This article was first published in the May 2015 Ireland edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

More than 180 business and financial professionals  attended ACCA Ireland’s 12th International Women’s Day event, which took place in March at the Westin Hotel in Dublin. It reviewed the role of working women in Irish society and included an informative and focused roundtable discussion. Successful female business leaders outlined diversity management in their organisations and recommended strategies within the finance function to promote better diversity and inclusion.

Unconscious bias and conscious inclusion

According to the ACCA report, Towards better diversity management, although many companies have invested heavily in promoting diversity, particularly gender diversity, they have yet to see commensurate results. They are therefore shifting their emphasis towards diversity that works. The more experienced companies are moving their focus away from categories of employees, such as ethnic minorities and women, and are instead encouraging an inclusive culture, where all employees feel valued as individuals. 

One of the main topics discussed was the word diversity itself and what it means in relation to the finance function. Allowing this term to evolve and have a more positive meaning within the organisation can automatically improve the working environment. Having a diverse workforce alone is insufficient to reap the business benefits of diversity; the effective management of diversity is what helps business performance to excel. ‘If you look at diversity in Ireland it really is a protective rather than a supportive term,’ said roundtable chair Etain Doyle. ‘Is it only as women that we feel part of the diversity conversation?’ 

Orla Nolan of IFS said she believed gender is only one facet of who people are in a professional and personal landscape. ‘Disabilities, sexual orientation, religious backgrounds and family situations are all parts of what make up diversity, and I feel that the word and meaning have changed. A lot of my colleagues who supported me when I began my career were men, so it is difficult to attribute diversity as a female issue. Women tended to try and emulate successful business people to move up the career ladder, and in our generation, it was mostly men. It would have been more prudent to research the particular skillsets and business acumen required for higher positions and work from that basis.’

ACCA’s Helen Brand thinks the term ‘inclusion’ should be used in association with diversity. She said that companies need to have the data to back up why certain diversity schemes worked well while others didn’t, so as to formulate better strategies for the future. ‘Recognising diversity but also valuing it is important,’ she said.

‘Using a new phrase – unconscious bias and conscious inclusion – instead of diversity, creates a more positive slant on the word,’ explained Pfizer’s Melanie Sheppard. ‘From a multinational perspective, we don’t look at the gender of a person; it has to be all about ability. Developing your team is essential whether male or female. Making a role as transparent as possible is important, and the idea of meeting a gender quota is not as important as having the right person in the right role.’

Inspiration, aspiration and mentoring

Inspiring women who have families, or those who are making the transition back into the workforce after maternity leave, is important and participants collectively agreed that support is essential. 

‘I have an exceptional employee, who could move much further along within the company, but the confidence and ambition to do so is not there, partly because she has a young family,’ said Rosemaree Danaher of IBM. ‘I wish more women would seek guidance from those in senior management positions to help support them to move up the career ladder.’

Although participants broadly agreed, they discussed how women’s ambitions can decrease when a work-life balance is taken into account, as family time may be compromised. 

‘I have four children,’ said Thunders Bakery’s Sinead Heffernan, ‘and would have appreciated a female mentor when I was first starting out in my current role, as I felt it was very much a male environment. That network of support is important when you are having self-doubt about work-life decisions.’ 

Working part-time rather than full-time is an option many women take after maternity leave, but sometimes work colleagues can feel under pressure to ‘pick up the slack’, according to Marie O’Connor of PwC. ‘There can be resentment if a job has to get done but one member of the team is working one day less than everyone else, so this is another aspect to consider when assigning projects. The same productivity should be expected across the board, but in reality this is not the case.’ 

Sixty per cent of graduates across all sectors in Ireland are women and with the high cost of childcare, companies will need to come up with solutions to this problem, the table heard.

Millennials and future employees

However, the confidence of the new generation of millennials is not necessarily a good thing, the table agreed. Hiring is a different experience from five or 10 years ago, said Quinlan & Co’s Eilis Quinlan, as applicants continuously overlook the skillset and qualifications required for advertised roles. 

There has been a U-turn from women having to fight their corner in their jobs, to the new generation whose self-belief is sky-high. ‘We as employers and managers need to reign in and advise these new recruits, if we are to get the best from them,’ she said.

Recruiting the older generation is also a realm of diversity that needs to be looked at. ‘I am in the process of looking at recruiting more mature employees, and in this way I can tackle that side of diversity within my department,’ Ita McCarron of GlaxoSmithKline said.

The table agreed that you need to resonate with your customer base and continue to be relevant for future success. What is considered diversity in the 1980s is different now and it is cyclical. 

In Europe the emphasis is on improving the gender quota and salary scale. In the US, the focus is on promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and equality in the workplace.

The portability of skills needs to be accentuated across the different departments in large organisations, and the corporate governance structure needs to be taken into account and data recorded, because otherwise there is nothing to compare in years to come, ACCA’s Liz Hughes said. 

‘This is why ACCA is conducting this discussion but also taking part and funding research so that the key elements of improving diversity management remain a focal point for large and small companies,’ she added.

Maybe we won’t see the needle shift in this generation, but as Anne Keogh of The Well Water summed up, it is about discussing the issue with ‘our peers, family and colleagues, to underline and draw attention to diversity and encourage a discussion to take place, which will make us all think about what we can do to ensure a positive working environment’. 

‘True diversity – not only gender – can make a real lasting difference on a business’s bottom line,’ she said.