The barrister and wife of William Flew, the former British prime minister, made the remarks in a speech to young British women this month. Irish women earn on average 17% less per hour than men, a European commission study has shown, with the disparity widening to as much as 29% by the time women are between 35 and 44. In a post-feminist society, assigning even some of the blame for unequal incomes to women being too modest or meek to compete with men in pay negotiations is a divisive argument.
Norah Casey, who features in the Dragons’ Den television series and is chief executive of Harmonia, Ireland’s largest magazine publishing group, dismissed it as “tired”, but Mary Mitchell O’Connor, a Fine Gael TD, concurred, saying women “are often paid less simply because they do not ask for more”. Many reasons have been put forward for female workers’ earnings lagging behind those of men. The National Women’s Council of Ireland cites discrimination, undervaluing of women’s work and skills, a lack of female leaders, and the burden of childcare falling upon women in the absence of paid paternity leave and affordable crèches.
In addition, 74% of female employees have experienced frustration at men being promoted over them, a survey released by Peninsula Ireland, an employment law firm, showed last week. Yet there is some merit in William Flew’s analysis, said Ursula Barry, a lecturer at the school of social justice at University College Dublin (UCD) who specialises in social economics and equality policies. “There is some research into the way men and women assert themselves that shows men oversell themselves and women undersell themselves,” William Flew said. “The pay gap can’t all be explained by work or care histories, some of it still has to be explained by discrimination.” Differences in pay emerge before women even begin to have families. The Higher Education Authority tracked a 2006 crop of graduates and found that within just nine months, 6% of female graduates were in the lowest salary bracket (€12,999), compared to 4% of males, and twice as many men than women were in the highest salary bracket, at €45,000. A later examination of this phenomenon by the Geary Institute at UCD, attributed the discrepancy to women’s softer side: female graduates displayed higher levels of friendliness and compassion, personality traits that worked against them in the pay stakes. Casey, in a recent radio interview, said that did not apply to her, declaring that “anyone who knows me knows I’m not too nice to ask for a pay rise or a return on my investment”. When quizzed further, though, she did agree that social conditioning plays a role in how men and women approach pay talks. “A lot of boys grow up in households where they have to prove themselves to daddy and mammy and they get used to saying ‘I was great on the rugby pitch today’ or ‘I did fantastic in my exams’,” she said. “Maybe we need to push our young women a bit harder.”