Minority report

Business | Thu 26 Feb | Author – Niamh Mac Sweeney
Women in the workplace

With female representation on boards in Ireland half the EU average, Niamh Mac Sweeney examines initiatives focused on driving change and addressing gender imbalances in business.

New figures showing that female representation on Irish boards is only half the European average demonstrates that more must be done to improve equality in Irish businesses. According to new EU figures, only 10.9% of board members in large publicly listed companies throughout Ireland are women; this is the seventh lowest in the EU and well below the top performer, France, at 32.4%.

The European Commission’s approach to addressing the gender balance on the boards of listed companies in the European Union is yielding results. And although 60% of new university graduates are female, women are outnumbered by men in leadership positions in the corporate sector in the EU.

Only 20.2% of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in the EU are women. This marks a significant increase from 11.9% in 2010 when the European Commission first put the issue of women in leadership positions on the political agenda. There are only four countries – France, Latvia, Finland and Sweden – in which women account for at least a quarter of board members, and so there is still some distance to go if we are to achieve gender balance at corporate level.

Female representation

Various studies suggest that companies with a higher representation of women at the most senior levels deliver better organisational and financial performance. Yet, by not taking advantage of the skills of highly qualified women, it is seen as a wasted opportunity which can and does impact negatively the potential for economic growth within an organisation.

Green Party councillor for Dundrum, Catherine Martin has called for debate on the issue given that the studies identify that the most progress on gender equality has occurred where legislation has been considered, or where there has been a strong public discussion about the matter.

“These figures confirm that the gender divide is still exceptionally high in the Irish workplace. Clearly, business – like politics – is still not women-friendly. Unsociable working hours, expensive childcare, and maternity leave pressures all contribute to under representation of women on Irish boards,” Martin says.

Gender quotas

According to Martin: “The introduction of gender quotas has had a clear, positive benefit on the Irish political system, with all parties having to step up to the mark and strive for better female representation.”

The aim is to turn the table on traditional male-dominated, homogeneous tech events with a gender split of 70:30 women to men.

Ann O’Dea, CEO of siliconrepublic.com argues that more should be done with regard to gender representation, in business and in politics. “Gender inequality is not only an issue for business,” she says, “it’s really important to ensure that we have women in positions of power. Gender quotas may prove necessary in politics until we reverse our awful record to date”.

O’Dea also points out that in countries such as Finland and Sweden where over 40% of their parliamentarians are women, there tends to be a much better gender mix at board level, and in business and technology generally. “That would certainly suggest that having women in positions of power has a trickle-down effect,” she says.

O’Dea herself has been to the fore in spearheading initiatives that encourage and champion women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math education) – industries that are currently heavily male-dominated. It is estimated that around 10% of engineers in Ireland are women, while that figure drops further when it comes to computer scientists and software developers. It was this sobering statistic that drove O’Dea to start the Women Invent programme.

“Over the past two years, Silicon Republic has profiled hundreds of remarkable women, from astrophysicists to tech founders – women who tend to normally fly below the media radar,” O’Dea points out.

Ann O’Dea, CEO of Silicon Republic

Ann O’Dea, CEO of Silicon Republic

Inspiring a nation

In June last year at the Guinness Storehouse, Women Invent gathered over 400 delegates together for its ‘Female Founders Forum’ which coincided with a celebration of the top 100 women in STEM. “As well as a celebration of remarkable women from Ireland and the Irish diaspora, we had the CTO of HP, Bethany Mayer and the co-founder of Eventbrite, Julia Hartz travel from Silicon Valley to speak. Anna Ravanona from Paris-based Global Invest Her also joined us,” O’Dea recalls.

This year, the third Women Invent campaign will once again be launched on International Women’s Day (March 8th). “This year’s a big one,” O’Dea enthuses. “At its heart will be our international sci-tech conference, Inspire 2015 on June 18th and 19th, where we’re expecting some 2,000 delegates from all over the world.

“The aim is to turn the table on traditional male-dominated, homogeneous tech events with a gender split of 70:30 women to men. We have some truly remarkable women scientists, technologists and activists – as well as marvellous male allies – coming from Silicon Valley, New York, Africa, Australia and the UK. One of our speakers, Kerry Howard, is about to publish her book on the women codebreakers at Bletchley Park, and Shelly Porges is an advisor to Hilary Clinton. Other star speakers include games developer Briannu Wu, who was caught up in the Gamergate controversy and had to leave her home after death threats, and Ariel Waldman, the founder of SpaceHack.org.”

Access all areas

Research has shown that companies with better gender balance are better run, so it makes economic sense to encourage females to access high-level positions in business and improve female representation on boards. Encouraging and supporting Irish business women should be a major priority for government. Gender imbalance is one of the most well-documented features of the tech industry and addressing these challenges is crucial.

“The IT industry is key to Ireland’s economic prosperity,” O’Dea says. “All the big multinationals and indigenous tech companies are complaining of a talent shortage in engineering and tech. This is a global challenge, and I firmly believe Ireland can be a leader in this. We’re definitely not going to resolve this if we leave half of our talent behind,” she concludes.

 

Balancing act

The 30% Club in Ireland was launched in January at its inaugural Irish event, a conference entitled ‘Business Leadership: Accelerating gender balance at all levels’. The 30% Club is a global movement of international chairmen and CEOs who are committed to better gender balance at all levels of their organisations.

The Irish chapter of the 30% Club has been established with the support of founding chairmen Nicky Hartery, CRH; Vivienne Jupp, CIE; Michael Buckley, formerly DCC; Lochlann Quinn, ESB; Kieran McGowan, Business in the Community; and Gary Kennedy, Greencore. The group aims to reach a 30% female gender balance on Irish boards and at executive management level by 2020. The 30% Club in Ireland is led by Marie O’Connor, partner at PwC.

O’Connor said: “Research indicates that having at least 30% senior female representatives within an organisation significantly influences both a company’s culture and decision-making. This leads to enhanced performance, innovation and talent retention which creates a positive impact on businesses’ corporate results and ultimately increases shareholder value. We are focused on influencing voluntary change from senior leaders, as opposed to supporting mandatory quotas which may not lead to sustainable change.”

Helena Morrissey, founder of the 30% Club in the UK added: “I’m delighted by the interest and enthusiasm for the 30% Club approach in Ireland. The 30% Club is focused on achieving real, measurable progress on gender diversity; but not just in the boardroom. Our goals are to drive change from classroom to boardroom and across society as a whole. In the UK, we now have 16 intense work streams focused on achieving this. It’s a long way from simply putting a few more women on boards, but, I believe, this is the real story of the 30% Club.”

Pictured at the official launch of the 30% Club in Ireland were Marie O’Connor, partner at PwC and 30% Club leader in Ireland; Helena Morrissey CBE, CEO of Newton Investment Management and founder of 30% Club in the UK; and Minister Richard Bruton