Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012 CONVERSATION: LESSONS FROM THE STORM Speakers:
Barbara Byrne, Vice Chairman, Investment Banking, Barclays
Sallie Krawcheck, Former President, Global Wealth and Investment Management, Bank of America
 Moderator: Carol Loomis, Fortune Photograph by Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit

Sinead Conroy looks at the various roles of women in business in Ireland and whether or not the journey to end inequality is going in the right direction

According to The Sunday Independent women make up just 10 per cent of directors of companies listed on the Irish Stock Exchange and 36 per cent of those on public boards, despite a 40 per cent quota requirement. In Ireland the gender pay gap is around four per cent for the bottom ten per cent of earners, but this figure jumps to 24.6 per cent when it comes to the top 10 per cent of earners according to the European Commission statistics published in 2014. Furthermore, men are 40 per cent more likely than women to secure a business bank loan according to the Oireactas committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Reading these statistics would dishearten the most driven and enthusiastic female graduate; so what is the incentive to try?

“There is an underlying perception that women do not want top jobs and that they are less ambitious than men”There is an underlying perception that women do not want top jobs and that they are less ambitious than men”

The facts and figures speak for themselves – but what do the people say? Former chairperson of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority and Associate Dean of Research at UCD School of Business Professor Niamh Brennan, believes that main challenge faced by women in business is the same as that faced by men: to be the best. Professor Brennan also challenges that notion that women are treated as inferior by their male counterparts. “In my early career, I was the beneficiary of positive discrimination, for example being appointed to boards of directors because they wanted to have some female representation on the board. In that sense, I haven’t been treated equally, rather I have been favoured by male colleagues.”

Sarah O’Shea rose to one of the most senior positions in the country in the business of sport. As Deputy CEO and Legal Director of the Football Association of Ireland she would also insist she has been treated equally while working in the business world. “In my own experience I have always been treated equally by my male peers but it’s important to accept we are different and think differently. It’s important not to try and be like a man but to use your female differences to excel at areas where perhaps those skills are lacking.” O’Shea is also of the opinion that women and men face similar challenges when it comes to trying to balance success and life.

However, in her view confidence is key. “There is an underlying perception that women do not want top jobs and that they are less ambitious than men in that regard. I believe this often arises due to women not putting themselves forward as much as men do and not promoting themselves in the workplace as much as men do… I think confidence is a key attribute a lot of women lack and certainly something young girls should be encouraged to work on more”.

However, a widespread view is that child bearing and rearing constitute real obstacles faced by women on the road to success in business. While other issues such as fear of failure and lack of support from their peers are also cited, the absenteeism that comes as a result of maternity leave has long been seen as a contentious issue. Is it possible to break the glass ceiling while juggling such issues? Professor Brennan would insist it is. “When my three sons came along, I discovered that they were not an “obstacle” to my career. Rather, parenthood had the effect of making me more focused, more productive. I stopped faffing around my office wasting time!”

“It would seem the key to closing the gap lies in determination, self belief, confidence and a touch of entrepreneurship”

Brennan also makes reference to the progress that is being made when it comes to sharing the juggling. “Nowadays parenting is shared much more than it used to be”. This opinion seems to be echoed in statistics released by the CSO that show nearly 11,000 men in Ireland class themselves as stay at home fathers. Recent budget announcements included the statutory right of every father to two weeks paternity leave. It would seem that we are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly.

So what is the future for women at the top end of the corporate pyramid? According to the Oireachtas committee for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation there is no shortage of CEO level women in our multinational tech companies – Facebook, Microsoft, PayPal, LinkedIn and Vodafone are all women led businesses in Ireland.

It would seem the key to closing the gap lies in determination, self belief, confidence and a touch of entrepreneurship. The latter facilitates innovation, difference and self set boundaries. It needs and encourages versatility in every aspect, including gender. It’s harder to find female entrepreneurs whose businesses have grown globally – Anne Heraty (CPL) and Susan Spence are some of the few notable exceptions. Maybe as Sarah O’Shea suggests, there is a need for more support and advice. “Certainly there is a major role here to have successful women mentor younger women and to promote other women.” In order to have an availability of mentors one must first, whether starting out or struggling through, it’s necessary to “be ambitious and be yourself”, according to Professor Brennan.