Sonya fights the pay gap
Malahide native and fashion designer Sonya Lennon tells Ken Phelan how she is taking on the gender pay gap and helping women achieve success
The Gender pay gap and gender equality in the workplace issues have attracted increased attention over the past number of years, and have made some companies rather nervous. With mandatory pay disclosure due to come in within the next two years, the pressure is now on for full transparency.
In Ireland, female employees earn approximately 13.9% less than their male counterparts, and are less likely to be appointed to senior management positions. In fact, female representation on publicly-listed companies in Ireland accounts for just 13.2% of board members.
It was these, and many other issues which prompted designer, businesswoman and Malahide native Sonya Lennon to launch the #WorkEqual campaign through her charity ‘Dress for Success’, to help raise awareness and combat pay disparities and inequality in the workplace. The charity was set up by Sonya in 2011 to help support women to secure employment, promote economic independence and campaign for workplace equality.
As part of the #WorkEqual campaign, the charity has designated Tuesday November 13 as #WorkEqual day of action, to highlight Ireland’s gender pay gap, with the campaign itself running through the month of November.
Speaking to The Fingal Independent, Sonya explains the reason for launching the #WorkEqual campaign: ‘We realised as an organisation we could help a woman to achieve her own success at interview, and to change her future, but we felt that we had an obligation to draw attention to the fact that she was going to face inherent inequality of pay when she got there.
‘When we started four years ago with our first campaign, nobody wanted to talk about it, everybody was basically denying that it was an issue, and over the course of the three campaigns that we’ve run, we’ve really seen a huge shift in public opinion, appetite and interest to the point now that we have engaged with a number of companies who are interested in publishing pay data early before mandatory disclosure.
‘It’s grown every year in terms of how we roll out the campaign. Last year, we founded and joined the cross-party committee on workplace equality, so we’ve been growing our numbers with each meeting. We’ve already held two events in Leinster House, with a third event in Leinster House to be held to launch the campaign, and we brought some people over from the UK to look at the pay disclosure initiative in the UK and how we can do better.’
The #WorkEqual day of action on November 13 will see the campaign visit Leinster House, where TDs and Senators will be invited to ‘publicly demonstrate’ their support for ending the gender pay gap. There will also be a ‘Banter’ panel discussion at the Liquor Rooms in Dublin City Centre, which will see Sonya, Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee, journalist Mark Paul and activist Deborah Somorin put forth their proposals on the issues, as well as an online awareness campaign encouraging members of the public to show their support.
Does Sonya feel the previous campaigns were successful?
She said: ‘The first mission of any campaign is to make people aware of the issue. You can’t do anything about it if nobody knows. So the previous campaigns were hugely successful. It’s a topic that’s on the agenda of everything, from recruitment agencies through to financial services and with people who wouldn’t have wanted to address it at all.
‘It’s really about more than just pay and equality. It’s about humanity in the workplace, and creating an environment where people can feel fulfilled and respected. We spend most of our working life in work, and it should be a place where we feel we’re making an impact, and where we’re respected. And one of the ways we can dramatically impact that is to create more equality amongst the genders.’
According to Sonya, the campaign’s new Pay Disclosure Pioneers initiative is an important step towards pay equality, which will see Dress for Success working with a number of companies that want to drive towards gender equality by publishing pay data before mandatory implementation comes in in 18 months: ‘The gender pay gap is linked to a wide range of cultural, legal, social and economic factors. It is a much more complex issue than the concept of ‘equal pay for equal work’. To truly tackle the gender pay gap, we need to look at cultural conditioning and stereotypes, childcare supports, equal parental leave, salary negotiation skills, and the barriers to women’s progression at all levels of their career.
‘Disclosure is basically a very detailed report into pay rates from entry level right up to board and executive level across a company. There’s a number of different ways in which this is being carried out already, and it was done for the first time in the UK last year. The Australian model for pay disclosure has been widely accepted as the most fit for purpose, so we’re looking to that to collect the data, so that these companies can publish early and say this is where we’re at. It also gives them a march on everyone else, who will have to publish in between eighteen months and two years time.
‘There is also a disparity in the employment rates, between men and women. Even though we’re technically reaching full employment, the increase in employment for men is double that of women, and I think there is a large cohort of women who are available to return to the workplace but who don’t have the confidence to do so. They are widely regarded as the key to unlocking the economy, but if we don’t give them the tools, the powers, and the mindset to rejoin the workplace they’re not going to do it.’
So why does Sonya think the gender pay gap exists?
She said: ‘It’s to do with historic legacy issues, around men being the gender who created the workforce. When you look back at the first and second world wars, when women entered the workforce, it was radical at that time. When men returned from the wars, women were displaced again and there was huge unease amongst women who had felt purposeful and engaged in the economy but were suddenly ousted again.
‘So this is historical, and I think also unfortunately, the workplace is designed for men. I do think now though, is a very interesting time – people are really looking at humanist business, like the younger workforce now coming through are interested not just in the ‘How much?’, but the ‘Why?’, ‘Why are we doing that?’, ‘Why are we doing it this way?’, ‘Is there a better way?’
‘It’s not through any malice that this has continued, it’s actually through a lack of awareness, where if you’re not impacted by these invisible obstacles, you just don’t know they exist. And I think that’s why it’s so important to have these open conversations now.’
When asked what measures could be put in place to combat gender inequality, instead of offering the expected bullet-point list of points, Sonya instead gave a very refreshing and humorous anecdote of occasions she’s confronted senior male corporate leaders, demonstrating her honest, forthright manner: ‘I’ve had a lot of conversations with very senior male corporate leaders and said this is a real issue. I’ve asked them: ‘Have you got a daughter?’ When they say they do, the minute you start to say ‘your daughter’s going to face a number of invisible obstacles in the workplace, which may preclude her from succeeding as well as your son or a male counterpart’, then it becomes real, and they can contextualize it and say ‘I don’t want my daughter to face that and what can I do to fix it?’ It takes active measures to make change, so everything from making sure you have a 50/50 male/female panel coming to the interview table. So don’t say you can’t female candidates for the role, make sure you have 50% male 50% female candidates, and then choose the best person for the job.’
She added: ‘I think there is a great will politically to look at this. I think there is a will in business to look at it, but I think people are terrified of it, because they’re afraid of what’s going to happen. It’s happening all over the place. The question is not ‘is it happening?’, it’s what you can do to fix it.’