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At executive level, it’s more than just numbers, it’s about changing culture

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Gillian Harford

Country Executive 30% Club Ireland

There is no doubt that the gender balance numbers at executive levels in Ireland are challenging and, while changing the numbers is the starting point, the focus is now on developing a cultural shift towards greater inclusion.

Recent figures from the Balance for Better Business review have shown that only 16.4% of the positions on boards of Irish listed companies are held by women, which puts us well behind the European average of 26%; and almost a third of Irish listed companies have no female board members at all.

The position is only marginally better at senior management levels, with recent CSO figures showing only 28% of senior executive posts held by women – and the figure is fairly consistent across industry sectors. So, in terms of balance at the senior decision-making levels across Irish companies, whether in STEM or more traditional fields, there is still significant room for improvement in achieving greater diversity, and not just in terms of gender.

What are companies doing about it?

First and foremost, the good news is that the increasing commitment of companies to be more diverse reflects their recognition that a diversity of opinion and decision-making helps business to grow and prosper.

While many companies are striving to change the numbers at executive levels, there is a real shift in terms of how they are going about it. Traditionally, diversity strategies focused at entry level, or securing diverse talent through senior hiring, but we now are seeing the creation of more inclusive cultures and an increasing focus on enhancing retention strategies across all levels within organisations.

Where three quarters of all senior appointments come from within the company, according to the CSO data, we are seeing greater investment in monitoring senior executive engagement, stronger support for more agile work arrangements, especially at more senior levels than previously. We are seeing a greater focus on encouraging and paying for family leave, and improved supports for female executives as returners to the workforce from short- or long-term family leave. Moreover, we’ve also seen a rise in mentoring and sponsorship programmes, particularly in sectors where there are serious skills shortages.

For many companies, their diversity strategy no longer operates as a standalone initiative but is fully integrated into the employee experience. As one of our member company explains, ‘having a diverse workforce isn’t enough unless everyone feels comfortable in contributing, so diversity means we are here, but inclusion means we are heard, and that’s the standard our employees expect us to deliver on.’

And it’s not just about the employee experience

We are starting to see companies talk about a fully integrated diversity approach in everything they do – for employees, for customers, within the supply chain and as an investor strategy. At a recent 30% Club event, one of our member organisations described their diversity and inclusion strategy in terms of ‘workforce, workplace and marketplace – thinking about how Diversity & Inclusion becomes part of our DNA in everything that we do, both internal and external to the company.’This becomes an important factor where many companies operate on an outsourced basis for parts of their operations, yet need to invoke a consistent culture and behaviour set across the end-to-end experience.

How important are the numbers?

Ultimately, it has to be about changing the numbers, as what gets measured, gets done. But counting is no longer enough. Instead, it’s about achieving better balance in opportunities, better balance in appointments, and encouraging talent equally. In certain sectors in Ireland, we are now at full employment, and the skills requirements are growing – if we can tap into all talent, that’s the way we achieve progress.

As employers, we are also learning that if we don’t take a broader and inclusive view of gender diversity, we run the risk of excluding male leaders from the discussion, which should never be the motivation behind any strides for gender diversity. Real gender balance is not a zero-sum game, where men lose and women gain – it’s about creating better opportunities for talent, strength, progress and commercial success because of the power that balance brings to discussions, innovation, decisions and ultimately, to performance.

About the 30% Club Ireland

Established in Ireland in 2015, the 30% Club Ireland now comprises 240 of Ireland’s largest employers, across the financial and professional services, technology, construction, agriculture and public sectors, representing more than 500,000 employees in Ireland, who are committed to greater gender balance at board and executive levels.

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