No limits on getting ahead for today’s top businesswomen

C-suite women tell Fiona Reddan how they can help themselves and each other

Fri, May 16, 2014, 10:02

Earlier this year Vanity Fair ran a cover story on the woman hired to save Yahoo. “Will Success Spoil Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer?” the US publication asked. It’s difficult to imagine the magazine – or indeed any publication – running the same headline alongside a male CEO. Could success, for example, spoil Microsoft’s newly appointed Satya Nadella or Albert Manifold of Ireland’s largest company, CRH?

Yes, women are making progress in the corporate world in greater numbers than ever before. But are they being held back in business by traditional stereotyping? In a survey of the “c-suite” of Ireland’s Top1000 companies, which examined the gender of senior management in each of the organisations included in this year’s magazine, our survey found that 25 per cent of all c-suite roles among Ireland’s Top1000 companies are now held by women. This compares favourably with a recent study in the US, which showed that about 15 per cent of similar roles are held by women.

However, there remains a disconnect between these figures and the number of women assuming top roles. Women occupy chief executive or managing director positions in just eleven per cent of Ireland’s top companies, according to the Top1000 survey. Carolan Lennon, managing director of Eircom’s wholesale business and a member of Eircom’s senior executive team, argues that quotas may be needed to redress the balance and that sometimes “the end justifies the means”.

“Do I think boards and organisations and governments would be improved if they had a more balanced membership? I do,” says Lennon. “And I believe the only way we can make that happen is to introduce quotas. Otherwise progress will be so slow we won’t make a difference.”

Not everyone agrees, however. Suzanne Weldon, marketing director at BWG, says she is “not a fan” of quotas. “I’ve always got ahead on merit, on doing the right job, and getting the right results.”

Women are in broad agreement, however, that to increase the number of women participating at senior levels of an organisation, support is essential. “I certainly mentor a lot of women. I believe that as a senior businesswoman I have a responsibility to help and encourage other women. If we want to reach 30 per cent we have to keep talking about it,” says Lennon.

Melanie Sheppard, finance director with Pfizer Healthcare Ireland, agrees that to ensure women are encouraged to play as full a role as they desire in the workplace, support, advice and role models are essential. “The power of role models is very strong; so is the absence of such role models.”

But it’s also about taking responsibility for your own career choices.

Central to Sheryl Sandberg’s recent rallying cry for women to heighten their

engagement in the workforce was the message of “leaning-in” and taking a “seat at the table”. It’s something that is echoed in the experiences of the senior women of the Top1000.

“You have to own your own career, to put yourself in the frame,” advises Lennon. “Put your hand up, make sure you’re available and that you have the skills to succeed.”

She says that when presented with a job opportunity, most women – even when they might be the best candidate – can think of eight reasons why they shouldn’t apply. “But women need to take some ownership and push themselves forward,” she says.

Before Marie Joyce took on her role as chief financial officer (CFO) with publicly listed renewable investment group NTR, she took some time to consider it. Historically, her role had involved quite a lot of travel, and with a child, she had to think carefully about taking it on. “I was initially apprehensive about the role. I could easily have thought, I can’t be away for long periods of time, but I gave the job a go and it was fine,” she says. And now she has the support of her colleagues to opt for shorter trips.

Taking time out to have a family is also a challenge many women will face. While no-one can ever fully understand how they will feel once they begin – or

increase – their family, planning can help the time away from work to go more smoothly. “If you want to stay in business, you have to plan around having a

family and keep your career progression on track,” says Joyce, adding, “if you plan well for your absence, you can maintain a level of trust.”

This turned out to be the case for Sonia Flynn, head of Facebook’s Irish operations. She had her first child last year, and returned to work in October. She took eight months maternity leave, keeping in touch intermittently, not realising at the time, that as head of Facebook in Ireland, people were watching her example. She says that on her return other women in the organisation found her approach “very refreshing”.

“It set up a positive message that you can have your family and then come back to work. My husband gave me a very good piece of advice. He said, ‘You’ve spent all this time talking about how good your team is. Now give them a chance to show you how good they are’.”

But perhaps there is also a message about having realistic expectations. Flynn is now firmly back to grips with her role, but she concedes that there was a period of adjustment. “My confidence was a bit low when I came back. We don’t talk about it enough but it takes time to get back up to speed. It is normal to miss your child and it is normal to feel highly emotional – but it does come good in the end.”

For women hoping to return to work on a part-time basis, they should be aware that this might impact on their career opportunities. “It comes down to choices. Think about your choices and think about what you want,” says Lennon, adding, “There would be no point in me saying I could do my role part-time when I couldn’t.”

In this respect, one element missing from Sandberg’s Lean In treatise might be that to allow women to lean in more, and engage further in their careers, men, as partners of such women, need to “lean out” a little more, and take on more responsibility at home.