Public Affairs Ireland | Training and Development | Conferences

“Gender balance is not a problem, it is a solution”*

On Wednesday 27 May, Ibec, in collaboration with the Department of Justice and Equality, ran their yearly Paradox conference in Dublin’s Mansion House. “Reversing the Paradox: Promoting gender-based leadership” was a full day of expert speakers on the topic of equality and gender balance in leadership roles. Chaired by the Irish Independent’s Dearbhail McDonald, the agenda boasted five impressive panels, as well as opening remarks from Ms Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Justice and Equality, and closing remarks by Minister of State at the Department or Justice and Equality, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

Ms McDonald opened the day’s speaking by noting that as we “step thankfully out of the shadow of the economic crises”, we can begin to refocus on gender parity in positions of power. Minister Fitzgerald followed with some figures that, although improved of late, seem discouraging. Female representation in high-power positions is unlikely to reach 20% by 2035; the general goal for female representation is 30%. This is in spite of the fact that 85% of consumers are women. She noted the disparity between the figures of women leaving third-level education and those in senior management, asking why it was that women seemed less likely to progress. Finally, she said the goal is a society in which the “talents and potential of everyone are recognised equally”, one which can move away from “gender equality” to “equality of opportunity” as a “social and economic imperative”. Danny McCoy addressed the largely-female crowd and told them that, going forward, gender equality would cease to be a “woman’s problem” but a business issue. Finally, he said that there should be no pressure to help women “fit in” in a male-dominant workplace, but rather we should acknowledge and support the differences for a complimentary workplace that reflects the diverse customer-base.

The five panels followed.

Panel one, entitled “Gender Economics and the contributions of gender balance”, featured Mr Peter Cosgrove, Mr Jean-Michel Monnot and Ms Maura Quinn.

A pragmatic panel, all contributors made note of the business sense that gender balance brings to a workplace. It was emphasised that gender parity in higher positions could contribute 13% to the EU’s GDP. Mr Cosgrove noted that in ten years’ time, 75% of the workforce will be made up of millennials. Millennials, he said, “expect equality” in the workplace. Therefore, if we are to be supportive of our future workforce, embracing equality and diversity is key. He continued, “brand is not what you say it is, it’s what other people tell you it is”, a policy which is important to remember. Millennials, he said, know that “the only way to be a good company is to be a good company”.

Despite this, Ms Quinn noted that “the glass ceiling, unsurprisingly, still exists”. While women believe that gender balance is, in general, improving, 62% of surveyed women said they were reluctant to go for board membership places, up from 43% in 2013. Access, the “old boys’ club” attitude, and a form of cronyism, are seen as barriers to progression. Therefore, transparency in the appointment process is essential.

Panel two, entitled “Power, bias and culture: the challenges facing gender-balance”. This panel featured Prof. Ciarán O’Boyle, Rhona Murphy, Jean O’Sullivan and Carina Furlong.

One of the main topics discussed on this panel was the idea of “unconscious bias”. Prof O’Boyle spoke about gender politics in the workplace. He discussed the way in which women internalise misogyny as much as men do; this contributes to the notion that all women will inherently hate an ambitious woman. Jean O’Sullivan noted that once Enterprise Ireland opened a “female-only” grant, 140 women applied to it, while none applied to the one which was open to men and women. Women are more comfortable competing in an arena that is solely made up of other women. However, all of the female speakers agreed that, in their own career progression, the support and tutelage of other women has been key.

Rhona Murphy spoke about the way women are portrayed in the media: men are reported on for their power and women for the clothes they wear. Women in power must declare: “Please don’t pay attention to what I’m wearing, but what I’m saying.” However, women are now more aware of these issues. There is a conscious social effort to weed sexism out early, as what Peter Cosgrove referred to as Generation Y (or millennials) are less tolerant of sexist behaviour on the whole.


Panel three was entitled “The way forward to success and reversing the paradox”, featuring Helen Tynan, Ann-Marie Holmes, Rhona Mahony, and Melanie Sheppard.  

Helen Tynan opened the third panel by informing the crowd that not only did gender balance improve business figures, but also, “it’s the right thing to do”. She spoke briefly of the place of women in tech firms, and the lack of action taken to ensure that second- and third-level women interested in STEM stay in that area, and are not squeezed out by the current gender imbalance. This was something that Ann-Marie Holmes agreed with. She believes employers in the STEM industry should be asking, “How do you attract females? How can you ensure you can hire them? How do you keep them?”

Rhona Mahoney called for determination for gender balance at a political level, noting that it is important for women to see women present in the law-making structure. Both Ms Mahoney and Melanie Sheppard addressed the issue of parenthood, calling for a more equal view of parental leave, as opposed to simply maternity leave.

Panel four, entitled “Using our resources for success – engaging men”. This panel featured Alison Maitland, Dan Twomey, and Robert Baker.

The fourth panel evoked the actress Emma Watson’s impassioned speech in front of the UN, as an ambassador for HeforShe, an initiative which invites men to engage in achieving gender balance. However, Alison Maitland warned, we must not tread too lightly when it comes to alienating men. She said that achieving gender balance will only come with some “very frank conversations”, and begged the question: Why only 30%? “Why don’t we strive for 50%?”

Dan Twomey said it all boiled down to one solid point, which was reiterated throughout the day: there is a “logical foundation as to why this is a priority”—because it makes sense, both for your business and in a real, social sense. Robert Baker listed some of the biggest barriers for men when we look at their engagement in aiming for better gender balance: apathy, lack of awareness, criticism from other men (which perpetuates the “old boys’ club” mentality), and lack of consequences for their behaviour. All of those on the fourth panel agreed that what was key was “leaders that walk the walk” (Baker). Directives must come from the top to improve engagement.

Panel five, “Time, targets and quotas”, featured Vitalijus Novikovas, Rachel Hussey, Sarah Carey, Claire McGing, Margot Slattery, Carolan Lennon.

The largest panel was the last of the day.

Mr Novikovas began by noting that, between 2010 and 2014, the representation of women on the boards of large, listed companies grew from 11% to 20%. This is due, in part, to quotas in parts of the EU, and to the EC’s Proposal on Women in Boards (14/11/1012) that targeted the lack of transparency in recruitment processes.

The following discussion looked at the stigma attached to being a woman in the workplace, a stigma which starts, many of the panellists felt, begins in schools. However, the opinion on whether or not quotas were effective was in debate. Sarah Carey believes that “quotas will make men hate women more than they already do”, while others believed a collaborative approach (using both quotas and targeting), or quotas with a sunset clause (quotas that have a timeframe), or possibly targets with sanctions for a lack of compliance were the way to proceed. These would help to fight what Carolan Lennon called the “chronic under-representation” of women in leadership roles.

Closing out the day was Minister of State at the Dept of Justice and Equality, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who said “our cultural norms have to be challenged”, a task which, in the wake of the Marriage Equality referendum, did not seem too daunting. He told the crowd that “young girls need to hear female voices”. He also, as others through the day did, questioned the rigid gender stereotypes that are enforced upon children from a young age. Mary Rose Burke continued in this impassioned call to arms, stating that “we need action”, “we need a social revolution”, all of which “would lead to a meritocracy”, as opposed to what Ms McDonald jokingly called the male fear that we would become “a benign all-female dictatorship”.

Ms McDonald closed the afternoon by reasserting that gender balance, and aiming for getting more women into leadership positions, is a social issue:

“This is not a women’s issue, and in truth, it never was.”

Speakers on the day (in order of presentation):

Ms Dearbhail McDonald, Journalist (Chair)

Ms Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Justice and Equality

Mr Danny McCoy, CEO of Ibec

Mr Peter Cosgrave, Director of CPL,

Mr Jean-Michel Monnot, VP of Sodexo’s Group Diversity and Inclusion division

Ms Maura Quinn, Chief Executive at the Institute of Directors

Prof Ciarán O’Boyle, RCSI

Ms Rhona Murphy, former CEO of The Daily Beast

Ms Jean O’Sullivan, Programme manager at Enterprise Ireland

Ms Carina Furlong, Associate director of Talking Talent

Ms Helen Tynan, Director of People Operations at Google

Ms Ann-Marie Holmes, Fab24 Factory Manager for Intel

Dr Rhona Mahony, Master at the National Maternity Hospital

Ms Melanie Sheppard, Finance director for Pfizer Healthcare Ireland

Ms Alison Maitland, an author

Mr Dan Twomey, VP of Finance and CFO EMEA at Dell

Mr Robert Baker, Senior partner at Mercer

Mr Vitalijus Novikovas, DG Justice at the European Commission

Ms Rachel Hussey, 30% Club Steering Committee and Partner at Arthur Cox

Ms Sarah Carey, columnist and broadcaster,

Ms Claire McGing, NUIM

Ms Margot Slattery, MD at Sodexo

Ms Carolan Lennon, MD at Eircom wholesale

Mr Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD, Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality

Ms Mary Rose Burke, Director of Policy and Corporate affairs for Ibec.

* This is a quote from Peter Cosgrave.

Next week, on Thursday 18 June, PAI will be hosting a seminar on Women in Leadership, a practical course that aims to equip women with the skills they need to progress to leadership position in their own career. For more information, see here. If you would like to book a place, you can do so through our website, or by calling 01 819 8500.