Increase in women taking up leadership roles, and why its beneficial to business

The number of women holding senior leadership roles in Irish businesses improved in the past year, growing from 31% in 2020 to 33% in 2021, according to research included in the Women in Business 2021 Report published by Grant Thornton.

Globally this figure sits at 30%, an important milestone for businesses internationally, but not the end goal.

There is still plenty of opportunity for businesses to reap the benefits of a better gender balance.

Yvonne Harris is Irish Water’s Head of Customer Operations and Connection Developer Services, and a member of its Board of Directors.

“There is tangible evidence that organisations with diverse leadership groups perform better than those who don’t,” she said.

40% of the senior management team at Irish Water is female.

“As a relatively new organisation, Irish Water has a great opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past,”

Ms Harris said. “From the outset we had strong female representation on our leadership team but this has grown in recent years.

“A less diverse management group may result in ‘group think’, where a group of like-minded individuals have the same perspective and are slow to challenge that perspective.

Elsewhere, female engineers work in male-dominated environments such as offices, facilities and sites, and can sometimes face unconscious biases.

A new engineering group dedicated to help women build careers in the sector has said ‘unconscious bias’ training for engineers and actively encouraging men to take paternity and parental leave could help to close the gender gap in the industry.

Engineers Ireland ‘Women in Engineering Group’ will be formally launched today.

The group said other targeted steps like gender-balanced committees and interview panels, more diverse interviewee lists, and a greater mixture across boards and senior management in engineering companies would be effective in supporting the career progression of women engineers.

Chartered Engineer and chair of the group, Georgina Molloy said, “We hope that this new group, which is also open to men to help us jointly tackle the gender gap, can help women engineers create a clear pathway for progression so they remain in the industry, as well as attracting some women back to the profession who may have left to work in another more gender-balanced industries, or just taken a career break.”

Meanwhile, the Women in Business 2021 Report found that 42% of those surveyed in Ireland agreed that new working practices have enabled women in business to play greater leadership roles within their organisations.

With 48% of those surveyed in Ireland expecting the new working practices to benefit women’s career trajectories long-term – this is mirrored globally with 69% of those surveyed globally agreeing.

Shona O’Hea, Partner in Financial Services at Grant Thornton Ireland said her experience this year has mostly been positive in terms of being a woman at work. “Within the last twelve months I have moved to working from home full time, had a baby, been on maternity leave and been made partner within my firm.

“So, while my personal example demonstrates working from home wasn’t a limiting factor in progression I am conscious that we were all in the same boat this year and I wonder as restrictions lift if someone working from home full time will ever get the same opportunities and visibility as the person who’s sitting next to the boss every day?”

Ms O’Hea said that while increased flexibility has proven to be welcomed by most women and men in traditional office set ups, a robust framework around this will need to be created for businesses to ensure staff who take up flexible working options are not disadvantaged or unconsciously excluded.

At Irish Water, Yvonne Harris oversaw the successful transition of her entire team and the customer contact centre to a remote working model when the pandemic hit Ireland.

She acknowledged that working from home has brought the challenge of ‘always on’ for many women.

“There is no separation from work and home, there is no travel time to wind-down from one role before starting the next, no ‘me’ time, even if that is a cup of coffee at a coffee corner or in a local work café,” she said.

“We are all feeling the lack of social interaction but, as a working mother of grown-up children, I find I am enjoying their company more than ever. As a working mother of very young children, this is an extremely challenging time.”

She said Irish Water has introduced new ‘ways of working’ to help ease these pressures as much as possible. Ranging from flexible working hours to encouraging social chats over zoom because  “we recognise the tremendous pressure some people are under and are making every effort to ease that.

“We encourage everyone to pick up the phone for a social chat with a colleague, as an old advertisement once said ‘it’s good to talk’.”