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On the board walk: helping women advance at work

When it comes to gender equality and pay, Ireland still has a long way to go

“I also think we need to stop invoking the stereotype of male, pale and stale – many men are advocates for equality, and many women are not, gender does not necessarily determine attitudes to inclusion.” Photograph: iStock

“I also think we need to stop invoking the stereotype of male, pale and stale – many men are advocates for equality, and many women are not, gender does not necessarily determine attitudes to inclusion.” Photograph: iStock


Women make up roughly half of the population, yet lag behind in terms of representation at management and higher-level positions.

In Ireland, women are dropping out of the workforce after childbirth and this trend is reflected globally.

Government statistics from 2015 show that 86 per cent of childless women work, compared to 57 per cent of those with children aged three or under. As the children reach age six and over, only 58 per cent of mothers are in employment.

While we regularly see research showing that having women in senior positions results in improvements in productivity, profitability, innovation and culture of an organisation, Ireland still has a way to go.

As Ireland becomes increasingly multi-cultural and more women enter the workforce, how can we move away from the male, pale and stale image?

For Irish companies looking to their bottom line and under pressure to deliver on diversity and inclusion targets in order to avert a skills crisis, keeping women – and mothers – on their payroll is really important.

The advancement of women in the workplace remains quite slow and it is clear it will require planned and deliberate strategies to change this.

For example, a recent Institute of Directors in Ireland surveys shows women may find it difficult to get on boards or progress if they do not have contacts – 67 per cent of respondents said they knew three or more people on the board before they joined it. This means the majority of board members are likely to be from the same age and background and results in a lack of diversity.

So how can we tackle this? Mentoring programmes, where women and men encourage women to apply for senior positions can help create a pipeline of women with the experience and confidence to take on roles.

Helping to build this confidence in women can lead to better access to training and to opportunities to progress in the workplace.

Judged on merit

Women candidates should be judged on merit. However, it will take affirmative actions to create a pool of women ready and experienced enough to take up these roles. Quotas, mentoring programmes and flexible working environments are among the measures often cited but these initiatives must be led from the top and practised at all levels of management if they are to be successful.

According to Dr Michelle Cullen, managing director and head of inclusion and diversity at Accenture, firms cannot sit idly by while talented women opt out of the workforce or do not progress – as diversity and inclusion is the key to success in business.

She refers to an increasing body of research that shows companies and their clients ultimately suffer from a lack of diverse voices and leadership styles within their organisation.

“I think diversity is now firmly on the agenda of most companies in Ireland. Its importance and its value to both the employee and to the organisation is recognised. However, across the globe, women are still not adequately represented in boardrooms, in media, politics and other areas like science and technology. It’s a chronic problem,” says Cullen.

Cullen says the reasons behind the gender pay gap are complex and countries across the world are grappling with the issue.

“When it comes to stereotypes, I believe that stereotyping in all its forms simply limits opportunities for everyone and damages the efficiency of business. We all bring unconscious biases into the workplace and these span race, gender, age, and much more. The challenge is to notice these stereotypes, call them out and identify actions we can take to eradicate the effects,” she says.

Cullen says unconscious bias based on cultural attitudes about the roles of men and women in society is problematic but we need to questions these roles and assumptions.

“I also think we need to stop invoking the stereotype of male, pale and stale – many men are advocates for equality, and many women are not – gender does not necessarily determine attitudes to inclusion. I would prefer to focus on the mindset, finding and building advocates together for progress. Men and women are equal. The prize is a better society and workplace for people of all genders,” she says.

Accenture recently publicly announced its aim of achieving a 50/50 gender balance globally by 2025.

“Already in Ireland, 43 per cent of the Irish workforce is female and 51 per cent of our graduate intake last year was female; 36 per cent of our leadership team in Ireland are women. We actively seek to attract, retain, advance and sponsor women and have a dedicated ‘Accent on Gender Equality’ programme. This programme provides women with the support and tools to help them advance in the organisation, and it recruits people of all genders to raise their awareness and be advocates for gender equality,” Cullen says.

Greater awareness

Melíosa O’Caoimh, senior vice-president of global fund services at financial services company Northern Trust says in the past few years Irish companies have had a greater awareness of situations where diversity has been lacking.

“The business aim now is to maximise the effectiveness of the team, harness all of the talent available and leverage all the experiences and histories. Every piece of evidence we have at our disposal calls out the business and commercial benefits of creating that environment and our focus is on executing against that commercial imperative,” she says.

O’Caoimh says she is not in favour of gender quotas as a means of increasing female participation in public and professional life.

“In principle, I am not in favour of quotas at executive management level or on boards. Quotas risk stigmatising and undermining the individuals appointed. But we need a new approach. We have to measure our progress, but in a way that avoids “tokenism” or false positives,” she says.

“Within Northern Trust, we operate a set of measures that help us track our progress but we avoid some of the more difficult words like ‘quota’. Our talent pool from the universities is 50-50 and our focus is to ensure that all of those folks get the opportunity to advance to their maximum potential,” she says.

O’Caoimh says she welcomes the “Better Balance, Better Business” initiative launched recently by the Government but says the proof will be in the pudding.

“There has been a lot of talk about diversity for some time and it all sounds spot-on but the sentiment and the results remain disconnected. Let’s see does that come up with new ideas to move the needle for business in Ireland,” she says.

She adds that for material change to be made, new approaches instead of quotas are needed.

“For me, the magic bullet is authenticity at the leadership level. Businesses need to invest time and money in best practices that create honest, open challenging environments that hold managers accountable for the results of hiring, development and promotion decisions. Understand your metrics and watch them. What gets measured gets done. Northern Trust has gender goals in place that focus not just on the number at the top, but on the pipeline too. It’s actually quite simple once you commit to it,” O’Caoimh says.

“Management needs to communicate these things relentlessly – it cannot just be a discussion point on International Women’s Day; it needs to permeate the business, be authentic and we need to live it,” she adds.

Cullen also points to research published earlier this year (based on a survey of more than 22,000 working men and women in 34 countries – including more than 700 in Ireland) to identify 40 workplace factors that create a culture of equality – including the 14 key factors that matter the most.

Most effective actions

The results, published in the Getting to Equal report, detail the most effective actions that business leaders can take to accelerate advancement and help close the gender pay gap.

Among the key factors linked to advancement noted in the report are not asking employees to conform to a dress or appearance code, having an agreed diversity target and being willing to share it externally, and giving employees the freedom to work from home, particularly on days they have personal commitments.

Other measures include having an active women’s network with participation from men and women, widespread use of virtual technology practices to limit overseas travel and providing training to keep employees’ skills relevant.

O’Caoimh has this advice for women in the workplace and indeed for anyone who wants to get ahead: “Firstly be brave and step up for challenging stretch assignments throughout your career as they will ultimately give you the edge and help you stand out. Secondly, prioritise internal and external networking. Recognise that networking is hard and everyone has had awkward experiences. We have all walked into rooms and been the only woman, man, fund service provider or whatever it is. Make the effort and do it properly. Good networking is crucial to the critically important commercial benefits of this whole effort. Thirdly, for everyone in the workplace, remember to make time to look after your own well-being, which is essential to enabling success,” she says.

While Irish employers have a way to go in addressing the gender gap, using measures outlined above can make employers more competitive and help build a more equal society for all.

The statistics

– A 2015 study by the Financial Times found only one in five women were in senior roles among the top employers. In banks and the big accountancy firms, only 16 per cent of partnership and managing director roles were filled by women.

– A study by the 30% Club found that in legal firms, men were 10 times more likely to be promoted than women, and four times more likely in accountancy firms.

– The European Commission reported in 2014 that Ireland had an average gender pay gap of 13.9 per cent. This compared relatively favourably with the EU average of 16.7 per cent.

– The Mercer 2018 Ireland Gender Pay Gap Snapshot Survey sought to find out more, polling 67 organisations employing more than 110,000 people in Ireland. The survey found that most Irish companies agree with the principle of gender pay gap reporting: 74 per cent are in favour, and 67 per cent believe it would have a positive impact.