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The glass ceiling: ‘Just getting one woman into a senior role isn’t enough’

The financial sector is now taking action and gender balance is becoming a top priority

It’s 40 years since the term “the glass ceiling” was coined. Unfortunately, it’s still there.

“Things haven’t changed dramatically. Organisations need to do more in terms of ensuring women are senior decision-making roles,” says Mary Connaughton, director of the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, the professional body for human resources practitioners.

“One of the things the research has identified is that you really need to embed diversity into your culture to do that, which means actions that pull women up through your organisation and, at a lower level, that encourage women to grow and stay.”

Bias training is important, as is valuing those roles in which women dominate – for example, HR – and not reading a desire for flexibility due to, perhaps, family commitments, as an indicator of a lack of ambition.


Such moves can help plug the leaky pipeline, whereby women enter the workforce at the same rate as men but disappear the higher you look up the corporate ladder.

“Just getting one woman into a senior role isn’t enough,” she says. “The research also shows one women isn’t typically isn’t enough to be heard. Two are regarded as colluding with one another. You need at least three.”

Top priority’

Companies are taking action. "We are seeing gender balance becoming a top priority for many of our clients, as it is for ourselves," says Torunn Dahl, head of employee relations, respect and inclusion at Deloitte.

“When the focus first came on gender balance a number of years ago there was an assumption that if enough women were hired at entry levels, the balance would even out over time. This hasn’t transpired and organisations are waking up to the fact that there are still too many barriers to progression that are resulting in the leaky pipeline.”

Flexible working is a key area of focus for Deloitte. “In organisations with a lack of flexible working they tend to lose not just working parents but also those who intend to have families in the future and cannot see any way of reasonably balancing the two in the organisation.”

Role modelling is critical. “Do senior leaders take their holidays? Do they put on an out-of-office? Do they leave the office on time to spend time with their own families or hobbies? People pay a lot of attention to the implicit messages being given by these seemingly small things, but they all add up to a perception of what it takes to be successful in a company,” says Dahl.

Law firm Pinsent Masons has introduced a number of initiatives, including a reciprocal mentoring programme where male senior leaders mentored 30 junior female lawyers to increase understanding of different experiences of the firm and its culture.

Coaching and mentoring

Its Aspire programme provides coaching and mentoring for candidates identified as being eligible for partnership. Female candidates make up 54 per cent of participants on the current programme.

Compulsory unconscious bias training is provided for all partners and team leaders and it introduced maximum fixed terms for senior appointments such as board members, which were previously open-ended. Pinsent Masons also set up a nominations committee with the specific objective of increasing diversity in senior leadership. As a result, the percentage of female heads of office has increased from 5 per cent in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2017.

"To reduce barriers at KPMG we first spent time devising our diversity strategy and then set about communicating it to our people, taking the opportunity to explain our goals and our pathway towards achieving better gender diversity at all levels of the organisation. The fact that our managing partner Shaun Murphy is leading the campaign for a more inclusive KPMG workplace is a strong endorsement for our people," says Darina Barrett, partner, KPMG in Ireland and a member of the steering committee of the 30 per cent Club, an organisation committed to gender balance at all levels in leading Irish businesses.

“We have learned that while employees very much value flexible hours, they do not want to be tagged as having special arrangements. They believe there are negative perceptions associated with the flexible label, the assumption being that ‘flexible’ equals less hours, which is usually not the case. In an effort to overcome this barrier, we have described the arrangements as ‘intelligent working arrangements’ and they are in place and encouraged for all of our senior professionals, particularly flexibility around the hours of work. We are trying to foster an atmosphere of trust and help everyone to see past the misleading idea that because someone has availed of family friendly flexibility, they are not putting in the same effort as those who work in a more conventional way.”

Strongly outperforms

The Central Bank strongly outperforms the financial services sector, the public sector and its European peers in terms of seniority and pay from a gender perspective. More than one-third of its board are women, as are 40 per cent of its executive committee, and 43 per cent of its leadership team. It is committed to doing even better.

Not only has it a wide range of policies and practices in place which combine to create a gender diverse and inclusive workplace, but its senior leaders have spoken publicly on the importance of diversity and inclusion.

In its role as regulator it has been forthright in saying that it expects the financial firms it regulates to ensure that they have the diversity of demographics and of thought that ensures good governance and mitigates against the consequences of groupthink.

There is a strong business imperative for doing so: research shows that gender diversity can lead to better outcomes in terms of productivity, governance and decision-making.

“Language is very important in this,” says Maria Hegarty of Equality Strategies. “We often hear that women are more ‘risk averse’ in business. I would argue they’re not more risk averse at all, what they are is better at risk assessment. Look at the [financial] crash. Studies have shown that if there had been more diversity on boards it wouldn’t have happened.”

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times