Elevation of women to Iseq 20 boardrooms slows sharply in 2020

Rate of progress at Irish companies went from best to worst, according to new report

The rate at which women were appointed to the boards of Iseq 20 companies plummeted last year. Photograph: iStock

The rate at which women were appointed to the boards of Iseq 20 companies plummeted last year. Photograph: iStock


The rate at which women are being recruited to the boards of Ireland’s largest listed companies has dropped sharply, with the Republic losing its position as the European leader for new female appointments, according to a new report.

A study by executive search group Heidrick & Struggles found that women filled 31 per cent of board seats that became newly available at Iseq 20 companies in 2020. This compares to a European average of 48 per cent.

The rate at which women secured positions on top Irish boards slowed down compared to the previous year, when it reached 60 per cent – then the best rate in Europe, according to Heidrick & Struggles – as companies responded to a campaign for greater equality in boardrooms.

The Chicago-headquartered company’s findings echo those of the Government-backed Balance for Better Business group, which in a December 2020 report observed a marked drop-off in female appointments.

A total of 36 boardroom positions at the 20 biggest companies quoted on Dublin’s Iseq were filled last year, with men appointed to 69 per cent of them, Heidrick & Struggles said in its Board Monitor Europe report.

“The drastic fall of female representation is primarily attributable to the fact that the pool of Irish listed company directorships is much smaller than that of our European counterparts, so a few less female appointments each year can really sway the data,” said Stafford Bagot, partner in charge of Ireland for Heidrick & Struggles.

In 2018, the Iseq 20 was also at the bottom of the pile, with only 29 per cent of board appointments going to women, before soaring to the top in 2019.

Pandemic impact

“It is crucial that companies make concerted efforts to build an appropriately represented pipeline of talent, to feed into our boards,” he said.

“As the pandemic has disproportionally affected women, we must ensure that we minimise any lasting effects that will impede their streaming into positions of seniority in the workplace.”

Mr Bagot added that companies were looking more closely at prospective diverse board appointees and building relationships with them up to three years in advance of appointment.

The average age of people seated on Irish boards was 58, which was the second-highest in the study after Portugal, where the average age was 60.

Iseq 20 companies were more likely than their counterparts in other European countries to appoint directors from other countries, with 83 per cent of the new boardroom seats filled by foreign nationals in 2020, compared to a 40 per cent average.

Heidrick & Struggles said this international perspective suggested Irish companies were “attuned to increasing stakeholder demands that international companies should have international boards”.

Wider pool

But it added that they could “benefit from broadening their pool a bit further”, drawing on “a wider range of executive experiences” and adding more directors who hold executive positions.

The share of Iseq 20 boardroom seats going to people who had retired from their executive careers was one of the highest at 61 per cent, compared with a 48 per cent European average. Only the UK appointed more retired directors.

Some 56 per cent of the seats went to people who had experience as either a chief executive or chief financial officer, which was also higher than the 44 per cent average, while Irish companies also selected a comparatively high share of people with financial risk and compliance expertise.

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