New research has found there has been some progress in female participation rates in management in Irish business in the past two decades.

However the study by employers' group Ibec also shows that certain sectors have seen a deterioration in the numbers of women in managerial roles.

The research compared data on women in management in almost 300 companies in 2001 with similar information gathered from 347 companies last year.

It found there were more women in the top management position in their area today versus 17 years earlier, showing an active pipeline of female talent is coming through from lower management levels.

The sections with the highest proportion of female participation at the top level include HR and Personnel where 72% of section leaders are women, customer services where 53% are female and finance and accounting where 39% are.

But other areas are still struggling. In IT for example, while there was an improvement in the number of women at head of function level over the period, it still remains relatively low at 17%.

Likewise in engineering, it is as low as 6%, up from 5% in 2001.

While in manufacturing, distribution and materials roles female participation rates have actually decreased between 2001 and 2018 and overall female participation in these roles remains low.

Kara McGann, head of social policy at Ibec, said this could be due to the underlying culture and norms often found within those industries and professions, something that needed to be addressed.

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"To address the challenges of occupational segregation requires a focus on tackling stereotypes and bias; considering the connection of targets to performance evaluation of managers and ensuring role models, mentors and sponsors are visible and available to all," she said.

According to the research, the funnelling of men and women into gendered roles can contribute to the gender pay gap, reinforce gender stereotypes and impact men and women's access to particular jobs. 

It says the concentration of one gender in certain occupations or in certain grades, levels of responsibility or positions is evident within the data.

Kara McGann also pointed to problems in the employee pipeline which contributes to higher levels of male participation at all levels of management.

"In Ireland, we have a high cost of childcare which often requires a parent to step out to offset the cost. Culturally that tends to default to the mother. That has an impact on the woman's career progression," she stated.

She also alluded to challenges around job descriptions and job ads.

"The language we use in a job ad can determine the applicants we get for a role. Research tells us if women look at the job ad, and they don't have the 100% of skills and competencies, they won't go forwards. If men have 60% of the skills and competencies, they will put their name in the hat," she explained.

"Also, if there's stereotypical gendered language where there are typically masculine tones and feminine tones, words that impact the applicant pool, we need to address that within organisations."

Ibec says the economic case for increasing the number of women in senior management, executive committees and boards is undeniable with positive impacts on financial indicators like profits and earnings per share, creativity and innovation as well as governance.

Tackling gender imbalance will help businesses attract and retain the best talent, building the teams they need for a highly competitive and challenging world, it says.