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Gender Challenge in Local Government

Local government plays an important role in creating and supporting environments that enable the community to achieve optimal health and wellbeing. Reducing gender inequity for women is a key strategy in achieving this goal.

Definition: Gender Bias – ‘The often unintentional and implicit differentiation between women and men by placing one gender in a hierarchical position relative to the other in a certain context as a result of stereotypical images of masculinity and femininity.’

Late last year the government announced it was going to create 45 female-only senior academic roles within the higher education sector over the next three years. The move is part of a wider plan which aims to increase the level of female representation in third-level education where only 24% of professor posts were filled by women even though over 50% of lecturers were female.

The decision kicked off a robust debate on gender bias and gender equality within Ireland and more pointedly in the public sector. The plan also deviated from established third level recruitment policies which promote equality of opportunity for men and women. Suitably qualified men may well feel they will be overlooked for senior posts because of their gender and not their qualifications while many women would be of the view that such enforced quotas diminish women’s achievement.

The debate indeed if anything told us we had a long way to go to change people’s perceptions of what is and isn’t practical or sensible when it comes to equality in state and local government sectors and what the role of these should be in this issue.

Many people may be jaded at this age old debate that rumbles on interminably and gets new legs every few years adopting a more modern vernacular and medium at each juncture.

Many men and women wouldn’t agree with the thought of women being elevated to positions of seniority simply because they’re women. The counter argument is of course that women have been starting from a position of severe handicap due to misogynist policies of the past and a period of re-calibration was required in order that they could compete on a level playing field. The issue goes much deeper however as 99% of Irish children are cared for by their mother in the home, thereby placing an impediment to their participation once they start a family.

Ireland’s local government sector has a defining social and economic part to play in the life of the country. There state’s 31 local government authorities in Ireland employ almost 28,000 people, spend almost €5 billion a year across housing, roads, environment, recreation, water and development.

Given the size and scope of local government it is inherently tasked with maximising the social and economic benefits of its operations. That’s why it makes sense for local governments to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve – and, in the case of gender, strive for equality. Many councils have made great strides towards gender equality, with many women now occupying senior roles within the sector.

However, there is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in the local government sector. Implementing gender equity strategies makes it easier for councils to tap into new pools of talent for elected officials and staff, bolster professional development, and retain staff.

It is a key observation in mature democracies that gender equality is a key measure of the quality of democratic life. But even if you look beyond notions of democratic rights, existing research evidence on public sector productivity strongly demonstrates that gender diversity in leadership delivers stronger outcomes for individuals and organisations, and supports economic growth.

Moreover, the acquisition of public and EU funding is increasingly being linked with the achievement of diversity targets. In a time of diminishing resources, local government ignores these factors at its peril. If local government is to be taken seriously ws for a more just, inclusive and fair society for both women and men.’

Building a Performance-Related Case

Business performance can equally apply to public sector. Organisational (non-commercial) performance is a relevant and equally valid measure of impact generated by gender equality action.

The principle of building a business case for gender equality is an essential prerequisite for building commitment to a gender strategy and its implementation. It is valid not only for commercial organisations, but also in a public or third (voluntary / not-for-profit) sector context. Too frequently there is insufficient focus given to the development, endorsement and socialisation of a robust and credible business case for gender equality. Weakness at this stage of the strategy development process has the potential to undermine the success of everything that follows, as a business case is usually critical to stakeholder support. Reliance on a sense of corporate responsibility or supportive individual or collective attitudes and values is not best practice or a sound approach as it is usually insufficient in a commercial context.

The learnings from organisational experience indicate approaches to the gender equality business case often suffer from a number of the following limitations:  

  • reliance on a generic business case instead of developing a specific one, unique to the organisation  
  • no gathering or utilisation of relevant and compelling data (quantitative and qualitative) to substantiate the business case
  • the specific business case is not cascaded or redefined for subunits or teams within the organisation  
  • key stakeholder understanding is limited to parts of the business case  
  • key stakeholders have an intellectual appreciation of the business case but lack belief or conviction in its validity  
  • the business case it not actively communicated or promoted across the organisation  
  • no attempt is made to measure impact or return on investment arising from gender equality action in order to retrospectively demonstrate the legitimacy of the business case (and use this to build future support).

Table 1: Business Benefits



Customers A workforce which is as diverse as its customers can more effectively:

  • Understand and anticipate customer needs, which enables proactive tailoring of customer solutions, services, advice and information
  • Personalise communications and interactions, develop deeper connections, and engage more meaningfully with customers
Increase use of services
  • Encouraging people to take up or use new services can be influenced by perceptions in relation to factors such as ethical conduct, corporate responsibility or citizenship, and commitment to equality and diversity.
Risk Diverse teams which operate inclusively can manage and mitigate risk more effectively by avoiding suboptimal decision-making associated with ‘group-think’.
  • Talent and capability is not found in one particular demographic. To ensure an organisation has access to the best available talent and is able to retain this, it will need to progressively become an employer of choice for existing and potential employees of all backgrounds.  
  • Rapidly changing workforce demographics (a shrinking, ageing and more female workforce) mean organisations will increasingly be challenged in the search for talent unless they are able to draw from, and retain, candidates from diverse backgrounds
  • Flexible teams are typically more adaptive and responsive to rapid changes in business conditions and priorities because they already communicate, collaborate and deliver results in ways which are far less restricted by time and location, and which exploit technology to full advantage.
  • Research and organisational experience indicate diverse teams consistently outperform homogeneous teams and produce stronger (business) outcomes – provided an inclusive culture operates, where all ideas or contributions are valued and considered.
  • Employees at all levels who are valued and included, irrespective (or because) of their individual differences, and who can ‘be themselves’ at work are typically more engaged, motivated and therefore productive.
  • Co-workers who understand and respect individual differences collaborate more effectively and with less conflict.
Community Communities and their individual constituents are increasingly influential (and may also be customers). A workforce that represents and is connected to local communities and their values is better able to anticipate and meet their expectations; this can help foster a positive disposition towards an organisation when business outcomes have community impact.
  • Developing innovative solutions to customer needs, creative exploitation of technology and continuous process improvement may help sustain competitive advantage.
  • Diverse and inclusive teams are more innovative because they have a wider set of experiences, approaches and resources to draw upon.
  • Enabling people to constructively challenge established approaches and conventional thinking provides the basis for experimentation and managed risk-taking.
Other stakeholders
  • Diversity, particularly gender equality at leadership levels, is subject to increased scrutiny and strengthened legislation. The effect will include greater exposure of the gender diversity of talent pipelines to leadership levels.
  • An organisation’s reputation and brand will continue to be relevant in relation to government, regulators, shareholders, investors, analysts, contractors, suppliers and partners. Progress in equality, diversity and inclusion can help an organisation position itself as a business which is well-managed (including in relation to risk), and authentically ‘lives’ its culture and values.
  • Objective: ensure diversity of our employee

Building gender-balanced teams at every level of the organisation improves engagement, retention and performance. Gender balance at leadership, executive and board levels is particularly important, because it improves the quality of strategic decision making and the development of solutions. Gender diverse teams are more innovative, because they draw on greater diversity of thinking and a range of cognitive approaches.

Organisations need to track and influence the inflows and outflows of female talent at each organisational level to understand the dynamics of gender composition; it is not a static issue. Modelling of these dynamics provides the basis for the design and implementation of stretching but achievable gender targets.

Targets help to drive and accelerate changes in gender composition and provide a basis for allocating and cascading leadership accountability. Research suggests that a minority gender needs to represent at least one third of a team or group’s overall composition before a ‘tipping point’ is reached and the minority can influence the group’s decision-making on a sustainable basis. Building a robust, gender-diverse talent pipeline, especially to leadership levels, is key to sustainable gender equality. Best practice includes the integration of gender equality principles into strategic workforce planning.

Taking a lead from our Founding Fathers AND Mothers

The first Dáil, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019 adopted a democratic programme, which asserted that the nation’s sovereignty extended “to all men and women of the nation”.

In 2019, to achieve the ideals of the first Dáil and a real republic for women, crucially a lot of progress needs to be made on the unequal involvement of men and women in domestic activities and care.

Orla O’Connor is director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Ireland’s largest women’s membership organisation. Writing in the Irish Times recently she said ‘’the independence achieved following the 1918 election did not extend to women, and Ireland was a cold place for many. Yet, due to hard-fought and hard-won campaigns over the years by women and women’s groups, there has been progress from the time where women could not sit on juries, where they were barred from working in the public sector once married, and when marital rape was not a crime.’’

There is no doubt that child care in the home still falls mainly to women. Equality for women and men in the public sphere depends on equality in the private sphere. Yet, the unequal involvement of men and women in care and domestic activities is a persistent challenge.

Rebalancing childcare in the home

In Ireland in 2016, 98 per cent of those looking after the home or family were women.

The fact that women spend a disproportionate amount of time carrying out unpaid work compared to men has serious economic and social consequences that ultimately lead to a gender gap in pay and in poverty.

As a society we have to do more to support men to do more of the caring work many are keen to do. Simultaneously, men themselves need to step up to the care responsibilities in their families.

A key step in starting to rebalance care is to ensure that fathers and partners take on as much of a role in childcare as mothers.

This is the reason for a long campaign for paternity leave for men; it is a crucial support both in enabling individual men to have the finances to stay at home with their baby, but also in signalling to workplaces and to wider society that caring for their children is men’s work. For care work to be fully recognised and valued, it requires significant state resources. Publicly subsidised affordable childcare is strong commitment to this, yet we need a radical shift in terms of investment if childcare is to be affordable for parents. Similarly, there needs to be investment in the infrastructure and services that support care of older people to enable women and men to live independently and in the place that they choose.

While paternity leave has seen good uptake in Ireland, other trends related to care are not so positive.

The Gender Equality Index 2017 of the European Institute for Gender Equality found that the overall trend in terms of the sharing of care in Europe over the last 10 years has been negative: the proportion of time by women spent on care, domestic work and social activities grew in comparison to men.

While paternity leave has seen good uptake in Ireland, other trends related to care are not so positive. We have to create the space for genuine sharing of care in all forms, including childcare, family care, elder care and looking after the household. Family work is essential to the common good, and performs vital social and economic functions, yet it is neither prioritised nor sufficiently supported. Issues like affordable childcare are not simply “women’s issues”, nor are they up to women alone to solve.

Additional reporting from the Irish Times.

Council Journal, will continue a series of Gender Equality articles in forthcoming editions.

Table 2: Strategy in a box – Stakeholder Format

Workforce Population fully reflects the communities in which the company operates.

  • Approach: strengthen design and operation of recruitment, development and promotion processes to increase diversity of candidate pools.
  • Actions: (1) target non-traditional talent sources through community media and events; (2) source and implement unconscious bias awareness program for all people leaders.
  • Objective: build a workplace and culture that fully embraces and utilises flexibility.
  • Approach: conduct flexibility pilots in one or more supportive teams in every business unit and function.
  • Actions: (1) research current practices to identify specific flexibility barriers and enablers; (2) rollout flexibility workshop for team leaders and managers; (3) design and implement pilots to refine and drive flexibility models.
  • Objective: to promote gender equality in our industry by strengthening requirements of our potential suppliers in our tendering processes.
  • Approach: improve current procurement policies and practices to reflect supplier diversity best practice.
  • Actions: (1) audit procurement practices to identify issues and opportunities for improvement; (2) implement improvements; (3) Roll-out vendor management best practice workshop to all managers who procure services.

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