Brid Horan, Steering Committee member of 30% Club Ireland,
Brid Horan, Steering Committee member of 30% Club Ireland,

The Business Case for Balance

Brid Horan, Steering Committee member of 30% Club Ireland, talks to Valerie Jordan about women’s experience in the workplace, taking steps to further the percentage of females at senior level and the sound business reasons for gender balance.

“When I joined the workforce in 1971, they were stark and challenging times with unequal pay and treatment were the norm. This has changed over the years but it is striking that there is still a serious gender imbalance in the leadership of many vital organisations,” says Brid Horan.

Horan started her career in Irish Life as an actuary. She later worked in KPMG, heading up its pension and actuarial business before joining ESB as Group Pensions Manager. Late last year she retired as Deputy Chief Executive of ESB, having spent eight years on the executive director team. She has also served on the board of the IDA, as a commissioner of the National Pensions Reserve Fund and as a non-executive director of FBD Holdings.

In 2014, the 30% Club launched in Ireland and Horan joined the initiative as a member of the Steering Committee.

“At board level, only 12.3 per cent of board members of companies listed on the Irish Stock Exchange are women and there is a similar pattern at the most senior levels in business. I believe highlighting the value of gender balance and working with business leaders to achieve this is really worthwhile,” she states.

kpmgHoran has long been an advocate for women and their career development, both for the sake of equality and also for better business. She says her belief in gender balance is based on three key areas: “First, the need for talent in business – young women are highly successful in business. It is so important to fully develop this talent, female and male.

“Second, teams with gender balance have a mix of attributes, skills and experience. Research has shown that balanced teams produce better outcomes. Just to mention two, When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive by Mercer and Cracking the Code by YSC and KPMG, both found that, in terms of key leadership competencies, women often score better than men in relation to collaboration, teamwork, innovation and creativity. Several other studies have demonstrated stronger financial results from companies with more gender-balanced leadership.

“Third, a significant majority of purchase decisions are made by women – it doesn’t make sense to have this important customer perspective underrepresented at board and senior management level. All too often businesses are missing out on the female perspective on their products and services.”

In Ireland, the 30% Club is working towards a figure of 30 per cent of business leadership positions being held by women by 2020. When the organisation was set up in the UK in 2010 it had a particular focus on the low percentage of women on FTSE company boards. Since then the focus has extended to improving gender balance at all levels of business leadership.

“The need for greater diversity is true for other elements of the workforce too; balance across all dimensions is important,” says Horan. “It is clear, however, that, in spite of having anti-discrimination legislation in place for decades, there is still a serious imbalance in the gender mix at the top of business.”

Brid Horan with Siobhán McAleer from the IMI, Richard Bruton, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation
Brid Horan with Siobhán McAleer from the IMI, Richard Bruton, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation

In the UK, real progress has already been made on FTSE 100 boards, with the proportion of women increasing from 12.5 per cent to 26 per cent in the last five years. Since the Irish launch, the percentage of women on listed company boards has also increased from 10 to 12.3 per cent. Support has been widespread. Chairs and CEOs from some of the country’s leading businesses have joined, from major plcs, commercial semi-state companies, multinationals and private Irish businesses. Other important business organisations, including Chambers Ireland, have also joined.

Several international reports, including for example, research by McKinsey, have confirmed that female executives believe they have the ability to become top managers and have the ambition to do so, but are less confident that their companies’ culture supports their advancement. The real challenge, Horan believes, will be changing this culture.

She also has some practical advice for business leaders to get more women to senior levels and for affecting a cultural shift. “A good start is to understand what is happening in your own business and question the data,” Horan advises. “What are the proportions of women at each level? Is there a concentration in particular functions? Are women applying for more senior roles in proportion to their existing representation at the more junior level? If not, why not? Are women leaving the organisation as they progress to more senior levels and, if so, do you understand why? In doing this, it’s really important not to assume you know the answers or the underlying reasons.

Brid Horan with Marie O’Connor, Partner, PwC and Country Lead of the 30% Club in Ireland, Lochlann Quinn and Dr Simon Boucher, IMI
Brid Horan with Marie O’Connor, Partner, PwC and Country Lead of the 30% Club in Ireland, Lochlann Quinn and Dr Simon Boucher, IMI

“While overt barriers have come down, unconscious bias can be a critical factor. Work to understand and counter this, particularly as it affects hiring and promotion decisions and the culture in the business. Ensure that managers are not promoting people based on their own ideals, which may reflect their own particular personality, skills and experience. Company leaders need to show genuine leadership on this issue and embrace the challenge and the opportunity of having greater balance in their business,” Horan says.

With sound business reasons, as well as equality ones, shouldn’t we ultimately strive for a 50:50 balance and a business culture where gender is no longer a factor?

“I’m going to quote the French philosopher Voltaire,” says Horan. “‘Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien – the perfect is the enemy of the good.’ This advice applies to many aspects of life, not just business, and for me it means taking steps to improve the situation. Don’t wait for the perfect solution, the ideal; work to improve things and move forward.

“We have some way to go to reach 30 per cent. When we do, then I hope that the ambition and drive will be there to go further and achieve genuine balance which would be more like 50 per cent.”