Business Irish

Thursday 18 September 2014

Former bank boss blasts Irish culture of sexual harassment

Ex-KPMG director details unwanted attention

Published 12/05/2013 | 05:00

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Margaret Sweeney

One of Ireland's most high- profile female bosses, Margaret Sweeney, the former chief executive of Postbank and Aer Rianta, has spoken out against the rampant sexual harassment culture that is blighting corporate Ireland.

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From wolf-whistling to groping and sexual propositions, the businesswoman has blasted the harassment she saw women endure from clients during her 15-year stint at Ireland's leading tax and advisory company, KPMG.

Ms Sweeney rose to the top of KPMG, becoming a director, before moving to Dublin Airport, where she served as deputy and acting chief executive of the semi-state.

Ms Sweeney was then headhunted to run Ireland's first new bank in a generation, when she was picked to lead Postbank, a joint venture between An Post and Belgian bank Fortis. She has also been a board member of Fas and Teagasc.

Last week she told an audience at Norah Casey's Irish Tatler Business Academy how the unwanted attention only stopped when she built up the courage to tell her unwanted advancers to "f*** off." But she said she found it difficult to foster her feisty side as it went against the ethos in KPMG to always behave with the upmost professionalism.

"When I joined KPMG there was about four women in the organisation in my year and I think there was about three women on a floor of about 100 people. Clients had literally never seen female auditors before."

She said the harassment took place when she went to visit the clients assigned to her.

"I remember going down to a cigarette factory on the South Circular Road. They had a factory floor – and I remember having to go down to the order room and all you would get was wolf-whistles as you would walk through the floor.

"I remember another factory plant that made toilets and there was a production manager there who decided to sit on my lap.

"He used to go around groping the girls. The girls in the office used to say to me, the photocopier was behind a door, and they said 'don't stand behind the door because your man comes down and squeezes you up against the wall'. So I'd have to put the lid up on the machine, close the cover, press the button and hop out quickly.

"Then there was the year of the really bad snow and we had to report for a deadline in the UK, so we had to stay on in the Arklow Bay Hotel and the only other people staying there were ESB men fixing power lines that had gone down. And this manager was staying in the hotel and he used to go around telling the girls 'I'm sterile, I'm safe' and I just thought 'oh my God'. So every time he'd say this to me I'd wonder: 'How am I going to get out of this?'"

Speaking of her reluctance to stand up to him in a forthright manner because she felt it conflicted with the ethos of the accountancy firm, she said: "We were really indoctrinated in KPMG about being very professional and I was very diligent and conscious of this at all times. I was afraid to say anything to him until one day he sat on my lap. So I said to him 'would you ever get the f*** off'."

Publisher Norah Casey, who co-ordinated the event and chaired the panel discussion, congratulated Ms Sweeney for her stance: "Now that's how to get on in life. Thank God you did and that you were brave enough to do it."

Irish Independent

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