A Compelling Business Case for More Diverse Teams

12th October 2020

Posted In: In Your Opinion

The global pandemic brought about by Covid-19 continues to disrupt our societies and shows little to no sign of abating. Unfortunately, gender balance in business leadership is not immune to such a threat.

Words: Brid Horan

We have already begun to witness the impact of coronavirus-related challenges facing enterprises in terms of maintaining progress on this important matter. I remain convinced of the vital benefits to business of gender balanced leadership particularly in challenging times and the need to prioritise this in the face of the current crisis.

As co-chair of Balance for Better Business, the Government-sponsored initiative launched by then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and tasked with promoting gender balance at the top of Irish business, I believe there is a compelling business case for more diverse boards and leadership teams.

At Balance for Better Business, we focus on the most senior levels of business leadership, not only boards but also executive management, and not only companies listed on the stock market, but also private companies and multinational companies with significant operations in Ireland. These last two categories represent major elements of the Irish economy and of employment.

A recent examination by Balance for Better Business of the gender balance at the top of Irish business indicates a flatlining during the Covid-19 pandemic from the previous rate of progress.

Regrettably, during the peak of the pandemic, the trend from March to September of the current year didn’t match the rate of progress seen since Balance for Better Business was established in 2018. We will be releasing the detailed figures in our next report in November.

Without clear direction and strong leadership, this unfortunate trend will be sustained and indeed exacerbated as businesses continue to grapple with the impact of this pandemic. Despite this, however, it is important to recognise the strides we have made in recent years.

In 2018, Balance for Better Business set progressive targets to 2023 for the twenty largest listed companies in Ireland. For the combined board (including both non-executive and executive directors) the target is 33% in 2023. While progress is not uniform, by March of this year, the average representation was over 26%, up from 18% when we were established. Progress among these larger companies has halved the gap between Ireland’s performance and the EU average for larger companies as measured by Eurostat.

This progress is to be welcomed but it is not uniform across all listed companies, with smaller ones improving but lagging somewhat. Similarly, representation among ISEQ20 non-executive directors is well ahead of that among executive directors.

Ireland’s Central Statistics Office, at our request, carried out a major survey of all larger companies (employing over 250 employees) last year, which confirmed other research. Only one in nine CEOs and one in five board directors were female. Of all senior executives, just 28% were female.

Balance for Better Business is setting targets for executive management as well as boards, and beyond listed companies to private companies and multinational companies operating in Ireland.

Ireland will only benefit from our full talent base and diversity of thought if gender balanced leadership extends to all enterprises and into management levels.

We continue to actively engage with companies and encourage them to advance further. We call on Government and the broader business community to make changes to drive and sustain progress.

Indeed, change is needed throughout society, from the school room to the boardroom and beyond to build and support a sustainable pipeline of capable and experienced women. What we need now, particularly at this time of unprecedented disruption, is integrated action by business, government and other agencies to effect real and meaningful change in this important area.

Brid Horan is Co-Chair of Balance for Better Business – an independent business-led Review Group established by the government to improve gender balance in senior leadership in Ireland.