Friday 13 December 2019

Fiona Muldoon: Simple changes can deliver lasting diversity and business success


'Gender diversity generates much debate and the case for greater gender balance on boards is well enough known' (stock photo)
'Gender diversity generates much debate and the case for greater gender balance on boards is well enough known' (stock photo)

Fiona Muldoon

In many respects, I am the exception more than the rule. I'm honoured to be one of only three female leaders of an ISE-listed company. And as a female CEO of a financial services firm, I experience first-hand how much diversity exists at Irish board tables.

Gender diversity generates much debate and the case for greater gender balance on boards is well enough known, with international research pointing to greater business success among those organisations with greater diversity. Indeed, famously it has been said that if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, the US subprime financial crisis might not have happened.

Is this true? We will never know because in 2008 and now 10 years later it is still the case that true diversity in financial services is more aspirational than lived. Most would probably agree that a better gender balance at all levels of our organisations, public and private, is a better representation of the economy and society in which they operate.

What is sometimes less clear is how do get there? What is the roadmap to achieve the goal of true diversity; diversity of views, experience, gender, ethnicity, a reflection of the glorious diversity of our world at large?

While board gender diversity is a focus of many (the regulator, the stock markets, financial journalism), I believe wholeheartedly that gender balance needs to be addressed more widely at executive level and at all layers of management within organisations.

If this can be tackled, it has the all-important effect of improving the pipeline for board appointments. Addressing the barriers to advancement, providing parents with real choices at all career levels is an important prerequisite to improving diversity at the top. It also removes any excuses (and I do sometimes still hear these) that there are no 'suitably qualified women'.

The appointment of women on boards cannot be for its own sake: if it is, it just becomes an entitlement. And Hillary Clinton has shown us all what happens when your leadership message is no more compelling than 'It's my turn now'.

Diversity for its own sake or because it is 'our turn' is unlikely to be sustainable, will not deepen the talent pool, improve decision-making or further the aims of good governance in well run companies.

The 30% Club (of which I am a member) has just conducted a survey of financial services firms and their employees.

When we asked organisations to rate themselves in terms of their 'diversity and inclusion maturity', just over half described themselves at 'intermediate' level, while only 16pc identified themselves as 'advanced'.

Unsurprisingly, multinational companies appear to be a good bit ahead of local firms in having a diversity and inclusion strategy (74pc v 34pc). These figures are a good beginning, demonstrating as they do, a widespread recognition of the challenges of gender balance and a willingness to do something about it.

But when we look at the survey figures around women in senior roles, it is clear that a lot more needs to be done. At entry level, gender make-up is split roughly equally, 50/50, male and female. But as soon as we start moving up the ranks, the gap between men and women opens up and increases at each level up to CEO, where the difference is a staggering 87pc to 13pc in favour of men.

If the financial services sector is ever to reflect the diversity of the wider society that it purports to serve and if it is to harness all available talent - something that is badly needed in a small pool like Ireland - we urgently need to pick up the pace of change. Targets may help, for the obvious reasons; they are a rallying cry for change and a measurable marker for achievement of greater balance, but a greater collective and proactive focus is required.

Our research shows that financial services companies with gender balance targets (39pc of those surveyed) believe the targets help them to attract, develop and retain female talent.

These are the organisations that are more likely to be offering flexible start and finish times, or options such as working from home. Both of these were identified by males and females in our survey as the most important policies and programmes for them.

The surprising aspect of this research is that flexibility about start and finish times came top of the list. This is a reasonably simple change for any company (large or small) to implement, certainly simpler than remote working.

Providing this flexibility on its own can deliver real, lasting, impact in retaining those men and women most stretched on the home front during the busy child-rearing years.

Our survey points to an important, tangible way forward for any business, as well as highlighting what standard-setting, global organisations are doing to lead the way and thus provide encouragement and a road map for the rest of us to follow.

For companies who are starting from scratch, putting a diversity and inclusion strategy in place can seem daunting.

But small changes and accessing the resources of an organisation like the 30% Club can help everyone begin in the way that suits them and from the place they are right now.

Any company can use the research as a benchmark, analyse it against internal data and identify specific challenges for your business or organisation.

Consider some of the practices identified in the report to begin the changes to your own culture. Everyone is starting from a different place but I have no doubt that the companies which are further along the journey towards better balance will be delighted to share (or even brag a little) about what they have learnt or done themselves.

The increasing level of focus on organisational culture from the Central Bank in a regulatory context means demonstrating strong diversity and inclusion in your ways of working is also seen as an essential component of good governance for any regulated company.

FBD is an active participant in this and other diversity programmes. As a business, we recognise that having a genuinely inclusive workplace is central to the continued success of our business.

We are proud of the number of female branch managers throughout our 33-branch network.

Challenging ourselves to keep the progress going, to honour those that went before us and to help those coming after us, is an important personal value and a key takeaway for better future decision-making in all financial services firms.

  • Fiona Muldoon is CEO of FBD

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