Tuesday 25 October 2016

Equality will be when women reach the top and it's no big deal

Niamh Gallagher

Published 13/07/2015 | 02:30

Deirdre Foley, Owner and CEO, D2 Private
Deirdre Foley, Owner and CEO, D2 Private

Irish businesswomen are in the news with the purchase of Clery's by Natrium investments, which is 20pc-owned by Sligo-born Deirdre Foley.

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 Much has been made of the fact that she is a woman, or an 'alpha female', according to a London business magazine. Not quite so much attention has been paid to the other two players in Natrium - John Skelly and Ronan Daly - or, more specifically, their 'alpha' status or lack of it.

This is getting tiresome for women. Boys are leaders and girls are bossy. 'Ambitious' is an endorsement for a man and a veiled insult to a woman. And 'alpha' is what every guy wants to be, but not exactly a positive way to describe a successful woman.

Yet we have so many successful businesswomen in Ireland that we should - at the very least - have the vocabulary to describe them.

Anne Heraty was, until recently, the only female CEO of a publicly listed Irish company. She built the business and brought it public in 1996, working with her husband Paul. Now operating across 32 offices in nine countries and employing more than 8,000 people, CPL is a huge Irish success story.

Siobhan Talbot joins Heraty as the second-ever woman to head up a company on the Irish Stock Exchange. An accountant by training, she worked her way up through Waterford foods before it became Glanbia, holding a variety of senior roles, more recently group Finance Director and now CEO.

Both women have exceptional careers, are inspiring leaders for other women and true Irish success stories - their experiences make us proud.

And there are women like them across sectors - Breege O'Donoghue and Margaret Heffernan in retail, Louise Phelan and Caithriona Hallahan in tech and Carolann Lenehan and Anne O'Leary in telecoms. The list goes on.

So why then are these stories still unique? Why are we interested in talking about the fact that these women are women, suggesting that their success is achieved despite their female status? Shouldn't their gender just be a fact, and by now not even an interesting one?

Not yet. Why? Because these women are still very much the exception rather than the rule. The numbers don't lie.

The National Women's Council of Ireland figures show that just 9pc of directors on public boards - the most influential positions in Irish corporate life - are female, versus an EU average (dismal, but still better than us) of 16pc.

Grant Thornton, looking at the global picture, found women in Ireland hold 21pc of senior management positions, lower than the 24pc average internationally, ranking us in the bottom 25pc.

These findings sit alongside CSO data that shows women are more qualified than men - more than half of those aged between 25 and 35 have a third-level qualification compared with 40pc of their male counterparts; but they work fewer hours and earn less.

It seems being a woman in the senior echelons of Irish corporate life is still an extraordinary thing.

In her bestselling book, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, shares her advice with women seeking to progress in business and encourages them to 'Lean In'. She takes the bossy issue head on, naming the gendered use of the word and - just like author Chimananda Ngozi Adichie in her recent speech to women graduates of Wellesley College in Massachusetts - tells us all to get over being liked. It's not part of the job.

The problem with Sandberg's book is that - despite Sandberg's best efforts to engage men - it has become a women's read, suggesting that the things that make women successful in business are different to those that work for men.

Yet they are the same. To succeed in business, a leader must have a vision and be able to communicate and motivate people around it. She needs to be smart - and expert - in the area she is focused on, have a head for numbers and an understanding of, and appreciation for risk. And she needs to know her own weaknesses and surround herself with people who fill those gaps and challenge her.

But because there are fewer - very few - women that hold these leadership positions, we pick them out as role models, success stories, something to aspire to. We hold award ceremonies to celebrate them and profile them in women's magazines. Our intentions are good - if we see more of these women it will normalise female success in business and we will make progress.

Yet - as the discussion this week about Deirdre Foley shows - we are still unable to talk about women's success in business the same way we talk about men's; as admirable but expected. As normal.

When we get there, now that will be real success.

Irish Independent

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