Sunday 4 December 2016

Round Table: Networking is crucial for every woman in business

Studies show women are still falling behind when it comes to financial planning and reaching top management positions. But many have beaten those odds.

Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30

Aisling Dodgson, Head of Treasury, Investec with Julie Fenton, Assurance Partner EY, Orla Coughlan, Chief Human Resources Officer at EIR and Orla Nugent MBA Programme Director. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Aisling Dodgson, Head of Treasury, Investec with Julie Fenton, Assurance Partner EY, Orla Coughlan, Chief Human Resources Officer at EIR and Orla Nugent MBA Programme Director. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

We brought four of Ireland's most senior professional women together to ask how they did it and get their advice for other women. Investec head of treasury Aisling Dodgson, EY assurance partner Julie Fenton, UCD Smurfit School MBA programme director Orla Nugent and Eir's human resources chief Orla Coughlan spoke to Sarah McCabe

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Do you think women are less likely to take responsibility for their personal finances?

ON: "I'm smiling at that one because my Dad used to basically hand his salary over to my Mum. She handled everything when it came to the family's finances, so I don't think that's the case. But thinking back to my 20s, if I was told to speak to a financial advisor, I would have thought, 'Well I don't have a whole lot right now, so why bother?' It's actually not about that, it's about learning - learning what you should be doing and starting that engagement early."

AD: "Women are more risk-averse, definitely. Certainly when it comes to personal finances and how we invest. That's where having an independent advisor can be so helpful.

"A lot of women will just leave their savings in cash - but interest rates are actually negative at the moment, so you could be paying institutions to keep your cash. It's not a good investment strategy. Bring in the professionals.

"I read a statistic recently that said 80pc of men die whilst married or with a partner, while 80pc of women die single because women live longer. So you should always get on top of your financial situation as a woman, whatever your views, because at some point you're going to be in charge of the purse strings."

What advice would you give to a young woman starting out?

AD: "Everything you save in your 20s and 30s will be worth so much more to you later on, because of the value of compounding. And if you start saving at that time of your life, you'll be able to put your money into riskier assets, which offer a greater chance of return, because you have the time left in your career to afford to take that risk.

"But the average age that someone starts a pension is 36 in Ireland - meaning most people have already lost 10-plus years, had they started in their 20s. It's very hard to tell somebody in their 20s to start saving and thinking about a mortgage and pension. Realistically, it happens in your 30s.

"It's never too late to start. And it doesn't actually take a lot of time to get your financial house in order. If you sit down with a financial adviser and put two hours into it, you will achieve an awful lot."

OC: "I did a quick poll on this the other night with some women with whom I went to the Beyonce concert in Croke Park. None of them had given any serious thinking to retirement and one of them was a qualified accountant. They were thinking about what a wedding would cost or planning one.

"That was really quite shocking. I turned it around and said, 'Do you think your future husband, or whoever might be your future husband, is worried about it?'

"One of the things we are doing at my company at the moment is a project to take the fear out of pensions. It's a scary word and an uncool word to millennials. They think, 'That's about getting old and I don't want to think about that yet.'

"I think the vocabulary around it intimidates people and I definitely think women in their 20s are focused on other things."

AD: "You just can't afford to rely on the state pension. I was reading something today about women only saving the equivalent of a pension that pays out around €3,000 a year - which isn't enough to fill the car and get your hair done when you think about it in monthly payments.

"Nobody builds a career on their own, you need to bring in trusted advisors, mentors, who can help you along the way. And it's likewise for financial planning - you need to bring in the specialists to help you know where you are and where you're going.

"It takes maybe two hours a year and doing it on an annual basis. Then, depending on where you are in your life, making changes. As you get older, you're making sure you are reducing risk when it comes to your investments and so on."

Is society still to blame for women's under-performance in top management and financial planning?

OC: "It does comes down to society as well. I lived in America for part of my career and was responsible for American employees.

"I think that because there just aren't the same kind of almost paternalistic pension supports available in the US, young Americans are way more financially orientated in terms of planning. It's societal."

JF: "I've had a similar experience (Julie is originally from Australia).

"In Australia, there is a state pension, but you have to qualify for it. You assume you're not going to, so you have an eye to your pension much earlier than people do here."

ON: "I work with an organisation called Bizworld, which encourages entrepreneurship in children. The kids set up a business and buy shares and so on. That kind of business acumen isn't taught in schools. But children lap it up.

"I definitely think schools need to make kids better aware of these kinds of things. They are life skills."

What is holding women back when it comes to career advancement?

ON: "If you look at undergraduate level, it's a 50:50 split between men and women. If you look at postgraduate level, it's 75pc male, 25pc female. Those figures are from the Higher Education Authority. In our MBA programme, it is about 70pc male, 30pc female. I think part of that is about confidence, which is still a challenge.

"Women hold ourselves back. Not applying for the postgrad degree or the promotion, or thinking that it's going to be too hard, or thinking we can't balance everything, or thinking, 'I don't have all of the skills needed for it.'

"Whereas men, as we all know, will go for it if they have even 10pc of the skills required.

"Women also tend to look at mentors, rather than sponsors. A mentor is someone who can talk to you, guide you, give you advice. But a sponsor is someone who is sitting in a boardroom like this, who has your name on a page and when opportunities come up, they'll say, 'What about Orla?' You need that sponsor, male or female."

OC: "Regardless of where they went to school, the young Irish male enters the workforce with a big network and they use that network. With women, I think there's this fear that if they get involved with female networking events, their male colleagues will think they're a feminist. We've got to encourage women to make it part of their DNA to actively network.

"I also look at some of the mothers of young children at Eir and they are rushing home to their kids after work or to attend school events or whatever. And I can guarantee that their husband is attending at least one or two networking events a month - saying he has to because it's for his career."

JF: "When I'm giving advice to younger professional girls who are going for a promotion, I say to them, 'Here are the five people who you need to have a rapport with. Go and tell them you are going for a promotion and you'd like to have a coffee with them, tell them who you are.' And the girls say, 'Oh, that's a bit false.' That's real life!

"Networking is a conversation, that's all it is. We spend a bit of time with some of our business-development guys, myself and one of the other female partners, just talking about how we do it, how we got comfortable doing it.

"Some people are shocked that we don't swallow books of tax legislation before going out to a meeting. We just get to know people.

"At EY we'll always have someone who can do just about everything. I don't need to know how to do everything. Have that confidence to not have the answer every time."

ON: "One of the things we've brought in in the past few years on the MBA is a leadership-development programme. A core part of that is about networking, although I'm not a fan of the word 'networking', I prefer to call it relationship-building.

"A lot of people coming into an MBA might be 10 or 15 years into their career. Getting to the next stage of their career at that point is not necessarily going to be because they are technically brilliant, it's going to be because they are good at building and sustaining relationships.

"It's a skill. For some people, it comes naturally, they don't realise they are doing it and for others it just takes practice."

AD: "Go for the job and if it doesn't work, always get feedback. If you don't get it, find out why. And it's completely fine not to get it, because it will still move you forward - it gets you thinking about developing your career and highlight your interest. It's not a closed door."

JF: "Showing interest in your career sparks other people's interest in you and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

OC: "In the last 10 years, particularly when dealing with more senior women, so many times I've had to approach them and ask them would they be interested in promotion opportunities. Too many times, the response has been, 'How will I balance things?' Or they say, 'Ah, sure I wouldn't be the right person.'"

ON: "Nobody is going to manage your career for you, you have to manage it yourself.

"Sometime you have to go for a role that may not be an obvious fit, because it gives you a route to where you want to be or that's how it works in your organisation to rise up the ladder.

"Map out your career but know that it's not going to be a 100pc fit all of the time, it just has to be enough of a fit and a step in the right direction."

What advice do you have for women thinking of starting a family or women struggling to juggle their families with their careers?

JF: "My husband is more flexible in terms of commitments, so we actually run a calendar; it's really quite sad but it's very practical and it works. I have a commitment at least one night a week or he might be away - but it's fine because we make it work and we talk about it.

"Partners need to look together at what they both need to do to help their career thrive while managing home life.

"I would also say that if you are taking time out of the workforce for whatever reason - whether to travel or to have children or to look after an elderly parent - you do have an obligation to help people manage you.

"I look at some lads in our office and when a girl goes off on maternity leave they haven't got a clue, they are breaking their hearts in terms of what is the right conversation to have. They don't want to presuppose anything - does she want to stay in touch? Does she not want to stay in touch?

"So you've got to be in your own driving seat all the time. Take charge of where you want to be.

"And you have to live with the consequences of your own decisions as well. I think it's important to understand the implications. If you do want to take the 12 months off and not stay connected, things will move. Someone will be doing what you did before you left. Staying in touch and staying relevant will probably have different outcomes to totally disconnecting."

AD: "When you talk about confidence - relevance gives you confidence. When you're on maternity leave, it's not a bad idea to occasionally call into the office, to stay connected and relevant. There's a tendency to shy away from that."

ON: "There are loads of different ways to stay relevant through further education, including digital learning. And I always say to people who are thinking about going back to education, 'It's not just about what you're learning, it's about the people who are in the class with you.' You're staying relevant and you're expanding your network.

"A friend of mine went back to work recently after maternity leave and all she did on her first day was go around the office and say hello to everybody. I thought it was brilliant. She didn't sit at the desk and put her head down, she went around to everyone and found out what was going on with them.

"It's something I wouldn't think of doing but it was a really smart and clever thing to do."

AD: "For companies who have introduced flexible working, it needs to be available to both men and women. It may be a case of someone saying, 'I want to run a marathon on Wednesday morning, so I'm going to come in later that day.' That's flexible working.

"It might also be a person who needs to take a child to an activity, or take an older parent to a hospital appointment. From an employer's perspective, you need to make it accessible to everyone, because otherwise it becomes a female issue, which is not what anyone wants. It's a lifestyle thing for everyone."

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