“There’s a lot written about the lack of confidence in women in going forward for roles” – An interview with Julie Sinnamon, co-chair of Balance for Better Business

Digital, Interviews, Magazine, Thought Leadership | Wed 16 Feb | Author – Business & Finance
Pictured: Julie Sinnamon, co-chair of Balance for Better Business

Julie Sinnamon has held a number of senior public sector positions in a career spanning thirty years. She added another string to her bow in June 2021 with her appointment as co-chair of Balance for Better Business (B4BB), a group tasked with improving gender balance in senior business leadership in Ireland. She sits down with David Monaghan, Deputy Editor, Business & Finance, to discuss her vision for a better balanced business sphere.

Note: This piece was originally published in Business & Finance magazine, vol. 59, no. 1, available to read, with compliments, here.


Julie Sinnamon has had inimitable success: She has held a number of senior public sector positions in Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland, in a career spanning thirty years.

She is a member of the Board and Investment Committee of Enterprise Ireland, a member of National Competitiveness Council, and a member of the Investment Committee of the Irish Strategic Investment Fund (a part of the National Treasury Management Agency).

Sinnamon is also a Board Member of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland and Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition Limited.

Sinnamon added another string to her bow with her appointment as co-chair of Balance for Better Business (B4BB) in June 2021, a position shared with Aongus Hegarty. 

Balance for Better Business is tasked with improving gender balance in senior business leadership in Ireland. As co-chairs, Sinnamon and Hegarty engage with the Irish business community, advocating for greater gender balance on boards and in leadership roles.

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, TD, announced their appointment at the time, noting their “extensive knowledge and experience in driving gender balance and diversity in business.”

Gender Disparity

“Balance for Better Business started in 2018, just over three years ago,” Sinnamon says on a chilly winter morning. “I got involved with it from the start.”

Gender balance in Irish business is an area Sinnamon has been conscious of for some time: “In my time in Enterprise Ireland, I did a lot of work on the area of female entrepreneurship, and we had a real problem in terms of the lack of female participation, particularly technology entrepreneurs, that we were supporting.”

Until 2011, only 7 per cent of Enterprise Ireland’s projects included female involvement, Sinnamon tells me. 

“In 2020, by putting together a plan, looking at the issues – access to finance, lack of role models, confidence, lack of networking, networks for females versus males – we worked on each of those issues, and we got the numbers up to 24 per cent in 2020, which was a great achievement.”

This is a global problem, of course. Worldwide, only 8 per cent of technology entrepreneurs are women. Sinnamon feels that Enterprise Ireland’s stringent efforts to improve female involvement in business is testament to how to improve this figure. 

“By working on it and putting a focus on it, we’ve got success,” she says.

Balance for Better Business deals with the wider leadership and board issues that impede gender equity. 

“There is and has been a problem globally, and in Ireland, about the lack of females on boards of companies, as well as in middle and senior management,” Sinnamon continues.

“There are targets set, we’re tracking those targets annually, and most importantly, we’re actually helping companies and supporting companies, putting a spotlight on companies that are doing it well, and then being able to use what they are doing to get that message out to other companies and encourage them and help them.” 

Sinnamon notes that whenever someone spoke about issues pertaining to gender balance 20 years ago, “you seemed to be some sort of person with really strong views in a corner talking to yourself.”

She continues: “With things like the 30% Club – it is now about men and women talking about this issue and realising that it is a core business issue.” 

“There’s a lot written about the lack of confidence in women in going forward for roles,” Sinnamon notes.  “It’s about giving them the confidence to do so, and pointing to the role models, people who have done it.

Unconscious Biases and Helping Women to Help Themselves

On the 13th December, 2021, Balance for Better Business published their fourth report. In 2018, the group set 7 targets, tracked regularly, which relate to improving conditions for women on boards and leadership. 

A significant milestone was surpassed in 2021 when it was found that 31 per cent of the boards of public companies are now composed of female members.

“We are making progress but it is [slow],” Sinnamon concedes.

What tangible solutions does Balance for Better Business recommend to combat gender disparity? 

“It’s about building the talent pipelines. It’s about working with companies to address the biases that might be in the company, it’s about training people on unconscious bias, it’s about making sure that when you go out to the market to recruit, that you’re looking for balance.

B4BB offers recommendations and actions that each stakeholder can take.

 “For the chairs of companies, for the CEOs of companies, investors, everybody has a role to play in this. If you believe that what gets measured gets done, then treating this like any other business objective and setting objectives for it within the company and developing an action plan to do that, it’s then about acting within the company, it is then about building gender balanced succession pipelines within the company, then reporting.”

Within each of those areas, B4BB recommends specific actions. 

Sinnamon continues: “If you take recruitment, for example, I think companies need to have this as part of their recruitment policies. It’s actually going to help companies attract talent. At the same time, when they’re working with executive search companies, to make sure that they are being given a balanced slate of candidates for the jobs.”

In 2020, Enterprise Ireland helped develop specific leadership development programmes targeting current and potential women leaders and honing their talents. 

“There’s a lot written about the lack of confidence in women in going forward for roles,” Sinnamon notes. 

“It’s about giving them the confidence to do so, and pointing to the role models, people who have done it.

“Women need to help themselves. When we look at companies which are having success in this area, it’s typically companies where there are role models at the top in their senior leadership levels that other women can look to and say, ‘Well, if she can do it, I can do it, and it’s possible to do it.’”

Those role models are particularly important for women with families, says Sinnamon. 

“In some organisations, there were women in senior positions, but they may have been single, or they may not have had children, and I think the importance of having women with families and to be able to continue to demonstrate to the next generation of women coming up that it is possible to balance both.”

B4BB’s fourth report also includes case studies from companies. 

“We put a spotlight on two companies: CPL, Anne Heraty, is talking about what they have done specifically to drive this agenda, and Anne O’Leary in Vodafone, and they are just setting out practical steps that they have done and that they continue to do to drive this agenda.”

Sinnamon says that the B4BB approach has had a positive impact: “Women appreciate that this is kept on the agenda of their companies, and the targets are set. We’re increasingly seeing companies stepping up and deciding that, if they want to attract the best talent, if they want to retain talent, that they have to be inclusive in how they operate as a company.”

Sinnamon notes that whenever someone spoke about issues pertaining to gender balance 20 years ago, “you seemed to be some sort of person with really strong views in a corner talking to yourself.”

Gender Quotas and Multinational Companies

Sinnamon views gender quotas as the ‘nuclear option’, to be used only in cases where voluntary targets, a method preferred by Balance for Better Business, do not work. With voluntary targets, B4BB has seen progress, particularly at board level.

“All of the targets are trending in the right direction, albeit the leadership area,” Sinnamon says. 

“What we are seeing in the fourth report that we have published is that we are making progress to embed that change in organisations, and to have companies doing it because they understand the business logic and they are buying into it, as opposed to it being forced upon them.”

With regard to sectoral differences in the area of gender balance, Sinnamon says that B4BB does not track different sectors individually. 

“What I would say is that we are tracking the public companies, we are tracking the large companies, we are tracking the multinational companies,” she says.

“The multinational companies have been working on this agenda for a lot longer than the Irish companies have. We’re seeing in the ISEQ companies that 25 per cent of the leadership team is female. 

“It’s 32 per cent on the multinational side. There will be sectoral differences, but to me, it’s about getting everybody on the bus and heading in the right direction, and buying into the need.”

Does Sinnamon believe complete balance is possible? “I’m an optimist,” she says. “I have to believe. And I look at the success when a spotlight is put on something and you can actually achieve results. 

Talent

Talent, and the access to talent, is the biggest issue facing companies, says Sinnamon. 

“For talent attraction and talent retention, I think [gender balance] is really important. There is a lot of work that has been done on the impact on business performance, and there is a study by RebecoSAM that shows that the proportion of women [has] the most consistent and robust effect on corporate performance, followed by boards, and then women in the organisation.

“So, business performance and profitability is impacted, we all know that creativity and innovation drive success, and that is about diversity. And it isn’t just about gender diversity – at the end of the day, diversity helps creativity and innovation.

“50 per cent of your customers, at least, are female. If you don’t have women bringing their insight to the leadership table, you’re going to lose out. And the reputation of the company is something that is important in attracting the talent. 

Sinnamon informs me that greater gender diversity also helps to empower the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) agenda.

“There’s a recent PwC report, and it talks about how the interest in the climate crisis is higher among females on the board. The ESG agenda is growing, and a greater gender balance can help support companies in that.”

Complete Balance – Pipe Dream, or Growing Reality?

Does Sinnamon believe complete balance is possible? “I’m an optimist,” she says. “I have to believe. And I look at the success when a spotlight is put on something and you can actually achieve results. 

“This is now a mainstream issue, as it has to be if you’re ever going to drive towards that fifty-fifty. On the other side of the coin, there are practical things, things like childcare for example, and we know that women are bearing the brunt of responsibilities, and there’s a recent report by the UN, and they found that, although both genders have seen their unpaid workloads increase with COVID, more of that is being borne by females.” 

Ibec  published a survey in April 2021, highlighting that 20 per cent of companies have observed a change in the position of women this year; this includes increased pressure on women workers due to childcare needs. 

In September, 2020, one month alone in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 865,000 women dropped out of the labour force compared to 200,000 men in the United States. This is according to UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia. 

“Most of that can be explained by the fact that there was a care burden and there’s nobody else around,” Bhatia said.

Domestic labour, the work undertaken to maintain a household, disproportionately falls on the shoulders of women. 

Sinnamon continues: “We recently saw Helen McEntee’s husband in the media taking six months paternity leave, and increasingly, companies are saying, ‘well, if we want to have a sharing of those responsibilities, how do we actually do this to have better balance for everybody?’

There are factors going against us ever getting that fifty-fifty split, but I think we can make substantial progress from where we are at present.”