The ‘Make-up’ of our Boardrooms – Gender Diversity in the Spotlight

Posted in : HR Updates on 8 March 2018
Joanne McAuley
Clarendon Executive
Issues covered:

With the deadline looming for gender pay gap disclosures at companies with 250 or more employees in GB, the spotlight shines once again on the wider issue of gender diversity in the boardroom - for companies of all sizes. Are businesses turning a blind eye to the issue? And what about the frustration of those that prioritise the fair representation of women, but struggle due to an overwhelming lack of interest from female candidates?

Clarendon Executive’s Joanne McAuley looks at the obstacles facing women as they climb the corporate ladder and what can be done to help create a face of lasting change for NI boardrooms.

It has been encouraging to see a rise in executive level appointments in Northern Ireland, both in the public and private sector, being filled by women – National Museums NI, Titanic Belfast, IOD NI, CBI NI and Belfast City Council to name a few.

A broader look, however, at the top 100 companies across the UK and Ireland and it’s clear to see that men still dominate our boardrooms. Is this really a straightforward case of bias towards men or is workplace equality really that achievable and indeed desirable if, as many businesses are claiming, women simply ‘don’t want the job’?

Women falling out of the leadership race

Consider for a moment these statistics: 58% of Irish women have completed third-level education compared with 44% of men; and 57% of last year’s graduates in Britain were female.

It would seem that women and men start out on a fairly equal footing when it comes to their careers. So when you consider that only 7% of the FTSE 100 CEOs are women and 90% of surgeons in Ireland are male, despite 20 years of gender parity among medical graduates, why are major differences emerging when men and women seek to progress to more senior levels, across both the private and public sector? Why are women not better represented?

One well-versed reason is that childcare and caregiving has a bigger impact on the careers of women than men. Women increasingly find themselves in the ‘sandwich generation’, caring for elderly parents whilst also supporting their children.

According to research from the 30% Club Ireland - a group which campaigns for 30 per cent of top positions to be filled by women - a significant proportion of women believe that availing of flexible working arrangements would lead to their commitment to the organisation being questioned. A recent report by McKinsey noted that European women work more part-time and more unpaid hours than men and further found a correlation between the representation of women in leadership positions and their employment rate. It would seem therefore that the negative impact that working flexibly has on career progression as perceived by women might well be a reality.

Other explanations for why women don’t occupy proportionate leadership positions relate to more complex issues around women’s confidence in their own abilities hence not putting themselves forward for high profile posts, a lack of opportunity and simply personal choice.

A balanced perspective

It has been well documented that women not only bring different perspectives to male-dominated boardrooms but also significant material improvement to their company’s bottom line and operational effectiveness. The McKinsey report highlighted that UK companies with greater gender diversity at senior executive and board level experienced better performance uplift. For every 10% increase in gender diversity, EBIT rose by 3.5%.

Studies time and again reveal that women bring new knowledge, skills and networks to the table, take fewer unnecessary risks and are more inclined to contribute in ways that make their teams and organisations better. Females tend to be rated highly for their empathetic, intuitive and collaborative approach, qualities which have proved particularly useful in challenging, turbulent times.

However, Professor Lynda Gratton, Director of the Centre for Women in Business, urges caution in using stereotypical ways to describe gender differences, saying “there is no substantial difference between men and women, some are highly caring and others are not.” This echoes a study reported in the Harvard Business Review, where women out-scored men in two particular traits: taking initiative and driving results – usually thought of as typical male strengths. 

The above evidence suggests that the focus should perhaps be less on ‘what women bring’ and more on getting them into leadership roles in the first place and supporting their progress.

Improving workplace equality?

So, practically speaking, how do we make it easier for women to overcome the barriers to reaching the top?

Change requires boosting the pipeline of women employees at all levels and facilitating their progress through the executive ranks. It is also time we stopped judging men on potential and women only on past performance.

With regard to the issue of flexible working, McKinsey advises that Governments have a strong role to play in addressing this issue and creating the conditions for equal opportunities. But companies also have to play their part, with a commitment to gender equality from the CEO cascading down to all levels of the organisation. Increasing the number of gender-diversity initiatives is not enough. Best-in-class companies initiated these programmes earlier, indicating that it takes time to effect tangible, sustainable results.

In terms of a lack of confidence to go for the top jobs, the more female role models we have in leadership positions the more likely they are to be able to inspire, encourage and mentor others in achieving similar.

The road ahead

Whilst progress has been made toward gender diversity in the workplace, we still have a long way to go to reach parity.

Helen Morrissey, head of personal investing at Legal & General Investment Management was recently interviewed in the Sunday Times on the issue and advocates “consensus, not gender warfare” in achieving workplace equality, saying that the new world of work requires “partnership and collaboration rather than hierarchy and patriarchy.”

No matter what your view, true change undoubtedly requires both Government and business-led interventions, which is why we welcome the transparency the new reporting rules on gender pay discrepancies will bring. Whilst not applicable to smaller businesses yet, they might want to consider a ‘front foot’ approach should the law change and take one step closer to achieving equality within their workforce.

McKinsey Report (Jan 2017): Reinventing the workplace for greater gender diversity

This article is correct at 08/03/2018

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Joanne McAuley
Clarendon Executive

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