Women in accountancy in Ireland

Posted on August 4, 2015 · Posted in Accounting & Business

Women may not actually be on top when it comes to business in Ireland today, but there are limited signs that the glass ceiling is beginning to look more fragile. The number of women company directors in Ireland rose by 10% in the last six years, with women now holding 36% of directorships in Irish private companies.

It is a similar situation on the boards of state bodies. Some 36% of positions on Irish state boards are held by women, up from just 15% in 1993 when the Government established a 40% target for female representation.

But in Irish public companies, the situation is less positive – just 10.5% of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in Ireland are women, compared to the EU average of 18.6%. The situation is even worse when it comes to the most senior positions – there no women CEOs or chairs of any large Irish listed company according to the European Commission’s 2013 statistics.

Ireland remains some way below best practice internationally. Germany has made strong progress in increasing the proportion of women in the boardroom – women hold 18.9% of positions on supervisory boards of public companies, up from 10% in the last three years. From next year, women must constitute 30% of the membership of the supervisory boards of Germany’s largest companies.

It is now 12 years since Norway adopted its statutory requirement for 40% of all directors of publicly listed companies to be women. Today 40.7% of non-executive directors of public companies are indeed women. However, this has not had the intended knock-on impact on senior management, where recent academic research (Breaking the Glass Ceiling?) found a mere 6.4% of Norway’s top managers are women, while there are no female CEOs of major Norwegian companies.

According to the ‘30% Club’ – which promotes the advancement of women in business globally – no major improvement will be achieved until the culture within business has changed. Top down, imposed, reforms, do not affect the underlying culture, argues the 30% Club.

Deloitte is one of the members of 30% Club (as are EY, KPMG and PwC) and its engagement is part of a range of programmes it uses to support the advancement of women as leaders in the firm. “We are promoting more women into leadership and board positions,” explains Orla Graham, head of human resources for Deloitte in Ireland.

More than a quarter of Deloitte’s partners and directors in Ireland are women, while one, Jackie Henry, is the senior partner for Deloitte in Northern Ireland. Deloitte also points to women making up more than half of its managers and graduate intake in Ireland. “I think what that shows is that the position is healthy,” says Graham.

“The challenge is always getting women through the ranks into senior management level and above and getting more balance at the level of partners and directors. We have to look at talent management to get more of our best talent up to partner and director level and to get [gender] balance at all levels. It is a business case. Successful firms have a balanced leadership and balance makes people think differently. It’s not about doing it for the sake of doing it.”

For International Women’s Day in March, Deloitte hosted two events in Dublin, with one involving 150 female staff attending an event on leadership. The focus was on women being inspired by women as leaders across different parts of society – including in sport and charities. A second event discussed how to encourage more female leaders. Ongoing Deloitte programmes including mentoring support, while the Deloitte University in Brussels focuses on leadership development, including the promotion of diversity.

EY has eight female partners in Ireland and says it is “building a very strong pipeline for the future”. The firm also operates several leadership programmes in Ireland and the UK, supporting the development of potential female leaders. One of these is ‘Inclusive Leadership’, which is mandatory for all managers, partners and directors. EY also runs two programmes specifically targeted at female staff development: ‘Career Watch’, for female and black and ethnic minority managers; and ‘Pearls’, which supports women as part of EY’s senior leadership programme.

PwC reports significant progress in supporting the advance of women within the firm in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (PwC failed to supply figures for women in senior positions in the firm in the Republic, despite repeated requests. KPMG also failed to provide requested statistics.) Some 40% of PwC’s new UK partner admissions in 2014 were women. In Northern Ireland, 10 of its 39 partners and associate partners are women.

A newly published PwC study looked at attitudes amongst female ‘millennials’ – those born between 1980 and 1995 – and found younger women in Ireland represent the most confident and ambitious generation ever. Nearly half (48%) of Irish female millennials believe they can reach the very top levels with their current employer (3% more than the global average). And a much higher percentage of Irish female millennials (85% in Ireland, against 68% globally) report having senior female role models to inspire them.

Yet the ambition of Irish women to reach the top in business does not match the reality. More than half of Irish female millennials ranked their employers as too male biased when it comes to internal promotions. Almost three-quarters of Irish female millennials feel that while their organisations talk about diversity, opportunities are not genuinely equal for everyone (which is slightly more than the global average). And, worryingly, over half believe that taking advantage of ‘work–life balance’ and flexibility programmes (again, above the global average).

Aoife Flood, the Dublin-based lead author of the report and a member of PwC’s Global Diversity & Inclusion Programme, says: “When it comes to earning power and patterns, millennial women in Ireland really are trailblazers, with 88% of female millennials in a dual-career couple, earning as much as, or more than, their partner or spouse. Globally, our research also identified that the more experienced the female millennial, the more likely she is to be the primary earner in her relationship.”

Flood adds: “Our research also dispels some significant myths, for example that women leave work to have families…. Irish millennial women ranked a lack of career progression opportunities as the most common reason for leaving a former employer. Employers must commit to inclusive cultures and talent strategies that lean into the confidence and ambition of the female millennial from day one of their career.”

Setting-up businesses for themselves is now a favoured option for many women. According to the GEM (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor) Report, more than 12,000 women set-up businesses in Ireland every year. But, says the study, female business leaders are less ambitious than their male peers;

fewer have growth ambitions for their businesses; and only one in three has confidence in their entrepreneurial capacity.

But even if there has been a general improvement in the prospects for women at work, progress is painfully slow. Oxfam recently highlighted figures that indicate that, globally, at the current rate of closing the gender pay gap, it will take another 75 years before equal pay for equal work is achieved.

The recession seems to have actually reversed previously positive trends. The European Commission calculates that although in 2009 women in Ireland earned 12.6% less than men on average, by 2014 the gap had widened to 16.4%. One reason, the Commission speculates, might have been the reduced provision of childcare and its higher cost, at least in real terms compared to net pay. Half the 975,000 women in the Irish workforce have children.

The European Commission points out: “Compared to their male counterparts Irish women work fewer hours, earn less money and are inadequately represented in business, the Oireachtas and in local and regional authorities. Statistics suggest women still face many difficulties when it comes to career advancement in both the public and private sectors. In Ireland the gender pay gap is around 4% for the bottom ten per cent of earners, but this figure jumps to 24.6% when it comes to the top ten per cent of earners.”

While this is depressing, it is instructive to remember the comparatively recent advancements that have been made. Women in Ireland used to be barred from working for the public sector, and in some other occupations, once they married – and that only changed when Ireland joined the then European Economic Community in 1973. Seven years earlier, female pay in Ireland was less than half that of men, while a mere 5% of married women had jobs. By 2006, this had risen to more than half.

Progress has been made – but it remains frustratingly slow.

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Women as leaders

Sarah Connellan is an EY tax partner in Dublin, leading its human capital group. She completed a BSc in management with Trinity College Dublin and her career since then has been with Big Four firms. “I have always been ambitious to progress to the next level, to broaden to new experiences and to influence

change,” she says. “The opportunity to join EY as a partner in 2014 fulfilled this ambition by joining and being part of a very exciting firm with market leading growth. This is a very exciting time for the human capital service offering as Ireland embeds itself as a global centre for talent and organisations strive to attract and retain key personnel.”

Grainne Kelly, is CEO and founder of the international, Derry-based, business Bubbebum – which manufactures and markets blow-up, transportable, children’s car seats. She says: “I am by no mean a ‘burn your bra feminist’, but I love being a woman in business. I have found being a woman works very much to my advantage. A lot of engineers that I speak to are men – in fact, I don’t think I have ever spoken to an engineer who was a woman – and when they do crash tests and I don’t claim to know more than I do know, I find them very helpful.

Ms Kelly can only recall one instance when had specific difficulty because she was a woman CEO. “I had an experience in China,” she says. “Not only was I the only woman they had ever seen in the factory, but I was the only giant white woman they had ever seen. That was very difficult because the factory owner would not talk directly to me, but only to the translator, who was at that time my agent. I told the agent to ask a question, but instead they talked at length to each other. When I interrupted the agent put his hand up in front of my face to tell me to stop talking. So I took him out of the room. I said, ‘this is not how we do things in Ireland’, and that stopped that.”