Can returnships and flexible working close Ireland’s gender gap?
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Can returnships and flexible working close Ireland’s gender gap?

31 Jan 2018

Sarah Cunningham from Mastercard Ireland’s Women’s Leadership Network shares how flexible practices, returnships and mentoring can help support gender equality at work.

With its strong economic forecasts and record levels of investment by some of the biggest tech companies in the world, it feels like Ireland has begun to hit its business stride. But, despite the successes, business in Ireland is missing out and underperforming on one key metric: Ireland’s persistent gender gap.

Across Ireland, men continue to outnumber women in business, particularly in senior leadership and board roles. Men are overrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics roles. Women are paid substantially less than men with the gender pay gap at 13.9pc, according to the EU, though it has also been cited by others to be as much as 20pc. And, last year, Ireland fell two positions to eighth in the latest World Economic Forum gender gap report.

Future Human

We’re well aware of the benefits that accrue from having a gender-balanced workforce and the impact that equality has on the bottom line, and it’s not all bleak news – in fact, Ireland is making real strides. As reported by the Irish Independent in November 2017, we now have a fully closed gender gap when it comes to educational attainment and, perhaps even more encouragingly, a March 2017 Irish Times article reported that we actually have more female managers in Ireland (34pc) than the EU average.

But, while this is all good progress, it does beg the question: why are women so poorly represented in senior executive positions across Ireland? Why is female representation on an almost diminishing scale from entry level through to executive level, with women comprising just 23pc of executive director roles and just 14pc of CEO roles?

It’s something we’ve debated extensively amongst our Women’s Leadership Network (WLN) at Mastercard, and with our peers across industries. From these discussions, and looking at research, it’s clear that the reasons are many and complex, though there are three key themes that crop up time and again.

1. Lack of role models, sponsors and informal networks

Reports from the likes of McKinsey, Harvard Business Review and others have often cited a lack of role models, senior sponsors and informal networks (such as women’s employee groups) as a key reason why women either leave technical roles or find themselves hitting the proverbial ‘glass ceiling’.

At Mastercard, we’ve found that our WLN, which has strong executive sponsors – both male and female – is hugely beneficial to female employees. We organise opportunities for our members to hear from industry experts and thought leaders of both genders. We offer formal education and coaching to equip members with the skillsets and confidence they need to realise their full potential. We also provide networking opportunities, enabling members to build both their internal and external networks, and, along with groups such as Pride and others, promote gender equality globally. The events, networking and mentoring opportunities in particular help women navigate the organisation, increase their circle and reach their next role.

But a perhaps unexpected key to the success of Mastercard’s WLN is the support, inclusion and active participation of our male colleagues. As Ian O’Sullivan, a colleague and fellow WLN committee member, commented: “I have two daughters and I want them to grow up in a world where they have equal opportunities to their brother. That makes gender equality as much my issue as it is theirs.”

From male participation on the WLN committee itself and at the many events we organise throughout the year, to the importance of male mentorship, our members learn and benefit from each other’s experiences, strengths, viewpoints and even blind spots.

But, of course, a lack of sponsors and informal networks is just the tip of the iceberg, particularly when it comes to the age-old dilemma of how to balance work and personal commitments – which brings me to the second theme.

2. The childcare conundrum and lack of flexibility

Unless it’s their choice, starting a family shouldn’t mean that women have to either leave work forever or rethink their career aspirations. While that’s a noble sentiment, it’s somewhat naive and unrealistic without the right support structures in place to enable parents to integrate work with their family commitments.

From flexible and remote working to job sharing, increased childcare benefits and even increased paternity leave, there’s a lot that businesses can do to create a more family-friendly work environment.

A study supported by Citrix found that approximately 3,000 new mothers leave the workforce each year due to the cost of childcare and more than 8,200 mothers returned to work in 2015 looking for more flexible hours. But, in Ireland 2018, too few businesses are offering the type of flexibility that’s so key to addressing the gender gap.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Ireland’s top female talent seem to be turning their back on the corporate world in favour of a more flexible self-employed lifestyle. Indeed, a 2016 report found that 22pc of women who leave science, engineering and technology jobs go on to become self-employed, and a further 10pc join a start-up company. Employers need to ask themselves whether they could have done more to retain them. Certainly, there is plenty of research to suggest that these women might have made different choices if more flexible options and support structures had been available, enabling them to better balance their competing responsibilities.

3. Returning to work after a career break

Career breaks are part and parcel of life in the 21st century. They are not always taken to bring up children, and both men and women take them. Whether it’s to care for elderly parents, look after a relative, support a spouse in their career, pursue educational opportunities or have a stint abroad, career breaks are more common than ever. But the transition back to work often throws up a number of problems.

In fact, according to a study by the London Business School, 70pc of women fear taking a career break, and those who do are often put off from rejoining the workforce at all. In many cases, this is because those who take a career break are not given the same opportunities as before they left the workforce.

That’s why I was so excited when my colleagues in HR first told me about Mastercard’s returnship programme: ‘Relaunch your Career’. The programme is designed to enable highly experienced people who were working at mid-management level before taking a break from their careers to re-enter the workplace, initially for a 12-week placement, after which time there’s the opportunity to apply for a permanent role.

The moment I heard about the Relaunch your Career programme, I thought it was such a good fit with WLN’s mission that we should run a networking event on the topic, get the nation talking about returnships and hopefully inspire some other companies with a presence in Ireland to follow suit.

Celebrate International Women’s Week with the Mastercard Networking Breakfast, 6 March 2018

Join Mastercard and top speakers to discuss these issues

Mastercard Ireland is bringing together some of Ireland’s top thinkers on the value of flexible working and returnships, plus women who’ve returned to work after a career break, at an event to coincide with the week of International Women’s Day. We’ll discuss the reasons women leave the workplace, the importance of flexibility and support networks, and how returnships can help fix the tech talent shortage. And, as this is not just a women’s issue, we’ll also be hearing from a father who took a break from work to care for his children.

We’ll hear from:

  • Louise McSharry, writer, journalist, broadcaster, 2FM DJ and working mother
  • Ciara Garvan, the founder of, which connects highly skilled professionals with flexible, remote and contract work
  • Vanessa Tierney, the co-founder of Abodoo, an exciting global and intuitive platform that is connecting companies with remote-working professionals
  • Liz Cunningham, a working mother who serves as director of Google’s EMEA tax division and is also the executive sponsor of Women@Google for EMEA

The event is on Tuesday 6 March 2018, and will be hosted by Mastercard Ireland’s WLN. Guests are asked to arrive from 7.30am for a 7.45am start, and the event will finish by 9.45am. Breakfast will be provided, and the event will be held at Dogpatch Labs in the CHQ building.

If you’d like to attend, please visit

By Sarah Cunningham

Sarah Cunningham is vice-president of product marketing at Mastercard and co-chair of Mastercard Ireland’s Women’s Leadership Network.

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