Carmel O’Brien, HR Director AXA Ireland

4th May 2021

This week Carmel O’Brien, HR Director AXA Ireland and WMB Diversity Ambassador talks about the importance of creating a ‘sense of belonging’ as part of the D & I agenda.

As a WMB Magazine Diversity Ambassador, how important is it to have role models?

I think it’s essential to have role models particularly in the workplace. No matter how often a message is communicated, people will only believe it when they can see it in role models throughout the organisation.  Our most successful D & I initiatives in AXA have been through the use of Role models.

Is there a connection with your company’s approach to D&I and its mental health policies?

Yes, we have been working very hard on our D & I agenda and we are about to launch a new three-year plan. Mental Health issues have really come to the fore in the last year and Mental Health will continue to be a key element of the plan going forward.

Creating a diverse workforce is what we all aim for but ensuring that everyone can feel that sense of belonging is as important to the D & I agenda.

Recent data shows that 1 in 4 ISEQ20 companies have no female representation on their Leadership Teams – What’s your opinion on this?

Very disappointing that there is still such under-representation in senior levels.  We are 50:50 in our Executive team but it remains a focus for us through the rest of the organisation.

Female representation must be part of an on-going program combined with strong targets and regular ongoing tracking.

In order to thrive in a rapidly evolving workplace, the ability to be flexible is important. What other attributes are necessary for companies and their employees to survive and succeed?

In the last year, we increased the number of engagement surveys to our staff to ensure that we were aware of their key concerns/issues during a very challenging and changing year.  We achieved our highest engagement score at the end of 2020 as we acted quickly on the key themes identified in the surveys. I think this has been greatly appreciated by our employees.  Every organisation uses the engagement survey tool but I think that the outputs need to be addressed visibly and quickly.

There is an unequal burden of caring responsibilities carried by women which has caused more women than men to leave the labour market.  What are the solutions?

The last year has really highlighted this as a major issue.  There is no one solution on this one rather it needs to be a range starting with flexible working arrangements, visible role models etc.

Who are your current role models (political, business, social or other) and why?

I haven’t changed my view from last year. I still think that Jacinda Ardern has been an amazing leader.  She has shown a resolute, strong leadership style combined with empathy, compassion and humour.  Her messaging has been clear and consistent and comforting.  She is a leader that inspires trust.

How can we eliminate the pay gap which currently stands at 14.4% in Ireland?

Obviously, the fact that companies of a certain size will soon have to publish information relating to their pay gap, including reasons and measures they are taking to eliminate or reduce the gap will certainly drive a greater focus on this matter.  I think all companies are already assessing their Data and putting some measures in place to address the gaps.  I am optimistic that this will start to eliminate the gap over time.

Has the last year been one big challenge or are there some ‘silver linings’?  

I think this challenging period is one that we will never forget but I know that for many, the silver lining is the time that they have had back over the last few months.  Without the daily commute, many of our employees are spending more time with their families, have taken up new hobbies and even bought the new family pet.

A new way of working is now here to stay with many organisations including AXA announcing that the Smart Working model will now be a permanent feature going forward.

Can you share one important lesson/observation/mantra that will inspire others?

We have had to adapt quickly to events in the last year and we have all had to find ways to connect and collaborate with our teams using digital tools which has been exciting.

I think the last year has demonstrated how agile companies have had to be.

I’m keen for AXA Ireland to continue to work in this manner rather than reverting back to the way we were.