This article was first published in the March 2017 Ireland edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

There have been anecdotal suggestions that had more women held prominent roles in banking in the run-up to the financial crisis then the crash might never have happened. It’s a theory well worth testing. For I can’t name a single global financial institution run by a woman that ran into trouble. 

In her book Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works, Jay Newton-Small says that female regulators had argued for tougher rules on the banking industry, but were pretty much ignored by male bankers. Many of those female voices have gone on to have prominent roles in fixing the mess, such as Sheila Bair and Elizabeth Warren. 

Here in Ireland there are very few women at the top of banking. None in my memory, apart from the late Gillian Bowler at Irish Life and Permanent, has moved up to become chairman or chief executive. 

Across the rest of corporate Ireland, certainly among those listed on the stock exchange, female representation is pretty thin. Of the 56 companies on the official list of the Irish Stock Exchange, which includes some UK companies, just two – food giant Glanbia and recruitment firm CPL – have female chief executives. 

According to a European Commission report on gender balance, just 16% of boardroom seats in Irish corporates were filled by women in 2016. That’s well short of the 23% average across the EU’s 28 member states (and far below the 40% target for 2020 set by the commission).

In the public sector, the figures are a little better than in the private sector. This is wild leap on my part, but I’d bet that in the upper echelons of law, technology and even my own media sector, the figures fall a long way short too. 

Over the years there have been many proponents of gender quotas – and many others with reasons why they shouldn’t be introduced. I work in a sector populated mainly by men (and while we’re on the subject of diversity, mainly white men) at senior level. As an industry we are among the worst offenders, though among the first to suggest change elsewhere.

That said, I believe it is time to legislate for gender quotas at board level, rather than sticking with voluntary codes and targets. The negative reaction to the suggestion by junior sports minister Patrick O’Donovan over Christmas that sporting bodies that get state funding should have 30% of their board seats filled by women is a reflection of how long it would take without legislative action. 

Opponents criticise fixed quotas as unnecessary and counterproductive – that same European Commission report found that Denmark and Finland had better gender-balanced boards despite not having legislated for quotas.

This, of course, only deals with equality at board level. What about other senior roles? There the figures are less clear and the solutions less obvious. Having a simple 50/50 rule might be unworkable. 

Positive discrimination can sound like a trite and easy phrase, but I’m increasingly coming across employers who ask HR departments to remove names from résumés in a bid to find the best people for the role. ‘Blind recruitment’ is an interesting way of attracting the best-qualified people from outside an organisation, and bodes well for the future. Professional headhunters probably need to move away from their traditional hunting grounds too to find leading women candidates for senior roles. 

Based on those European Commission figures, Ireland would take well over a decade even to hit the 40% target. Surely that’s far too long to wait for equality, and we should be looking at ways to push progress forward? 

Ian Guider is markets editor at the Sunday Business Post