United we stand

Business, CSR | Tue 2 Jun | Author – Business & Finance women in the workplace stock

Gender diversity is a business rather than an HR issue and smart companies are making the most of what both men and women bring to the workplace, writes Leslee O’Loughlin.

This year’s International Women’s Day did what it always does; and for a couple of days either side of the milestone, the global conversation ranged around the achievements of women and the need for greater equality both at home and in the workplace.

Ireland played its part, naturally, with various activities taking place around the country from networking lunches to art exhibitions, sports events and plenty more besides, all shining a spotlight on the theme of equality and rightly so, given the importance of women to our society and the Irish economy.

Corporate Ireland also did its bit to ensure that International Women’s Day was trending, although it’s fair to say that our business community was also on the receiving end of some harsh words on the subject of gender equality.

PwC recently published a report citing that more than half of Irish women aged between 20 and 35 believe their male colleagues are more likely to get a promotion at work, and that while many companies talk about promoting diversity in the workplace, the reality is that opportunities are not equal. The facts speak for themselves. Today, just one-in-10 directors of publicly-listed companies in Ireland are women, putting us behind most other European countries (European Commission, 2013) and way behind our closest neighbours, the UK, where more than a fifth of directors in publically-quoted companies are women.

The statistics paint a rather gloomy picture of gender equality, or lack thereof, in the Irish business community. On the other hand, the current situation represents a huge opportunity for Ireland Inc. to balance the number of men and women in the workplace – for everyone’s benefit.

I have long believed that having more women in management positions not only demonstrates good practice but actually helps companies to improve performance and deliver on business objectives. It stands to reason. Men have certain qualities and characteristics, as do women. By mixing these together, business benefits from the best of both worlds.

DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES, GREATER FLEXIBILITY

More diversity on a human level can give a company more diversity at a corporate level – different perspectives, more skills, greater flexibility – which can ultimately lead to increased productivity and even a happier workplace.

For some companies, this penny dropped long ago. In my own company, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, the past 18 months have seen no fewer than seven females promoted to management roles here in Ireland, bringing our total number of women in management positions to more than one-third of the entire management team.

This has not happened by accident. Enterprise is a leader in the area of workplace diversity, which is stitched into our attraction and recruitment strategies, through partnerships with the likes of GLEN and Ahead, and runs right through the company – through our management development training and various internal diversity initiatives – right to the top. And by the top, I mean the very top. In 2013, Pam Nicholson was appointed CEO of Enterprise Holdings, the first CEO appointed outside of the Taylor family, and a high-ranking member of the Forbes ‘Top 100 Most Powerful Women’ list.

By developing female talent … at all levels, organisations are guaranteeing the future sustainability of the company

A BUSINESS ISSUE

For me, diversity is a business issue – not a HR issue. This is a crucial difference. By developing (and retaining) female talent, by ensuring that women form a representative proportion at all levels of an organisation, companies can actually improve their future sustainability. Again, it makes sense. In a rapidly changing world, the more diverse your skillset the better your chances of success. This has implications for Ireland Inc. As the government continues to seek FDI to fuel our continuing resurgence, the reality is that we are competing against countries that have a significant advantage in the diversity stakes.

Having spent most of my career to date in the US, I can see how businesses in Ireland and Europe are beginning to lead the way when it comes to female diversity in the workplace – and what a difference this can make.

Diversity should be a talking point not only at boardroom level but at government level; at every level. Corporate Ireland should be asking “How can we get more women involved? How can we motivate them to stay? How can we leverage their insights and characteristics?”

Last year, as part of Diversity and Philanthropy Week, Enterprise held a ‘Job Shadow Day’ with five senior managers in revenue-generating roles – including company MD George O’Connor – swapping roles with five female branch managers to give them a sense of what it would be like to run the company.

This level of commitment to diversity might seem enormous in an Irish or European context, but coming from the US it is simply how things are. I grew up in San Francisco, joined Enterprise as a management graduate trainee in 1997 and within 13 months I was promoted ‘from within’ to running my own branch, a policy which the company strives to implement at all career levels.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN

leslee o'loughlin

Leslee O’Loughlin

In essence, Irish companies should endeavour to include a diversity strategy within all aspects of their business practices, encouraging women to realise their full potential and personal ambition.

By developing female talent and ensuring that women form a representative proportion at all levels, organisations are guaranteeing the future sustainability of the company. However, as good as intentions might be, in practice, female diversity initiatives are not top of the agenda for a lot of organisations and this in turn is making women leave certain organisations, or putting them off joining in the first place. According to the PwC report, lack of opportunities for progression is the most common reason that ‘millennial’ women have left a job.

This has to change. Not just for the rights of women, but for the benefit of business. Gender diversity has been proven to have the potential to boost the bottom line, and that is a competitive advantage that Irish companies and Ireland as a whole simply can’t afford to pass up.

Enough talk: to borrow the theme from this year’s International Women’s Day, let’s make it happen.