Business Irish

Friday 16 November 2018

Are women really as powerful in Irish business as we think?

Ireland is fifth in the world for female economic power - but there's still room for improvement

Top woman: Aishling Hassell of Airbnb
Top woman: Aishling Hassell of Airbnb
Leonara O'Brien
Cathriona Hallahan

Tanya Sweeney

The US and UK may be global behemoths in many respects - but when it comes to female economic power, Ireland seemingly leaves them in the shade.

Taking into account measures suh as the percentage of women in the workforce and the number of years females spent in education, a University of Cambridge study has observed that women's position in the Irish workplace is going from strength to strength.

Ireland ranks fifth worldwide, behind Australia, Norway, Denmark and Finland. And on the face of it, certain other variables paint a wholly rosy picture. Women are in positions of seniority in a staggering number of global giants in Ireland (see panel right). So far, so impressive, yet scratch the surface and all is not quite what it seems.

The latest figures from the EU Commission show that the gender pay gap in Ireland is still significant: women in Ireland are paid 14pc less than men (an increase from 12.6pc in 2009).

According to EU statistics published in October 2013, Irish women make up just 10.5pc of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in Ireland, significantly below the EU average of 18.6pc. Female representation on Irish State boards is better, at 36.2pc.

A survey published by Catalyst in January shows that only one in 10 directors of Irish publicly listed companies is a woman. Add to this the grim reality that only 16.3pc of TDs in Dail Eireann are women, and suddenly the picture starts to look a little more complex. Somewhere in the middle of all this data, presumably, lies the real story.

Aisling Hassell has been working as Airbnb's Global Head of Customer Experience for 14 months. The short-term holiday rental company is rapidly expanding - it has 300 Irish staff now, but announced plans last month to hire another 200. About 25pc of its executive staff in this country are women, while globally 60pc of its employees are female. "Tech companies are innovative, progressive and fast-paced, and diversity is huge for us," she explains.

Blame it on good old workplace misogyny, but a basic tenet of business hinted that assertive female bosses are seen as "bitches", while their male counterparts are simply powerful. A cliché, perhaps… but they do exist for a reason. Yet in this new world order, the age-old image no longer holds firm.

"It's all about collaboration and moving forward in an effective way, especially with a millennial workforce," says Aisling Hassell. "Leadership no longer requires anyone to be aggressive or to resort to bullyboy tactics. Those attributes could have been the path to success 15 or 20 years ago, but not any more."

Cathriona Hallahan rose up the ranks to become MD of Microsoft Ireland. Recalling a moment in her own career she hints that, in the shimmy up the career ladder, Irish women still need to speak out louder.

"I assumed that if I worked hard, promotion would be the obvious next step, but that wasn't the case," she says. "Some of my male colleagues were very articulate about their ambitions and what they wanted to do next in the company. In one case, my boss hired someone else to replace himself, and when I asked why I hadn't been considered for the job, he replied, 'well, you never told me you wanted it'."

And so the question looms large; does the glass ceiling still exist in Ireland? Not only is there a dearth of women right at the top, but there is a significant drop-off of women in middle-management roles.

"There is a correlation between women in middle management and women who are entrepreneurial," says Jean O'Sullivan, manager of female entrepreneurship of Enterprise Ireland. "A lot of entrepreneurs come from being in the workplace for a while. They see what's missing and spin out with their own idea."

Mindful of the inequalities between male and female entrepreneurs, Jean has created a number of initiatives designed to encourage female entrepreneurship (for more information on these, go to In 2011, 7pc of all Irish export-focused businesses were female-led. Now, the figure stands at 27pc. Of these, 85pc were female-led tech businesses. While Irish female business owners are enjoying a purple patch, the same issues appear to crop up with regularity. Some women cite the hangover from the previous generation, where women were urged to leave the workforce upon getting married. Others contend that maternity leave can disrupt the momentum or the upward trajectory in a woman's career.

However, the situation is changing for some. "There are companies which specialise in helping corporations and public-service bodies to maintain high-performing female colleagues," explains Leonora O'Brien, CEO of Pharmapod, a software company aimed at pharmacists and doctors.

But it's clear, too, that the work-life balance will continue to be a concern for most women. By dint of sheer social conditioning, mothers are often the first ports of call when it comes to parenting duties. Certainly, there is room for improvement when it comes to formal childcare arrangements and the creation of shared parental leave (which will come into effect in the UK this year).

"It's wonderful to see how things have changed, but there are still many challenges for female entrepreneurs," says Jean O'Sullivan. "Among them are confidence issues, the fact that women have less access to finance, they're more risk-averse, and they are lacking in some tech skills and appropriate networking techniques. It has come to bear over the last three years but there is one of those [challenges] in every female I have worked with."

Paula Fitzsimons, founder/director of Going For Growth, a peer-led initiative that matches female entrepreneurs with others further along in their careers, says: "When it comes to applying for jobs, a woman won't go for a job unless she ticks every box, while many men will go in with half the job requirements. With women, it's definitely a confidence thing."

However, the future for the next generation of female businesswomen seems bright. The Irish chapter of the 30 Percent Club - a group that aims to reach a 30pc female gender balance on Irish boards and executive management level by 2020 - launched amid fanfare in January. And while Irish entrepreneurs are also being fostered outside the tech industry, another heartening change is afoot in the form of a 30pc gender quota bill designed to address the gender imbalance in the Dail.

Female networks such as Growing For Growth, NRDC Female Founders and DCU's Female Propeller initiatives are swelling in numbers, providing young women with visible and accessible role models. Schools are making a concerted effort to push encourage women into STEM (science technology, education and maths), coding and business modes.

"I give talks to girls in schools and it's great to tell younger women to set their sights high and that no dream is impossible," says Leonora O'Brien. "It certainly wasn't the message I got while growing up."

"Look at it this way," says Aisling Hassell, "no one could climb Everest until Edmund Hillary did it. It's all about showing people the art of the possible."

Girl Power: Ireland's most influential businesswomen

1 Cathriona Hallahan rose up the ranks  - via accounts, operations and global projects - to become the MD of Microsoft Ireland in February 2013, and she currently heads up a team of 1,200 staff.

2 A former WMB (Women mean Business) Businesswoman winner Louise Phelan has run the Irish arm of Paypal as VP of Global Operations since 2011. She has also recently been dubbed "Ireland's most trusted leader".

3 Apple's VP of European Operations Cathy Kearney hit the headlines in 2011 for making Apple $22bn almost single-handedly with her business savvy direction.

4 Anne Kelleher became the first Irish female to be appointed as a vice president at Intel. To date, the smart businesswoman is one of only three Irish people to hold the title.

5 As Glanbia's Group Managing Director, Siobhan Talbot was honoured recently by the Women's Executive Network as one of Ireland's top 25 most powerful women. And with her reported salary topping €1.63m (as of last week), she is one of the highest-paid women in Irish industry. Little wonder she's been called "Ireland's first lady of agribusiness".

6 Maeve Carton has held a number of roles since becoming Finance Director of CRH, Ireland's biggest company, in 1988. Known to be cautious and not to say anything that she cannot stand over, she has been cited as a future CEO of the company which has a revenue of more than €18bn.

7 In 2013 Anne O'Leary became the first native Irish CEO in more than a decade to lead Vodafone Ireland. O'Leary was previously the MD at BT before joining Vodafone in 2008 as business and enterprise director. She is also a board member of UCC and the Dublin Chamber of Commerce.

8 As chairperson of Communicorp and board member of Independent News and Media (INM), Lucy Gaffney is the most powerful woman in Irish media. A graduate of the College of Marketing and Design and self-proclaimed UCD dropout, Gaffney has been involved with several major firms since 1985, including Esat Telecom Group and Digicel Group.

9 Regina Moran began working with Fujitsu in 2004 when they merged with her company DMR Consulting, leading to her appointment as CEO of Fujitsu Services in 2006. In 2009, all Fujitsu companies merged and Regina became CEO of Fujitsu Ireland. She has a team of 350 people.

10 Rose Hynes's most recent appointment was to Irish Water, where she is chairwoman. She also chairs former state energy company Bord Gais and Shannon Airport Authority. Hynes is also director at Total Produce and investment firm One51 and is a former member of the Court Risk Committee at Bank of Ireland.

11 Director of ads-policy operations EMEA at Google, Kathryn O'Donoghue works at the EMEA, which provides technical, sales and operations support to customers in more than 50 countries worldwide.

12 Myra Garrett is managing partner of one of Ireland's top law firms, William Fry, and specialises in corporate law. Garret advises several top Irish companies on corporate and stock-exchange issues.

Irish Independent

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