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If you think the gender pay gap is bad, you want to see this gender pension gap

03/10/2021 Posted by IAPF

The political hot potato that is the state pension age isn’t just a conversation for civil servants and TDs. It’s one for the private sector also, according to Ann Prendergast, country head of State Street Global Advisors (SSGA) Ireland.

It seems inevitable that higher retirement ages will also mean more people looking for more flexible working options in later life, while workplaces will have to embrace older people in the workforce.

“We talk about diversity,” says Prendergast, “but diversity isn’t just gender, it’s not just race. It’s ability, it’s age, it’s background – it’s all of those things. And age is at both ends of the spectrum. As in having bright young people being part of the strategic conversation, and having more experienced people being part of the conversation as well.”

Ireland’s pensions challenges have been dubbed a ‘ticking time-bomb’ for several years now, on account of our aging population.

“I sometimes equate pensions to the whole climate conversation, because we’ve all been aware for years there’s an issue here,” says Prendergast, who is chairperson of the Irish Association of Pension Funds (IAPF).

“We have to tackle it. But many people felt it just wasn’t something they needed to deal with today – you know? They felt there were more pressing things – like recessions.

“But Covid suddenly focussed the mind around climate change and also on extreme weather events. And I wouldn’t want there to be an equivalent for pensions, before people say: ‘No, this is a problem that we’re sitting on.’”

Prendergast says we already know what we need to do to tackle our pension problem.

The government report Roadmap for Pensions Reform 2018 to 2023 was published some years ago, setting out six goals to reform the pensions sector – including a savings scheme and a state pension which recognises time spent as a parent, carer, or while receiving welfare payments.

“It covered all the issues,” says Prendergast. “But we need to see progress on it.”

One of the most eagerly awaited developments for the industry has been the introduction of pension auto enrolment. Similar schemes are already in use in several other countries, and the requirement means private pensions will become mandatory for most workers.
Mooted as far back as 2006, it had been due to come into effect here next year. However, a lack of progress on this – due in part to the pandemic – means that timeline is now unlikely.

While the industry naturally sees the appeal in more private pensions, auto enrolment has some critics. For example, some lower-paid workers may not see the appeal of a small chunk of their salary being taken from their pay packets. Indeed, all workers might prefer not to pay their pension at certain times in their life. Also, it could hit the take-home pay of migrant workers who never plan to retire in Ireland.

Prendergast says a good auto-enrolment scheme will take all these factors into account, allowing people to opt out. And it will tackle a major concern of the IAPF – the level of private pension coverage in Ireland.

“The reality is that in this economy our pension coverage is very, very low. It’s 50pc and if you take the public sector out, it’s much, much lower. And that’s not a good position to be in.

“The primary reason is that we don’t have any universal pension system. Auto-enrolment has been on the government’s agenda for so long. We were heartened a few years ago when the Pensions Roadmap document was issued, because that was a really good document – very, very comprehensive. It covered all aspects of pensions.”

“Under that plan, auto-enrolment contributions were expected to happen in 2022 – and we’re certainly nowhere close to that, because there’s pretty fundamental issues yet to be clarified.”

While pension cover is the top issue on the IAPF’s agenda, another issue looming large is additional compliance, with concerns that smaller schemes might buckle under the additional pressure.

A new EU pensions directive was recently transposed into Irish law, with a focus on improving governance of pension schemes.

“Nobody can disagree with that being a good thing. Good governance is really, really important. The challenge is when it’s not proportionate to the schemes, or the scheme sizes, or the members that are there. And we all know that increasing regulation means more costs – and who picks up those costs?”

There are a lot of small pension schemes in Ireland, but Prendergast wonders how willing employers will be to continue to absorb additional costs, as is the case now.

“There’s a point at which they won’t,” she says. “And so, then it goes one of two ways. Either the members pick up the costs, which means their returns are reduced, and that has an impact. Or else the employer simply stops providing pensions, because it becomes too much of a headache.”

Given only 50pc of the workforce have private pensions, she believes that this could further impact the coverage among Irish workers.

Prendergast’s childhood years were spent in Co Mayo, near Castlebar – far from the high-pressure world of financial services.

“I would say that, coming from a farming background, I didn’t quite appreciate what the options were to me – and I’m not really sure that I knew investment management even existed. But in school I did have an interest in business studies. So that’s what I pursued for my degree course.”

She studied at the University of Limerick with the intention of moving into accountancy – but a stint at Bank of Ireland for work experience changed all that. It was in the mid-1990s and financial services were developing in a new direction.

“Geographically, we suddenly ended up down in the IFSC. There was just the three main banks first of all, and it grew from there. The funds industry mushroomed as well, in conjunction with that. It was an interesting time to join the industry.”

The fact that it was a new area in financial services brought new opportunities too.

“In our organisation there were a number of women. I actually think that it helped diversity, because it was all so new and companies were growing really, really fast. Some phenomenal women have developed from that time.

“There still existed a bias – and that was the reality of the 1990s – but it probably gave women greater opportunities than they’d get in other, more traditional parts of the financial services sector.”

In 2000, Prendergast moved into the area of investment with Bank of Ireland Asset Management – and then, in 2010, State Street Global Advisors acquired Bank of Ireland Asset Management.

She leads the headquarters for SSGA’s European business, which has locations in Ireland, Italy, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, and Poland, and employs 300 people.

While financial services is experiencing a squeeze on staff skills, Prendergast says the Europe-wide nature of the SSGA operation means she has a wide pool to choose from.

Although a multi-national – with the State Street Group employing more than 2,000 people here – Prendergast says her operation is “indifferent” to the growing possibility of Ireland’s tax rate increasing from 12.5pc, although she understands it may be an issue for some sectors. 

While pension coverage is low in Ireland by OECD standards, women are even worse off when it comes to private pensions.

“We talk about a gender pay gap,” says Prendergast. “Well, if you’ve got a gender pay gap, you’ve got a gender pension gap – because if women are being paid less, less is going into their pension fund, even if they’re in a private pension.”

And women tend to be more likely to work in sectors which don’t offer pensions, like hospitality or retail.

“If you think about those sectors and what they’ve undergone over the last 18 months, then that problem has just gotten worse, rather than better.”

The issue for women is not just a lack of private pension cover.

"The state pension has never really accommodated women who stepped out of the workforce for a while," she says. “There’s so many different aspects feeding into the gender pension gap that we need to address.”

Prendergast hopes that a desire by people to re-evaluate their lives, allied to an older workforce, might lead to more flexibility for pensions. And this has the potential to benefit all workers in later life – assuming there is finally some action from Government on overhauling the pension system.

“People are thinking about their lives a bit differently, so people will think about retirement differently,” says Prendergast. “They may want to defer for longer, or they may go to half-retirement, or may go back to education. This rigidity of people retiring at age 65 is up for grabs. We have to have corresponding legislation to reflect that.

"But at the same time, there are also jobs which are physically demanding, which people cannot do beyond a certain age – and we need to accommodate that as well.”

“Maybe I don’t want to work five days a week, maybe I don’t want to work in the C-Suite position I’ve been in. Maybe I’d like to take a step back, work fewer days in a less stressful job. And people like that could be a huge asset to a company, because they’ve got all this experience

“So it is a more holistic perspective. The delineation we had in the past – between our working  life and then our retirement life – the boundaries between those two will become increasingly blurred.”

Curriculum Vitae

Name: Ann Prendergast

Age: 48

Position: Managing director and head of State Street Global Advisors (SSGA) Ireland

Lives: Ranelagh, Dublin

Education: Business studies at University of Limerick

Family: Sons Oisín and Donnacha

Pastimes: Running and pilates

Favourite TV series: Schitt’s Creek

Currently reading: ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ by Emma Dabiri

Business Lessons

What advice do you have for people who want to move up the corporate ladder?

“Be interested and be curious. Sometimes, when you’re working 12 hours a day, you don’t have much time to be curious. But you do have to lift your head and see what else is around, be interested in different things, and don’t just assume there is one pathway to wherever you want to go.”

There is a push to get more young women interested in STEM subjects. How do financial services rate for diversity?

“There’s still work to be done, but I think there’s much more openness – and it’s incumbent on senior women in the industry to make sure that it continues to happen all the time. It’s about making sure we have diverse people and diverse thought.”

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