Improving diversity on the boards of large corporations must involve more than addressing a lack of female representation, says Melissa Scully, a director of corporate governance at Deloitte.
In her role at Deloitte, Scully advises the private and public sectors on board effectiveness and corporate governance.
"Improving diversity is not just about increasing gender balance on boards. The ultimate outcome of a well-balanced board is a group that brings a variety of perspectives and exhibits diversity of thinking," she told the Irish Independent.
This will require "going beyond gender to consider other demographic characteristics such as race, age and socioeconomic background, as well as cognitive diversity such as educational background and functional experience," she said.
Scully says these are areas that boards also lack diversity in, "not just here in Ireland, and more needs to be done to increase the pace of change".
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of directorships on publicly listed companies here are held by men.
Of the 339 directorship roles at Irish PLCs last year, 263 were held by men compared to 76 held by women.
Board members are overwhelmingly Irish, white and drawn from similar educational and professional backgrounds.
Irish companies have been slower to diversify at board level in comparison to other countries, Scully says.
"Although the benefits of gender balance are clear - better business outcomes and improved performance - we have been slow in Ireland to increase female representation on boards. The lower rate of progress is not because we do not have the talent, rather we have underutilised talent.
"There are a number of factors behind the low level of female representation, such as recruitment processes that don't promote diversity, the need for a cultural shift, and a small market with reliance on existing networks and contacts."
Nonetheless things are starting to move in the right direction, but "more needs to be done to increase momentum".
A common theme emphasised by the experts is the value of networking.
This includes attending formal events put on by the business community including the Institute of Directors, chambers of commerce or Ibec, as well as specific governance events and training.
Scully says networking is critical. "Going to those type of [formal] events to keep updated, understand key developments and to meet people is really important."
Not all networking pays off though. This can lead to frustration for those who put in the leg work and may come away with nothing to show at the end of it.
"The second piece is around informal networking, meeting with board members who can provide connections to other contacts, which can lead to opportunities," Scully says.
Female leaders at various stages of their career can benefit from this.
"Whether you are thinking about your first board role, or starting out at an early stage in your board career with a charity or public sector board position, and you want to move into the larger corporates, connecting with board members in that space is really important," Scully adds.
When it comes to increasing female participation at board level, she says lots of people talk about the benefits of gender balance, however "people need to move from talking the talk to walking the walk".
"There needs to be clear leadership from boards that diversity is important and we need to see that recognised in new female board appointments, as well as initiatives within organisations to develop female leaders."
There are a number of more structural and process pieces that also need to be looked at, according to Scully.
"For example, many companies have policies in place that mean executives or senior management can't serve on another organisation's board, which is a barrier," she says.
Another challenge stems from the recruitment process and what companies are looking for, as often the criteria they are considering is too restrictive. "It is common that [companies] want previous PLC experience, and also traditional skillsets, but they really need to be broadening the search pool because that will open the door to new and different candidates. This will bring not only gender diversity, but diversity of thinking."
While investors say they are keen to see more diversity on boards, this means bringing non-traditional skillsets to boards and individuals with less corporate board experience, which the same investors may then baulk at.
"While finance expertise and previous CEO experience are important for boards, they also need to look at different skills to reflect the evolving role of the board, such as technology, digital, HR and sustainability. Boards need to widen and deepen the search pool, because ultimately that will open the door to more candidates," she says.