'Women represent 50pc of humanity, they should have a 50pc say in the decisions affecting them."
These were the words of Anne Anderson, Irish Ambassador to the US (pictured inset in 2013 with then US president Barack Obama) at the 30% Club Ireland Annual CEO and Chairs Conference.
The 30% Club was launched as a campaign in 2010 with a goal of achieving a minimum of 30pc women on FTSE-100 boards.
These words are unequivocally sensible but still a gender gap exists. Throughout Irish history, women have held leadership roles which have shaped the country we live in today, but despite this women have yet to gain a 50pc share of leadership roles. However, as diversity and inclusion strategies are becoming embedded in organisational strategy to address the imbalance, organisations such as the 30% Club are bringing the issue to the fore and change is afoot.
One must question if women in senior leadership positions can really affect the dynamic of an organisation and, ultimately, the bottom line. The answer is yes. The 30% Club Canada reported on a global McKinsey study that identified that if gender parity was reached across all countries, it would amount to an additional $28trn (€26.5trn) to annual global GDP in 2025. The figures speak for themselves.
But there are also other issues to consider. In 2015, the 30% Club Ireland and DCU undertook the first survey of women in management in Ireland, which demonstrated that women were less likely than men to hold management positions in all sectors of Irish industry. Their research indicated that most women in management work in the HR or legal and marketing functions.
However, the 2016 McKinsey report found that by the time women reach the senior vice president level, they hold just 20pc of roles which have a profit and loss responsibility.
In order to identify a solution, the Irish Management Institute (IMI) has been undertaking a series of focus groups to identify the challenges faced by women in leadership. Initial responses cited concern over a need to work harder than male counterparts in order to succeed and the importance of a strong support system to progress.
Many acknowledged they had experienced gender inequality, but they did take responsibility for not always putting themselves forward for an opportunity. Some stated that diversity programmes were in place as a box-ticking exercise and not supported in reality.
Participants believed gender targets may be a short-term solution, favouring the introduction of longer-term support or a development programme for women, which would help nurture the skills they need as senior managers.
Inequality must be addressed and the first step is to gain the support of Government. It was refreshing to hear Equality Minister David Stanton confirm at the 30% Club Ireland that both he and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald "are actively looking at the issue of women's empowerment in decision-making in all spheres in the context of the new [National Women's] Strategy [2017 to 2020]".
However, Ireland could go a step further and follow in the footsteps of Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, who appointed the first gender equal cabinet in Canada's history in 2015.
Three years previous in 2012, Mr Trudeau commenced his strategy to enable this gender balance and launched a campaign called 'Invite Her to Run', which sought names of women across all areas of society who could run for office. While this could be viewed as a gender target, as a noted feminist the prime minister has remarked that "I believe that women can do - and be - anything they want. But I also know that meaningful cultural change can't and won't happen when only half of the population works toward that change."
With Irish law now requiring political parties to field at least 30pc male and 30pc female candidates in the next two general elections, more men need to get on board to support their female colleagues and achieve a gender balance greater than the required 30pc.
While gender targets might support the rise of women in leadership, we must identify clear solutions which will address the challenges they face. Solutions include removing the stigma that maternity leave will affect career and promotional prospects, incentives for childcare, parental leave and providing opportunities for career development and lifelong learning.
In partnership with the 30% Club, the IMI has developed and runs a cross-company mentoring programme which brings together experienced leaders with mid-career high-potential individuals. The results have been enhanced leadership capability across the talent pool and a stronger professional network for all participants.
In order to shape change, the 30% Club can work with organisations to define their commitment to gender parity on their boards and senior management teams. With 160 member organisations to date, we are successfully working towards a mindset of equality. The CEOs are leading by example and hold themselves to account to address the balance.
The visibility of women in leadership will demonstrate to those starting their careers that equity exists throughout the employee life cycle.
As Accenture recently outlined so insightfully, you cannot be what you cannot see.
Siobhan McAleer is the commercial director at the IMI and a council member of the 30% Club Ireland