Wednesday 26 October 2016

Promoting women is not about a battle of the sexes, it's about what's best for society

Published 17/07/2014 | 02:30

Enda Kenny, Joan Burton and Paul Kehoe with the newly appointed junior ministers earlier this year
Enda Kenny, Joan Burton and Paul Kehoe with the newly appointed junior ministers earlier this year

Male, middle-aged and middle-class – the three Ms are the qualifications with most clout when it comes to unlocking boardroom doors to would-be directors. Take it as read that being white oils the hinges, too.

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A financial collapse had to happen before it was accepted that bank boards with a homogeneous membership were dangerous constructs. Has the lesson that diversity matters been fully absorbed within decision-making circles? Clearly not, judging by the cabinet reshuffle.

The lack of both junior and senior ministers – most glaring in the junior ranks, where Enda Kenny saw fit to promote men exclusively – shows the male bias continues to hold sway. Such an extraordinary omission propagates built-in limitations in policy-making.

Women's participation in public life matters too much to pay lip service to it. Let's look at how tokenistic attitudes are. In 2011, the Programme for Government announced steps to ensure all state boards had "at least 40pc of each gender".

More than three years on, has that target been reached? In some cases, a real effort is under way. In other cases, dream on. Let's start with NAMA. The National Asset Management Agency has a board of seven. One of them is a woman. As percentages go, that's a substandard 14pc. NAMA was started from scratch at the end of 2009 so it had an ideal opportunity to set up on a best-practice footing. It hasn't even come close.

CIE has 12 members, of whom three are women: 25pc. Not a great showing, even with a female chair.

The ESB has 12 board members, four of them women. Percentage? Thirty-three per cent. A little better but not good enough. Bord Gais is hitting the target: it has seven members, of whom three are women, including a female chair, making 42pc. Ditto the RTE Authority, with 12 members including five women (41pc – on target).

The new Irish Water has 11 members, four of them women – a female chair, but still somewhat below par at 36pc.

On publicly listed companies, female representation at board level is 9pc in Ireland compared with a European average of 16pc, the Institute of Directors in Ireland (IoD) said in a report last year. Woeful.

Clearly, there's a problem – and it's simplistic to suggest women can't handle the cut and thrust.

More plausibly, they can't scale the high walls of the boys' network. This is also a problem for women trying to make a contribution in political life.

Here's why change matters. Groupthink exacts a price, as Peter Nyberg pointed out in his 2011 report on the causes of the banking crisis. He said: "On boards, there appears often to have existed a collegiate and consensual style with little serious challenge or debate." Later, he said: "Presentation of diverging views or initiatives were often not appreciated and only occasionally sanctioned."

Women face a variety of hurdles, among them a lack of access to the connections men can tap into. That was among the messages in the report from the IoD.

Seven in 10 female directors surveyed by the institute mentioned obstacles en route to the boardroom. Again and again, a lack of transparency in the appointments system was highlighted.

The IoD's report also referred to a continuing over-reliance on the "directors' club" where "interlocking" or multiple directorships are held – and insufficient effort is made to explore alternatives. Enda's selection ignored a broader talent pool, too.

Groupthink apart, why does diversity matter? And I don't just mean gender, but skills, age, background and nationality.

Diversity is crucial to the success of any business or organisation because it feeds into more informed decision-making. "A diverse board is more capable of understanding potential risks and identifying the impact of such risks to the business and its various stakeholders," says the IoD report.

Of course, appointments need to be made on merit. I'm not advocating promotion of unqualified women. But I find it difficult to believe that Ireland lacks able women to fill key roles. Arguably, women need to be more proactive in putting themselves forward, but there also ought to be a transparent appointments system – not one in which places are offered as political cronyism or other forms of patronage.

This isn't a battle of the sexes, a drive to prioritise women at the expense of men. It's about what's best for society. The under-representation of women in ministries and on boards, from state to publicly listed companies, ought to be a source of concern to everyone. It means decisions that affect our lives are being taken by people drawn from a narrow, self-perpetuating background.

If informed decision-making springs from an assortment of viewpoints and experiences being considered, how can a three-Ms board do its job adequately? Often, members attended the same schools and universities, and socialise in the same set. For the most part, their outlooks are analogous.

Some semi-states are attempting to change this unhealthy uniformity, while EU legislative proposals would see listed companies obliged to give preference to the under-represented gender, until a 40pc target is met by 2020. But it's debatable, at the current rate, whether Ireland can meet that.

The bottom line is that women are an untapped resource and ignoring any talent supply is wasteful. At least women who aspire to join boards can help themselves, with professional training, networking, seeking mentors and joining relevant organisations.

No doubt women in politics are applying similar strategies – but when the Taoiseach doesn't meet them halfway, it is, inevitably, disheartening. Are minds closed too tightly?

Irish Independent

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