Not every Irish company is listening to the gender balance mood music

A Government-backed review shows a mixed picture for women in business. What next?

Some "heartening" advances, but still a "serious gender imbalance" at the top level of business in Ireland. That was the mixed verdict of the Government-commissioned Balance for Better Business review this week.

The group’s wealth of statistics on the presence or indeed absence of women in the boardrooms and “C-suites” of Irish companies shows that some do now have a “critical mass” of female directors. But others have been “stubbornly resistant to change”, while as far as the representation of women on executive teams is concerned, there is much work to be done.

Based on data from September, this is the second report of the group, following on from one that recorded the state of play in March. Over time, it should become apparent whether the set of stretching targets set by the group are eliciting any concerted response from the corridors of Irish corporate power.

Among publicly-quoted companies, a clear pattern is already evident: the bigger ones tend to be more gender balanced. The main positive finding in the report is that the 20 largest companies trading on the Euronext Dublin (formerly the Irish Stock Exchange) have met an interim target to have at least 25 per cent female directors on their boards by the end of 2019.


But among other listed companies “virtually no progress” has been made, Balance for Better Business said. Only 12.4 per cent of directors at these smaller listed companies are female, an almost unchanged percentage on six months earlier.

Cement giant CRH, the biggest company on the Euronext Dublin, remains a shining example for gender balance, with the highest percentage of female directors at 45.5 per cent. It has done this despite operating in an industry that has in the past, at least, attracted more male than female employees.

The “bigger equals more balanced” trend is replicated when attention is turned to executive leadership teams, which the group has now done for the first time. The size of these teams, as companies define them, can vary from one to 23. The average is seven. As of September, there were 329 executives on the leadership teams of the 48 companies that were listed on Euronext Dublin at the time. Of these, 52 executives, or 15.8 per cent, were women.

Iseq 20 companies were again slightly better than the rest, having 16.9 per cent women on their leadership teams compared to 14.6 per cent for the others. While half of the smaller companies had no women on their leadership teams at all, a fifth of Iseq 20 companies had none.

Welcome progress

"The progress made on diversity by the Iseq 20 companies is to be welcomed," says Maura Quinn, chief executive of the Institute of Directors in Ireland (IOD) and a member of the Balance for Better Business advisory group.

“However, it is of deep concern that other listed companies have made little progress and, furthermore, it is incomprehensible that progress has not been made in companies that have all-male boards.”

The phenomenon of all-male boards, once the norm, was also highlighted by Minister of State for Equality David Stanton, who said their days "must now come to an end". Some of the holdouts are companies that rely on "attracting large numbers of female customers" for their success, he observed.

At least three of the group certainly do so: forecourt retailer Applegreen, food producer Donegal Investment Group (previously Donegal Creameries), and Ovoca Bio, a pharma company that has aspirations to be a leader in products marketed as treatments for female sexual dysfunction.

Balance for Better Business says the target of no all-male boards among companies listed on the Euronext Dublin by the end of the year was an “ambitious” one. But its report concludes it is “particularly disappointing” that none of the 15 all-male boards identified in March had lost this status by September.

It acknowledges that Datalex has now done so: in October, the travel software company appointed experienced airline executive Christine Ourmières-Widener, a former chief executive of Flybe and CityJet, to its board.

This week, exploration group Petroneft Resources also added a female director, which it said was "part of the company's desire to improve the strength and diversity of the board".

Daria Shaftelskaya has "a strong finance background in addition to being from the Tomsk region" of Russia in which Petroneft operates, it added. Her appointment is ultimately unconnected to the strictly voluntary targets set by Balance for Better Business: Shaftelskaya owns 10.7 per cent of Petroneft.

Two companies with all-male boards have also delisted from Euronext Dublin: GAN plc did so before the review data was compiled, while Falcon Oil & Gas has done so since then.

Leadership targets

As for the others, they're "not listening to the mood music", as it was put this week by Greencore chairman Gary Kennedy, who co-chairs the group alongside Brid Horan, the Nephin Energy chairwoman and former deputy chief executive of ESB.

Helping to widen the pool of female business leaders available for board positions is now the next critical task for the group, and one that may prove more relevant to women in business than the effort involved in convincing the last cohort of mining and pharma companies that they shouldn’t have all-male boards.

Rachel Hussey, the Arthur Cox partner who chairs 30% Club Ireland, says the focus on senior management levels is "critical" if Irish business wants a "sustainable talent pipeline for gender balance".

The 30% Club, which aims to promote gender balance to that critical mass percentage across all levels of Irish business, was among those to campaign for measures tackling this key layer.

New targets for leadership teams have now been set. The Balance for Better Business group, which is overseen by programme director Anne-Marie Taylor, says Iseq 20 companies should have at least 30 per cent women on their leadership teams by the end of 2023, while other listed companies should have at least 25 per cent.

The group also has a new 30 per cent boardroom representation target for larger Irish-owned private companies. A CSO analysis from earlier this year suggests the current figure is 17.1 per cent, with women accounting for 26.8 per cent of leadership positions at those companies (including just 7.9 per cent of chief executive roles).

These two new areas for targets join the existing aim for Iseq 20 companies to have 33 per cent women directors by the end of 2023 and other listed companies to have 25 per cent.

For Horan, the stakes are clear. “If Ireland is to continue to succeed as a modern, outward-looking European country, we need to address the challenges and opportunities of moving to gender-balanced leadership,” she says.

Lagging EU average

The Irish business world has come to this issue late, meaning it is playing catch-up with the average female director rates in other European Union countries. While the gap has started to narrow, the State is still only ranked 17th out of the EU-28 when it comes to the representation of women on the boards of larger publicly-quoted companies.

Given other countries are still working to improve their gender records, Hussey says “significant action” will be necessary for Irish business to move closer to the EU average.

Quinn points to the need to tackle barriers such as unconscious bias, a lack of transparency in succession planning and old-school recruitment processes that rely on a who-you-know “boys’ club” to the detriment of female advancement.

The report is inconclusive about the pace at which things are changing. While an “encouraging” half of all new board appointments at listed companies since March have been women, the rate at which women are being appointed to those companies’ leadership teams has been dispiriting: only 18 per cent of such new appointments over the past year have been female.

Countries such as France, Germany, Belgium, Iceland, Italy and Norway have mandatory quota systems for women on boards. Right now, it seems there is a little Irish political will to follow suit. But companies that haven't yet got the message on gender balance should still take action for their own sakes, Stanton suggests.

“They do not wish to be in the headlines for the wrong reasons.”

Why do these Euronext Dublin companies have all-male boards?

The 11 companies on the Euronext Dublin stock market with all-male boards are Amryt Pharma, Applegreen, Donegal Investment Group, Great Western Mining Corp, Mainstay Medical International, Malin Corporation, Mincon Group, Open Orphan, Ormonde Mining, Ovoca Bio and Providence Resources.

The Irish Times contacted them all to ask why they had no female directors on their boards, and if they had any plans to address this.

Ormonde Mining said it “recognises the benefits to all of the company’s stakeholders that could be gained through a more diverse board and leadership team”.

It cited the small number of people on its board: “Although new board appointments have not been possible during 2019 to expand our current board of three people, the company will seek to address the gender balance at the soonest opportunity as an important part of its medium to long term growth strategy.”

Mainstay Medical International cited its “significant challenges and turbulent times” over the past two years. Recent resignations from the board have not yet been replaced as it is focusing on stabilising its business. Composition of the board is “consistently under review”, however, and diversity is “central to Mainstay’s board evolution plan”, it said.

Great Western Mining Corp, a precious metals miner that operates in Nevada in the US, said it had only three directors, all executive, following recent resignations. However, it is currently conducting a search for non-executive directors “and gender balance will be a major consideration”.

The precariously-financed Providence Resources is the most obvious example of a company in trouble. In September, it had six directors. It is now down to just two. “Board representation is kept under review,” a spokeswoman said. The company said earlier this month that it was seeking a chief executive to replace Tony O’Reilly jnr.

At pharma group Ovoca Bio, which in an earlier iteration was a mining company called Ovoca Gold, board member Christopher Wiltshire said it was “working to address” its gender balance. “We are constantly looking for ways to improve our business and we fully appreciate that greater gender diversity on the board will be beneficial to Ovoca Bio as we continue to grow,” he said. The company’s chief financial officer is female.

A representative of Open Orphan said it had only been a public company for five months, was “fully conscious” of its lack of board diversity and was “actively seeking” to address it. Two female candidates turned down a proposal to join its board. “However, we actively continue our search and hope that we can resolve the situation and bring some female diversity to our board in 2020.”

Among the other companies, Amryt Pharma, Donegal Investment Group and Malin made no comment, while Mincon Group did not respond to the inquiry. A statement was not received from Applegreen before deadline, but the issue is understood to be on the forecourt operator’s agenda.