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Getting More Women on Board

Published: Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The question of getting more women on boards in Ireland is a long-debated discussion, which, in 2015, resulted in the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s  publication, Better Boards, Better Business, Better Society. The case for promoting board diversity is clear and well-tested; it does not need to be reasserted continually.  Put simply, more diverse and gender equal boards negate group-think, bring wider business perspective, knowledge and insight - they assess risk more effectively  - and in terms of the all-important business imperative, they also deliver increased profit .

So, why, then, given this considerable and qualified testimony to diversity and gender equality on corporate boards, do we find that (shockingly) Ireland currently only has female representation of c. 16% on corporate boards?

At NWCI’s Getting Women on Board - Harnessing Women’s Talent in Companies hosted in partnership with the Norwegian Embassy (06.09.17), this was the exact question posited by many of the speakers and audience members.  The event, which was chaired by broadcaster and journalist, Alison O’ Connor, heard about Norway’s impressive record, which saw a spectacular increase to 40% from 7% female representation following the introduction of a gender quota system

Orla O’ Connor, Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland emphasised that without quotas, the pace of change in Ireland is far too slow. NWCI welcomes the commitments in the Government’s National Strategy for Women and Girls to commission an independent review of women’s representation in governance and senior management in business as well as an implementation plan to promote women to senior leadership roles. NWCI is calling for a national action plan on this issue and for quota legislation to be introduced in Ireland to increase women’s representation on company boards.

However, both Norwegian Ambassador Else Berit Eikeland and guest speaker, business lawyer, Liv Monica Stubholt noted the necessity for political will in driving change of this nature.  The decision to introduce board quotas in Norway was championed by a Conservative, male Minister - not necessarily the most obvious advocate for such an initiative.

The unintended and rather interesting consequences of introducing a quota system such as Norway’s? Better quality candidates – across the board.  The eradication of the ‘who you know’ selection approach was testing people on talent, and skills, not simply their closeness to the decision-maker.  In fact, Liv Monica also noted the discussion widening in the selection process to a changed language, where ‘parenting responsibilities’ and other personal issues were no longer postulated as key considerations – and if they were, the question was asked, ‘well, would you say this about the male candidates?’.  A radical and important shift in thinking.

Looking to the Irish experience, Anne O’Leary, CEO of Vodafone Ireland – a passionate advocate and proponent for both diversity and gender equality in business – spoke of the key policies, approaches and practices the company employs in nurturing and developing their talent pool.  The need for flexible working practices, focused advancement and talent pipelining – and a consistent eye on internal data and metrics – were all highlighted as major influencing factors in the achievement of diversity and gender equality across the organisation. 

RTÉ Board member, CEO of Clear Ink, entrepreneur and journalist, Margaret E. Ward, provided key insights as to how women can best benefit from, and access board opportunities.  Answering the IOD’s recent report on Diversity in the Boardroom, which outlined key statistics and insights on female board representation , with one view suggesting a lack of female talent available for board positions – Margaret observed that women may feel they are not suitably qualified for board roles.   This, (to much applause from the audience) is symptomatic of a wider societal and cultural norm, that, from an early age, women are told that if you work hard, the opportunities will come your way – the reality however is that this is not the case.  Women need to be strategic, network, find mentors and put themselves forward. 

Moving on to the actions required to accelerate the representation of women on boards, contributions from the floor suggested the need for a more radical, collaborative approach.  Of note, comments from prominent spokeswomen, such as Vivienne Jupp, founder of the Board Diversity Initiative, Tina Roche, CEO of Business in the Community, and Dr. Frances Ruane, Chair of the Board of the Abbey Theatre – all pointed to the immediate need to consider key strategic actions, in a bid to permanently shift norms and modernise work practices.  There was a palpable frustration in many contributions, which almost definitely spoke to the sense that change has been disproportionately slow.  

Indeed Dr. Ruane’s question, regarding the importance of the Norwegian Conservative Minister’s decision to implement a quota system – being, perhaps, his gender – echoed another question, from Mark Fenton, a member of the Irish Film Boards’ Board of Directors: don’t men have a role in supporting such initiatives? Which, undoubtedly they do.  Liv Monica Stubholt suggested that, in fact, men between the ages of 52 and 58 are particularly pivotal in their contribution, given the likelihood of their having daughters, who may be beginning to encounter the glass ceiling.

So, what next for this timely and undoubtedly, unfinished debate? It seems that there is only one logical step – and that is to pursue the type of collaborative, focused strategy which seemed to naturally flow from the discussion.  To effectively channel the energy and momentum into proposed policy or legislation – with the clear understanding that diversity means better boards, better business and better society.

Olwen Dawe is a member of the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s Board of Directors, she is a Consultant and Policy Analyst, specialising in gender equality and diversity, and is currently working with the national theatre, the Abbey Theatre, on their gender equality and diversity strategy.

This piece was originally published in the autumn 2017 edition of Women Mean Business magazine