Women reach for the top of the accountancy tree

It would be an exaggeration to talk of a revolution taking place in Britain’s boardrooms – but a fast change of direction is happening, which many in Ireland would like to replicate.  Five years ago Lord Davies recommended that FTSE 100 boards should aim for a minimum of 25% female representation by 2015.


A review at the end of last year found there are now more women on FTSE 350 boards than ever before, with female membership of boards more than doubling in five years.  The 25% target was met, with 26.1% of FTSE 100 board members being women.  While in 2011 there were 152 all male boards in the largest UK listed companies, there are no longer any FTSE 100 boards without a woman, and just 15 in the FTSE 250.


Achieving progress is not just a matter of fairness, it also about financial results.  Shelia Penrose, chair of property company JLL (formerly Jones Lang LaSalle), explained during Davos – where female representation was one of the three main topics of debate – that companies do better if they have women in senior positions.  “Fortune 500 companies with the greatest representation of women in management positions deliver a return to shareholders that is 34% higher than for companies with the lowest representation,” she told CNBC.


Supporting the call for more women at board and senior management level in Ireland, the 30% Club formerly launched here in January last year.  The organisation originated in the UK in 2010 with the aim of achieving 30% representation of women at board and senior management level by 2020.  It is credited with helping change the mood and culture in Britain.  The 30% Club in Ireland is actively backed by ACCA and many large businesses, including BNY Mellon, J.P. Morgan, Accenture and all the Big Four firms.


Lynn Walton FCCA, Head of Fund Accounting Complex Event Support at BNY Mellon, believes the 30% Club “has already had an effect” in Ireland. She explains: “Their aim is to be a forum for discussing and sharing relevant information and learning among business leaders, they have hosted a number of council events, they host various events, showcasing diversity, education, career experience, components of a concerted programme of change. In collaboration with the IMI [the Irish Management Institute] they have piloted a mentoring programme, and have also been awarded a number of scholarships to support the goal of better gender balance through education. As a starting point, the 30% Club has done extremely well. I understand that they are doing some research locally to benchmark the progress for Ireland which I am very much looking forward to reading.


“I am involved in a Women’s Initiative Network (WIN) at BNY Mellon, which involves women at all levels. More senior women within the organisation can give back something to more junior women. I chair the women’s Career and Personal Development committee at BNY Mellon. We look to the 30% Club for events and support and its cross-company mentoring, which BNY Mellon actively supports.”


The bank’s WIN internal mentoring programme pre-existed the 30% Club’s presence in Ireland and is in its third year. It has so far involved 90 people as either mentors or mentees, 75% of whom have been women. “It is primarily aimed at women, but we have had some men as both mentors and mentees,” explains Lynn. “We don’t have repeat mentees, but we had some mentors who want to sign up again.”


Mentoring programmes run for six months, from September to April to avoid the main summer holiday season. “During the course of the six months we ask mentors and mentees to meet at least once a month and we put on a mid-term session of training and coaching for them,” says Lynn. Activities within the mentoring relationships can include job shadowing, networking, introductions to senior staff and advice on career advancement.


“We ask people to apply formally to go on the mentoring programme, because different people have different ideas on what they want to gain. Some will want mentors in the same location, while some will want mentors in the same business line. We try to match up mentor and mentee appropriately. At the end of the programme if the relationship between the mentor and the mentee is going well they can continue that outside the programme. The feedback we get is great.”


Orla Carolan FCCA, Vice President – Financial Reporting at J. P. Morgan in Dublin, trained last year to become an executive coach. “I think coaching can be very significant and I do believe it can benefit women hugely and empower them to focus on areas such as executive presence, leadership skills and enhance their confidence in moving forward to achieve success: executive coaching can support this journey in a very positive way with the client or coachee owning their desired outcome and being accountable for achieving it.


“Mentoring is also very useful and I am incredibly lucky to be involved in running my organisations mentoring programme in Dublin. Having a good mentor, or multiple mentors, either formal or informal, who have different skills, experience and backgrounds, is really beneficial for support, advice and as a sounding board for ideas and challenges. This can be especially useful where a mentor has experienced similar situations or overcome challenges that the mentee is seeking direction on.”


Orla stresses that while changing working practices can assist women’s careers, it can also be positive for men. Many of the challenges revolve around family responsibilities and the constant juggle of multiple roles. “Executive coaching can also focus on progression and positive change in this area, honing in on personal effectiveness, work/life balance and wellness and focusing on positive mind-set and achievements which can often be overlooked,” says Orla. “All of these areas underpin our lives and our performance at work and are really important considerations for both men and women with demanding careers. Coaching can help focus and development in these areas to support sustainable career success.


“I definitely see a continued move to support women moving forward in their careers and into leadership roles. Flexibility is one of the key areas that can support this to allow women to sustain their roles and balance family commitments. The practical side of these arrangements can sometimes be challenging meaning more ‘working around’ or using home time to compensate for flexibility during core working hours. However the advantages of having that balance and flexibility available can be invaluable and in some cases be the decision maker in whether or not to stay at work. It also must be equally acceptable for men to work flexibly and for it to be viewed in the same way as women. In my view the more men that take equal opportunity to manage work on flexible arrangements the greater the balance will become in the workplace.


“Women themselves need to continually nurture their own confidence in putting themselves forward and believing that they can achieve and succeed in their careers. Dual career families can be difficult to manage, but sharing of all responsibilities makes it easier to sustain. Women need to be confident and accept support available to allow themselves to move forward and not step back where they have the choice or want to take the career advancement route.


“J.P. Morgan provides great support for women in leadership and progressing towards those levels through various internal training programmes and networks both locally and in its global organisation. This is one of the advantages of working for a large bank with great women leaders who share knowledge, experience and insights through these networking groups.”


The Big Four firms are also taking action to support women in taking leadership positions (see AB Ireland, May 2015).  Deloitte provides mentoring support for women in the firm and encourages women to participate in its leadership development programme.  EY has a female staff development programme and a senior leadership programme for women.  PwC uses networking arrangements to advance women within the firm.


KPMG Ireland says that although it maintains a 50:50 gender balance in each year’s intake, this balance is lost during career progression.  Its initiatives to promote the advancement of women in the firm include networking, seminars, leadership programmes and the promotion of what it calls ‘intelligent’ working arrangements – the maximised use of information technologies to support work flexibility.


Although the journey to gender equality is slow, progress is being made – and we are set for a more diverse leadership in the future.

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