The Essential Role of HR for Achieving Gender Equality in SMEs

Gender equality

by Crystel Robbins Rynne, Chief Operating Officer at HRLocker

On March 8th, we marked International Women’s Day (IWD). This annual event is recognised globally as a celebration of women that aims to highlight the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women worldwide. This year’s theme—Inspire Inclusion—foregrounds women’s participation in society, championing the idea that we forge a better world when we inspire others to understand and value women’s inclusion.

It’s a movement with a long history—the first was held over a century ago in 1911. In Ireland, the women’s movement began even earlier, in the mid-to-late 19th century, with the formation of prominent organisations, including the Irish Women’s Suffrage Society and the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association.

Yet, more than a century later, and despite wave after wave of activism and legal reforms that promote equal rights and protection from discrimination, we still live in an inequitable society.

Gender equality in Ireland – where we’re at

The World Economic Forum, for instance, estimates that gender parity is well over a century away—and the bad news doesn’t stop there. According to the latest Global Gender Gap Report, women’s economic participation and opportunity levels fell between 2022 and 2023, meaning gender parity stagnated.

Even more worryingly, attitudes are shifting away from progressive equality ideals. Just one week before IWD, a global survey from Ipsos in collaboration with the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London revealed that more than half (54%) of people believe that when it comes to giving equal rights, things have gone far enough in their country.

In Ireland, attitudes were slightly better. Yet one in four people (38 per cent) agreed with the sentiment. Most striking is that almost half of all people (45 per cent in Ireland, 46 per cent across the 31-country average) now believe we’ve gone so far in promoting women’s equality that we’re discriminating against men.

It’s a less bleak picture when considering gender balance in business. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), in 2023, a quarter of board directors in Ireland were female, up from 22 per cent in 2021. Female chairpersons increased from 14 per cent to almost 19 per cent, and women Chief Executive Officers from 13 per cent to 19 per cent across the same period.

Still, despite increasing numbers, women are far from on par, as seven in ten Irish executives are male. This troubling statistic isn’t limited to Ireland. It’s seen all over the world. As the Global Gender Gap Index reports, women occupy less than 30 per cent of senior management roles across the globe.

Gender parity in big business

Corporations around the world are all too aware they’ve been found lacking when it comes to female participation in senior leadership. Many have introduced levelling-up initiatives and committed themselves to doing better.

In Ireland, the second annual Elevate Report published in 2023 by Businesses in the Community Ireland (BITCI)—a group set up to inspire and enable businesses to bring about a sustainable, low-carbon economy and a more inclusive society—reported that women made up 30 per cent of staff in senior management and executive roles in its 60 member companies.

With a combined workforce of over 150,000, each member business is a signatory to the Elevate Pledge, a practical demonstration intended to assist companies in achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion targets while tackling societal inequalities. However, while the data report suggested higher levels of participation at senior and executive levels than the national average, the majority of members are large national and multinational enterprises.

Large companies with more than 250 employees are notable for being more proactive in addressing diversity shortfalls. In fact, most have gender-specific initiatives, like setting KPIs and targets for female representation, and the report suggests these have had a positive impact.

Slower progress in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)

SMEs are a critical pillar of the Irish economy. In 2023, the 309,000 SMEs operating in Ireland employed around 1.2 million people and added €120 billion in value. The latest statistics released by the CSO suggest SMEs in Ireland account for 99.8 per cent of all enterprises, 69.2 per cent of employment, and 34.8 per cent of Gross Value Added. Yet, despite employing the overwhelming majority, businesses with fewer than 250 employees are not obliged to complete gender pay gap reporting.

The gender pay gap, an assessment of gender representation at each level of an organisation characterised by overall differences in pay, is a key measure for gauging gender equality in business and employment. In Ireland, the gap currently stands at 11.3 per cent, equating to about one month per year when a woman essentially works for free. However, mandatory pay gap reporting is being extended to firms with more than 150 employees this year and those with 50 or more next year.

Time will tell if the positive statistics on gender parity we see in large enterprises, which make up the minority of employers, are reflected by the majority. Or if, as is suspected, the results will shine a light on the many structural, cultural, and policy causes of gender inequality and discrimination. As Ibec CEO Danny McCoy makes clear in Ibec’s guide to gender pay gap reporting, “Gender pay gap reporting is one part of a much-needed wider strategy to address female participation rates and employment gaps between genders”.

Gender equality – why all the fuss?

International and national statutes make clear that all employers, regardless of size, industry, sector and location, have certain responsibilities to applicants, trainees and employees. In Ireland, this responsibility covers all types of discrimination and affirmative actions as they relate to nine particular grounds, also known as protected characteristics—gender is one of those protected characteristics. Businesses in breach of these obligations risk sanctions, fines and reputational damage.

Naturally, this means employers cannot treat people differently based on whether they are male, female, transgender, or non-binary. However, it also means workplaces are responsible for taking positive action and making reasonable accommodations that promote wider inclusion and participation. For example, flexible and remote working arrangements make it easier for women to work and balance their disproportionate level of caring responsibilities.

Numerous studies have outlined the business advantages of a diverse workforce, including higher-quality work, greater team satisfaction, and more equality. The relationship between diversity on executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has also become more robust over time. Companies with diverse management teams are, for instance, more innovative and, as a result,  have 19 per cent higher revenue, meaning the business case for inclusion is robust.

How HR helps to bridge the gender equality gap

To change the status quo, employers need to focus on recruitment, retention, and promotion. HR teams ensure SMEs are better able to attract women, retain and support them in their career development, and prevent barriers to them reaching the most senior and best-paid roles.

Key areas where HR plays a significant role in implementing change include mentorship programmes, flexible working arrangements, and unbiased recruitment processes. All are vital for attracting and retaining women to leadership roles and essential when creating an inclusive and welcoming workplace culture.

Removing biases like gendered job titles from job descriptions and having mixed-sex interview panels are just two practical ways HR can set the tone before employment begins. Studies indicate that early career support greatly influences women’s aspirations for leadership roles, meaning HR is also well positioned to cultivate an environment conducive to gender equality in leadership from the outset.

HR is also in the ideal position to implement policies specifically designed to support and enable women to remain in work. Over the last decade, many SMEs have introduced positive initiatives around previously taboo subjects considered predominantly women’s issues, like fertility, pregnancy loss, parental leave, and menopause. Normalising work-life balance to attract a diverse talent pool is another actionable way proactive HR teams work toward a fairer future.

Driving gender diversity by effecting real change

Achieving gender equality is a collective effort. Men have a crucial role alongside women in creating a more inclusive workplace for all. HR professionals can and should encourage male allies to champion inclusive policies, act in mentorship roles, challenge stereotypes from within and advocate for equal representation.

It is clear that the drive for gender equality, particularly in the workplace, is improving in Irish SMEs, but there’s still a way to go. By recognising and openly addressing the complexities and challenges that women face, SMEs will not only comply with legal obligations but also improve business outcomes. It is up to HR professionals to drive gender diversity by effecting real change.

To learn more about promoting inclusive workplaces, you can download our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion white paper.

About the author

Crystel Robbins Rynne has worked with HRLocker since its inception. As COO, she is responsible for maintaining and driving operational results within the company. She is part of the executive management team and is also an Employee Experience advocate and host of the popular HRLocker Podcast.