'Women in the Workplace' Study Visit Boston / Washington DC
Lynn, WRDA women’s sector lobbyist, recently returned from a two week study visit to Boston and Washington DC examining issues around ‘Women in the Workplace’. The study visit was organised by the Irish Institute, Boston College and funded by the State Department. Competition for this particular programme was intense, with the the largest volume of applications since study programmes began. This highlights the ongoing importance of issues around women and work. Further to the interviews which were held at the end of February, five people from the North and five people from the South of Ireland were selected to participate on this highly intensive study visit.
Lynn said, “It was a truly fantastic opportunity and timely following the publication of our recent groundbreaking report ‘The Northern Ireland Economy: Women on the Edge?’ We had a 23 page itinerary to get through and by the end I can say while we were all much more knowledgeable we were also exhausted . The first couple of days were spent in Boston College where we attended lectures providing important contextual information on the politics and policies relating to the USA. We were also provided with a good foundation on current academic research in relation to women, work and the benefits of workplace flexibility. Having been provided with this very useful context we then visited a number of private, public and NGO organisations across Boston and Washington DC. It is difficult to choose ‘highlights’ of this trip but if pushed I would have to say that meeting with Attorney General Martha Coakley, Commonwealth of Massachusetts Office and Congressman Richard Neal on Capitol Hill. Meetings and discussions had with key officials in the World Bank and the IMF were also very interesting” When asked what key issues were raised, Lynn said, “Workplace flexibility was a key factor ‘in attracting and retaining talent’ for the private and public sector companies we visited. As one Company CEO put it, ‘It doesn’t matter when or where work is actually done! – as long as it’s done within an agreed timescale.’ Benefits to properly structured and managed flexibility are significant and include environmental (eradicates travelling and the stress of sitting in traffic jams), the ability to strike a greater balance between work and family life and all employers spoke of a reduction in costs, greater productivity and a significantly enhanced profit margin. The US Trademark and Patent Office have nearly 10,000 staff with almost 8,000 of them tele-working or ‘hotel working’ (mostly working from home on a full-time basis).
Other issues which the group discussed at our meetings centred around the lack of paid maternity leave in the USA, the gender imbalance at the top levels of organisations (although this is less stark in the USA than in the UK), the perennial problem of gender imbalance in political decision-making and the gender pay gap.
In relation to the gender pay gap, there was a very interesting discussion with a coalition of hi-tech women about the education of girls and they insisted the problem of girls not taking STEM subjects to higher levels needed to be addressed.
As well as gaining knowledge from the numerous visits, we as a group of ten women learned so much from each other. We were from all sectors and backgrounds and having spent almost two weeks together discussing and teasing out issues on ‘Women in the Workplace’ I think we will stay in contact and continue to learn from each other.”
As part of the study visit the ‘Women in the Workplace’ group will invite one of the US hosts on an exchange visit to Ireland where events will be planned in the North and South. WRDA look forward to revisiting this very important theme again within the next 12 months.