Saturday 22 July 2017

Ireland enjoys a good image. Now it needs action

Sherri Stevens
Sherri Stevens

Sherri Stevens

As the head of the Women's Executive Network, diversity has been my focus for the last two years. I've asked large professional firms, management consultancies, MNCs, SMEs and startups their views on diversity.

Across international markets - Canada, the US, the UK and Ireland - the response is the same. Everyone knows that diversity on boards is better than group think to drive the financial performance of a company.

However, getting there is a whole other story. In fact it seems to be quite the stumbling block.

In Ireland, only 12pc of ISEQ board directors are women. Twenty of the 50 listed ISEQ companies have no female board representation. There are no available figures on LGBTQ, minority of disability representation.

Depending on which survey you read, the gender pay gap in Ireland is between 14pc and 20pc.

So despite the proliferation of professional women-focused events for the last few years in Ireland, what has actually changed?

I have experience in trying to improve the ratios in Canada. As well as WXN, I head up the Canadian Board Diversity Council.

This is a government-supported organisation focused on advancing diversity on the boards of Canada's Top 500 companies.

We particularly focus on representation of gender, visible minorities, Aboriginal peoples, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ community.

While progress is being made, it is too slow. Diverse representation on the boards of Canada's Top 500 companies has increased, but only 1-2pc per year.

Last year's figures showed a decrease in the pace of change from the year before. Currently women hold 21.6pc of the board seats in FP500 organisations (Financial Post premier ranking for Corporate Canada). However, at this rate we will not meet the 30pc target set for 2020 any time soon.

So if progress is slow in Canada, a country with government support for diversity, what will be achieved in Ireland without it?

There is a grave danger that all the events held to promote and highlight the success of female leaders will in time become nothing more than enjoyable distractions, or talking shops, achieving little.

Ireland's diversity credentials couldn't be higher globally at the moment. The Marriage Equality referendum result reverberated around the world. The new Taoiseach is an impeccable example of diversity. Ireland is on the diversity map for sure.

That said, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's oft-used description of a special place in hell for women who don't help others might also apply to gay leaders with multicultural backgrounds who consider pulling up the ladder behind them.

Business needs a little assistance in achieving its diversity targets. Our own experience in Canada shows that unless something is an obligation it won't be done, and even at that, it will be done slowly.

In the interim, awards such as WXN's Most Powerful Women: Top 25 are valuable as a platform for women to showcase their talents. Every year we see more and more women showing their achievements because, not only is it okay to be successful, but it's important for that success to be seen.

A little clout from Government would make all the difference. A Minister with responsibility for achievement of targets would give momentum and validation to the cause. It would help for the business community to develop a widely held expectation of companies to build diverse boards or explain why they haven't.

Business organisations need to nurture a viewpoint that diverse companies are those that are the right - if not only - companies to do business with.

Otherwise we'll be looking to the next generation for the courage to tackle the challenge.

Sherri Stevens is owner and ceo of WXN (Women's Executive Network

Irish Independent

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