The dramatic increase in the share of women on Irish corporate boards is dominated by a handful of senior executives who have broken through the glass ceiling.
A quarter of top board seats occupied by women in Ireland are held by a core group of just nine people, according to research carried out by the Irish Independent.
Women held just 8pc of directorships in stock market-listed companies in 2013, but that shot up to 21pc by the start of 2020 under intense pressure from corporate governance experts, regulators and lobby groups like Women on Boards and The 30pc Club.
However, while the number of seats held by women has increased, research by the Irish Independent of the Iseq 20 list of the top Irish stock market-listed companies shows boards are in many cases tapping women to be non-executives only after they have already risen to the top of their own companies or been made a director elsewhere.
Male directors are significantly less likely to hold multiple directorships with 10pc of seats occupied by the same 12 men.
Top women executives including Glanbia's Siobhán Talbot, CPL Resources founder head Anne Heraty, Ires REIT CEO Margaret Sweeney and recently stepped-down FDB CEO Fiona Muldoon all sit as non-executives on the boards of other companies and are emerging into a unique power- broking position at the top of Ireland's corporate elite.
Professor Niamh Brennan, a corporate governance expert at University College Dublin, fears that in some cases the chairs of public companies are failing to look beyond the safest, already established, candidates.
"I have heard anecdotally chairs of boards saying 'we cannot find good women'. They complain that there aren't good females out there, but the truth is more that they haven't looked maybe as hard as they could for those people," she said.
"You are unlikely to get onto a board if some people on the board don't know you. On the other hand, it may reflect the board inertia in going to the same kind of pool of female directors," Professor Brennan said.
While greater openness to have any women on boards suggests the dominance of old-boy networks and golf course networking are gone, Professor Brennan says this is "probably not" the case for men.
The data appears to bear that out, showing male directors are far more likely to be privately educated than their female peers, according to the research.
More than one-third of the 104 directors of Iseq 20 companies went to fee-paying secondary schools - almost all of them men.
At Bank of Ireland, five out of its 12 directors went to private schools including St Michael's College in Enniskillen and Gonzaga College in Ranelagh, Dublin.
Corporate directors are also overwhelmingly university educated - including a huge cohort of Commerce and Accountancy graduates who make up a majority of people holding directorships in the Iseq 20.
University College Dublin (UCD) and Trinity College are the main feeder colleges for Ireland's corporate elites, the data shows.
Professor Brennan says boards should reflect strong finance expertise, but not at the expense of a wider mix of skills. "It would not be good for boards to be dominated by [chartered accountants], what you would expect is good, wide, business experience with certain technical expertise dependant on the nature of the business, that is what you would like to see."
While Irish companies are increasingly internationally focused, the overwhelming majority of both executive and non-executive directors here are Irish, taking up over 70pc of the directorships.
Britons make up the only other significant cohort of directors, reflecting the Anglo-Irish nature of companies like Paddy Power owner Flutter as well as a legacy in banking of the financial crisis. Then, bailed-out lenders brought in a slew of UK-based expertise after coming under real pressure to diversify boardrooms that had been compromised by so-called "group think" and a failure to see the emerging Celtic Tiger era credit bubble.
The nine core female directors include Anne Hearty the CEO of CPL Resources, who is also on the board of Kingspan, Heather Ann McSharry, on the CRH and Greencore boards, Joan Garaghy, who is on the Ires Reit, Kerry Group boards.
Julie O’Neill sits on the board of Ryanair and Permanent TSB, while Linda Hickey is on the board of Cairn Homes and Kingspan.
Elsewhere, Margaret Sweeney is on the board of Ires Reit (CEO) and Dalata.
Roisin Brennan sits on the boards of Ryanair, Hibernia Reit and is also on the board of non-listed Musgrave Group.
Rose Hynes – Chair of Origin Enterprises is also on the board of Total Produce board, while
Siobhan Talbot, MD Glanbia, is on the CRH board.