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

The number of female company directors in Ireland has risen by 10 per cent in the last six years, with women now holding 36 per cent of directorships in Irish private companies.

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

But in Irish public companies, things are less positive - just 10.5 per cent of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in Ireland are women, compared to the EU average of 18.6 per cent. 

Ireland remains some way below best practice internationally. Germany has made strong progress in increasing the proportion of women in the boardroom - they hold 18.9 per cent of positions on supervisory boards of public companies, up from 10 per cent in the last three years. From next year, women must constitute 30 per cent 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 per cent of all directors of publicly listed companies to be women. Today 40.7 per cent of non-executive directors of public companies are women. But this has not had the intended knock-on impact on senior management. Recent academic research, Breaking the Glass Ceiling?, found that a mere 6.4 per cent of Norway’s top managers were women and there were no female CEOs of major Norwegian companies.

Positive promotion 

According to the 30 per cent 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. 

Deloitte is one of the members of the 30 per cent 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. Women also make up more than half of Deloitte’s 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,’ she adds. ‘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.’  

Big Four on board

For International Women’s Day in March, Deloitte hosted two events in Dublin, 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 include 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’, 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 NI and the rest of the UK (PwC and KPMG did not submit statistics for women in senior positions in their firms in Ireland). In 2014, 40 per cent of PwC’s new UK partner admissions were women. In NI, 10 of its 39 partners and associate partners are women.

Reality check

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

Yet Irish women’s ambition to reach the top in business does not match the reality. More than half of Irish female millennials rank their employers as too male-biased when it comes to internal promotions. Almost three quarters 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 ‘work-life balance’ and flexibility programmes are not readily available or possible in their workplace (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 per cent 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 a report by Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 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.

Effects of recession 

But even if there has been a general improvement in the prospects for women at work, progress is painfully slow. Oxfam recently highlighted figures indicating 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 per cent less than men on average, by 2014 the gap had widened to 16.4 per cent. One reason, the EC 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 EC 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 per cent for the bottom 10 per cent of earners, but this figure jumps to 24.6 per cent when it comes to the top 10 per cent of earners.’

But 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 this only changed when Ireland joined the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. Seven years earlier, women’s pay in Ireland was less than half that of men, while a mere 5 per cent of married women had jobs. By 2006, this had risen to more than half. Progress has been made - but it remains frustratingly slow.