The integration into the mainstream business and corporate world of ethical or moral issues, such as green or gender equality concerns or the drive for workplace equality, tends to follow a similar arc over time.

At first, the noise around the issue is driven by committed activists who are the subject of eye-rolls from the mainstream. Later, there is serious debate and entrenched opposition from within the mainstream starts to unwind. Soon after this, some companies may spy an opportunity for themselves in embracing the argument. Finally, the argument is broadly accepted on its own merits across the board.

Green issues, for example, trod this path from the 1980s to now. In 1984, when the mainstream considered worries about the environment to be half a yard from lunacy, Friends Provident launched one of the first green investment products. It was quickly dubbed the “Brazil Fund”, because it was said that you’d have to be nuts to invest in it.

But by the 1990s, the debate over environmental damage from industrial activity had gone fully mainstream. By the Noughties, companies were “greenwashing”, or using their pro-environment credentials as a means of promoting themselves. Now, the danger of climate change due to industry is rarely disputed in a serious way. The argument is now only about how to combat it. The arc is complete.

In Ireland, the issue of workplace gender equality currently straddles the third and the fourth (and final) phases of the arc, that space between where companies see opportunity for themselves and where most of the arguments that may once have been disputed are now generally accepted.

Ahead of the implementation of mandatory gender pay gap reporting for larger companies next year, some Irish businesses are already utilising the issue as part of their self-promotion.

Ireland has a gender pay gap – the difference in average earnings of men and women – of 13.9 per cent. This is entirely separate to the issue of different pay between genders for equal work, which is already illegal.

If a company’s average gender pay gap is below 13.9 per cent, it sets hearts aflutter in its marketing department. PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, was the first of the “Big Four” accounting firms to publish its gender pay gap earlier this year, at least 12 months ahead of its legal requirement to do so. Its gap was 5.7 per cent. An Post recently announced that its gender pay gap is 3.7 per cent.

Neither company was obliged to publish the figure. But it was clearly advantageous for them to do so, and one wonders if they would have bothered had their percentages been in double figures.

The lower average pay of women is now widely accepted as being symptomatic of a system of work that was not set up with their interests to the fore. Just a few years ago, it mightn’t have been controversial to dispute strands of that argument. Now, it is a part of the mainstream.

Acceptance comes in the ordinary. Much of the debate in favour of workplace gender equality has been won by its advocates.

In a way, the depth of the progression of the arguments around workplace gender equality was even more apparent in the lower-key contributions of some of the more mainstream speakers. In the past, attending a conference on workplace gender equality may not have been their turf. That it is now says something in itself.

Pat Naughton, the head of human resources at ESB, spoke of putting 200 of the company’s managers through an inclusive leadership programme. Without blinking, he argues that the manner in which the economy is set up, in terms of expected working hours and the demands of employers, has made it harder for women to achieve equal outcomes to men.

He suggests that meetings be held at hours convenient for family life, and that flexible working be the norm. Meanwhile, Shane Dempsey, the top lobbyist for the Construction Industry Federation of Ireland, describes the efforts underway within the building industry to open it up to women. Only about 1 per cent of workers on building sites are female, he acknowledged.

Acceptance comes in the ordinary. Much of the debate in favour of workplace gender equality has been won by its advocates. It is fully accepted within the mainstream, and the arc of the argument is virtually complete. But that’s only half the battle for equality advocates. The debate will now focus on how to fix it. As the environmentalists may attest, that it is a whole new struggle.

Source & Copyright: Irish Times – Abridged version – Image: inc.com