Founder, Dress For Success Dublin

IT’S THE TIME of the year when women effectively start working for free because of the 14% differential between men and women’s salaries.

I’ve recently found myself sugar-coating words and phrases, trying to make this subject palatable to people – of both genders – who may not be comfortable with the Equal Pay Day campaign. And there are lots of people who may not be comfortable.

Any senior executive who has followed protocol and hired a woman on a lower salary than a man at the same level is surely shifting a little in their seat right now.

I’ve been carefully crafting sentences to make it clear that this is not about militant, man-hating agitation, but rather a deep, heartfelt desire to be treated and paid equally for the work that we do.

I’m passionate about changing this disparity but I’m not angry. In fact, I understand it and, in some ways, I’m surprised things aren’t even worse. One lifetime ago, less than 100 years, women were granted the right to vote. In my lifetime, women were legally forced to quit civil service employment once they got married.

Established business mores

Many factors conspire to us finding ourselves in this situation. The corporate world tends to be relatively conservative, some would say glacial, in its pace of change.

Last year, only 4.8% of CEOs in the top 500 US companies were women. But it’s not fair to stick all the blame to the suits.

The ping-pong-wielding startup set, all hoodies and chai, often carry inherent cultural and sexual inequalities without even realising it.

Less than 7% of partners in the top-100 US venture capital firms are women. And out of the more than $280 billion invested in the US last year, only 10% went to female-founded start-ups.

Yet, with a decade worth of data, VC firm First Round Capital found that startups with a female founder perform 63% better than all-male teams.

So, the big picture is skewed from the get-go. The little picture is no more forgiving.

Split parental leave

Women are nature’s birth-givers. However, the reality of maternity leave is a big, swollen contentious issue.

As a recruiter, you look into the eyes of your prospective employee and consciously or subconsciously ask yourself, how likely is this person to get pregnant during their employ? If the candidate is male, the answer is a big, emphatic ‘no’.

However, if parental leave could be split equally between men and women, imagine the difference this would make to employer and family alike. And the time out wouldn’t become a driver of inequality.

Obviously, this is not black and white and gets more complicated for single parents, but it would be an important step towards achieving real gender equality.

Imposter syndrome

Finally, women’s own confidence, or lack thereof, and the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’, leaves them struggling to claim what’s rightfully theirs.

Women, generally, have less testosterone (but sometimes bigger balls) than men, so can struggle to tap into a self-serving drive to the top.

After one interview I did in recent weeks about our equal-pay campaign, the journalist in question ended with, ‘Right, that’s it! I’m asking for a review!’ Good! That’s the point.

As a newly anointed, head-above-the-parapet campaigner, I’m not in a huge hurry to fix this; I know change takes time.

Outlier organisations like Salesforce have audited their salary bills, in its case spending an extra $3 million to eliminate statistically significant differences in pay.

Luckily for them, their workforce and their marketing team, they were in the position to swiftly redress the balance and make things well. Not every company is in that luxurious position.

It’s OK to admit to inequities. It’s OK to not be able to fix them straight away. But it’s not OK to not want to fix them ever.

Statisticians believe that, at the current rate of change, we will not achieve pay parity before 2050, with some saying it could be as far out as 187 years. That’s simply not acceptable. In the words of Daryl Hall and John Oates: I can’t go for that.

Sonya Lennon is a designer, tech entrepreneur and the founder of Dress for Success Dublin, a charity that helps women back to work. Her organisation is running an ‘equal pay day’ campaign including a political briefing at Leinster House today.

If you want to share your opinion, advice or story, email opinion@fora.ie.