What are the critical issues for women in the workplace?

Critical issues facing women in the work- place, and the solutions for addressing them, are the focus of research being carried out by Niamh Gunn as part of The Dialogue Code, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
What are the critical issues for women in the workplace?

Niamh Gunn of The Dialogue Code.

NIAMH Gunn, of The Dialogue Code, which looks at new ways of working, leading and living and has a campaign around women at work, admits she didn’t see any issues regarding the progression of women in the workplace when she was younger.

That was because she was the founder and managing director of Taxback International at just 27 years of age.

“I would have been at all the trade missions, travelling the world for work,” said Niamh.

“While I experienced being the only woman in the room, I didn’t think there was a problem with the glass ceiling. The opportunities were there.”

However, Niamh says she had a completely different perspective when she had a child. She now has four children, ranging in age from three to 12.

Niamh Gunn’s older kids, Sophie and George, during lockdown, overlooking Hop Island.
Niamh Gunn’s older kids, Sophie and George, during lockdown, overlooking Hop Island.

“As my children have gone on, I’ve seen the pressures of that. I burnt out two years after my first child was born. I found it completely unsustainable.

“I could see a gap, a need for critical thinking and for crucial and meaningful conversations. I wanted to create a space where leaders could come together.”

Eight years ago, Niamh established The Dialogue Code. She hosted a series of dialogues at Lissard House in West Cork where speaking the truth was encouraged. Over the years, about 1,500 people have participated in all types of dialogues. Advisors have included Tara O’Leary, who was one of the global environment and health safety leaders at Pepsico, and the late Dr Laurence Crowley, chairman of the Smurfit Business School.”

This time last year, a number of leaders came together with Niamh to explore the critical issues for women in the workplace.

“Research shows that 25% of women leave the workplace after the birth of their first child because they find the challenges of childcare complex.

“Also, there’s a lot of incredible women leaving organisations at different stages for different reasons such as exhaustion and burn out.

“We’re creating opportunities for women but it’s not sustainable.

“We’re never going to reach the target that we hope to achieve in terms of gender equality. We’re losing great talent.”

As a mother-of-four, Niamh says: “There is very little opportunity for women to go back to work in conditions where there is compromise. So it’s important to have a conversation around that.”

Niamh says that the whole question as to how people can be creative in the workplace, and reach their potential, is about “working smartly”.

“It’s not about long hours and people being exhausted. Last year we did a dialogue where 60 women from diverse backgrounds came together. They included mothers working in the home.”

The main issue that came up was “resistance to adapting traditional work, lack of confidence at setting boundaries, stress arising from juggling work with home, and a lack of legislation and funding to support needs, as well as a lack of female support.”

Solutions examined included creating part-time leadership role models and creating a code of boundaries around work/life balance.

Providing well-being educational programmes was suggested as well as a platform for employees’ feedback.

A dialogue was held on the same day with 40 leaders, including pioneers from New Zealand, where a company called Perpetual Guardian introduced a four-day working week.

“We did a dialogue with both men and women, looking at how to implement a four-day work week.”

With four day work weeks piloted around the world, it became a global success.

“Studies have shown that when organisations reduce the working week by 20%, productivity went up by 40%,” she said.

Niamh’s kids, George, Alice and David.
Niamh’s kids, George, Alice and David.

Niamh points out that organisations allowing a four day week expected staff to maintain productivity.

“So they had to clear away anything that was making them unproductive. So there’s engagement, ownership and stripping away everything that is unnecessary. Interestingly, those things couldn’t be more relevant at the moment.”

Because of the pandemic, Niamh feels that the dynamics of home life have changed a lot.

“What I consistently hear in dialogues is men actually looking to see how they can help with flexibility. How can they use technology to be more flexible?”

But while we have the technology, “there are endless calls, triple meetings and bookings for meetings. Everything is taking longer. That is being expressed to me by both men and women and how the way we’re working just isn’t sustainable.”

Add homeschooling to the mix and you’re dealing with a lot of stress.

“I think the pandemic has highlighted issues that were there all the time. There isn’t equality in the home.”

Niamh says that while there are policies in place regarding flexi-time and four day weeks, there are concerns around stigma.

“There can be a feeling that a four day week is career suicide or that a woman on a four day week isn’t serious about her career,” she said.

But there is another, more holistic way of looking at the four day working week. Apart from productivity going up, “people had more time, they engaged in hobbies, they were happier and when you’re happy, you’re more engaged,” she explained.

Spending more than six hours in front of a computer “is not good for you,” she added.

Over the coming months, the Dialogue Code will post virtual dialogues, teasing out issues.

“We hope to do a women-focused virtual dialogue on March 19 and March 26, identifying the critical issues and solutions.

“To get a wider pulse, we’ll ask the general population to vote on what they believe are the critical issues and solutions.”

The low participation of women in politics was really brought to the fore when it transpired that the pregnant Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, isn’t entitled to maternity leave. Politics is notoriously unsuited to family life. But that could be changed just as companies introduce family friendly practices.

“I’ve talked to leaders in some European countries where there are policies in place that no meetings should start before 10am or end after 4pm.

“I remember being at a business conference where a husband and wife were both directors in an organisation that had a four day work week. It meant their children were only in childcare three days of the week.”

From talking to women in the dialogue sessions, Niamh says that one of the interesting things that came out of them was “a sense of loneliness from the women and a feeling that everybody else had it sorted and they hadn’t.

“It was quite refreshing for the women when they realised they were not alone and that people are struggling and how can be look at this differently?”

Work pressure can take many forms, as Niamh has learned.

“A lot of the executives I’ve spoken with say it’s pressure from the U.S around time zones and feeling the need to be online (for the American working hours.) People find it difficult to put a boundary around that.”

In the current climate, where people are cooped up at home with children, she said some of the concerns she is hearing from organisations and leaders include a sense of disconnection and disengagement.

“There’s a lack of motivation and no sense of belonging. There needs to be a bridge to see how to navigate that.”

Niamh has done work with post-graduate students at UCC using the dialogue process. She is glad to report that there are “significant shifts in that the young women are realising they’re not alone dealing with the issues they have.

“Once they recognise that everyone has the same challenges and fears, they can go for it and stop worrying.”

For more see www.thedialoguecode.com.

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