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Aug 2010

Case study: Bernie Cullinan, Clarigen

Bernie Cullinan ACMA, CGMA is the CEO of human resources management company Clarigen, headquartered in Dublin, which is known for its comprehensive and innovative solutions covering every aspect of corporate HR needs..

Bernie Cullinan, CEO

Renowned as a creative and energetic leader, she has an impressive track record of executive and non-executive roles in the software sector. Among her previous roles are a five-year stint as COO of procurement and supplier management solutions company Performix Technologies, and a period as CEO of Irish company SteelTrace, which specialises in collaborative requirements for software application development, and which was sold to US company Compuware Corporation.

She is also past president of the Irish Software Association, which represents members of the country’s software and computer industry, and of CIMA’s Irish office.

At Clarigen, Cullinan sits on a board with five members, among which she is one of two women.  

The slow pace of change for female executives

By the broadest measures, much has changed in the gender mix in Ireland’s labour market. Women make up a much larger section of the workforce compared to 30 years ago, but at the senior level the rate of change is far slower than in the rest of the job market. 

Before 1973, when Ireland joined the EEC (now the European Union), gender differences in the workplace were markedly different compared to now. For instance, Irish women had to give up employment if they married, and when in employment they would be paid far less than their male counterparts. 

‘There's not a huge difference to 20 years ago
regarding women in Irish senior roles’

There is still a difference between rates of pay for women and men in Ireland, as there is in many parts of the EU, but that gap is steadily closing. Since EU membership, the percentage of women in the workforce in Ireland has grown dramatically, from 27% to 42%. When it comes to senior positions, however, there has been much less change. 

‘There is not a huge difference to 20 years ago as regards women in senior roles. The percentage of women and men in senior positions has not changed much, at least not in Ireland,’ Cullinan remarks. 

The persistence of the glass ceiling

Although Cullinan has risen to the level of CEO, and her company’s board is 40% female, she perceives that there are still barriers preventing the rise of women to senior executive roles. One might suspect that this would be due to the prejudice of male executives, but this suspicion would be inaccurate. For Cullinan, the reason is more biological than sociological.

‘It is not sexism:  
business priorities have to prevail’ 

‘The glass ceiling is still an issue. A lot of the issue is that women take time out to have children. It is hard to build a business and keep continuity, especially in a small business, if people have long periods of time out. If it is a senior woman who is a key decision-maker then time out could be very difficult,’ says Cullinan.

‘It is not necessarily about women not getting opportunities, but rather about the time out to have children. It is not sexism. At the end of the day, business priorities have to prevail,’ she adds. 

Equality measures cannot legislate for biology

The growing equality of women in the workplace in Ireland can be clearly traced back to its entrance into what is now the EU, not least because of the European legislation that has been transposed into national laws. Directives demanding action on equality and anti-discrimination measures, including the EU equal pay directive that became the country’s anti-discrimination (pay) act of 1974, have brought greater parity between genders.

Similarly, there have been EU directives that look specifically at equal opportunities in the workplace, access to vocational training and employment, and working conditions, as well as addressing pay inequality. One area in which such legislation has made a significant difference is in regard to the rights of working mothers. Women can now claim a minimum of 14 weeks maternity leave, although Ireland’s current proposition of 26 weeks paid and up to 16 weeks unpaid leave go way beyond the period stipulated by the EU.

‘Women should have dialogue about their plans
and the company plan for their absence’ 

Nevertheless, while women may have some protection when they already occupy a senior role and wish to have children, the prospect of extended leave could be a factor in preventing them achieving that status in the first place, according to Cullinan.

‘CEOs have told me that they don’t want women in senior positions because in the past maternity leave has cost the business. I understand their concern. The best situation is for a talented woman to have an open dialogue about her plans and for the company to work with her to plan for her absence so that everyone has a clear understanding of her plans,’ she observes. 

The precarious work-life balance

Balancing the demands of a senior executive role with family life is hard for anyone, regardless of their gender, but Cullinan feels the pressure on women is far greater and is compounded by issues of cost. 

‘The work-life balance is a huge challenge for women. It is their predisposition to feel the strong pull of family, but it is extremely different to manage in full-time work, and women have to put much more into their work than men,’ she remarks.

‘The work-life balance is
a huge challenge for women’ 

‘If you are a very senior woman and you can afford full-time childcare then the situation is much better. If not, then it is very difficult. You need excellent childcare arrangements, but that costs money, which comes from after-tax income. In Ireland, it costs €2,000 a month to have full-time childcare, which means you have to earn €4,500 a month to make it worthwhile.’ 

What can be done to redress the balance?

EU regulation has made a difference in Ireland over the years, and further action by government could open more opportunities for women to take on senior roles. 

‘There could be policy-led changes, such as making childcare costs come out of pre-tax income, or at least having some kind of financial relief. Or, it could be possible to swap partner roles in the family. Policy changes were talked about in Ireland a few years ago and there were indications from the government that some change would be made, but it didn’t happen. Now, the government needs every penny of income tax that it can get, so change is very unlikely,’ says Cullinan.

For Cullinan, legislation could help shape the future of women in leadership roles, but more important is the approach of employers and their ability to communicate effectively with women in senior roles to cope with issues such as maternity leave through preparation and planning.