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Emer Higgins TD: We can no longer rely on corporate goodwill - gender quotas are a must

The Fine Gael TD is releasing a new Gender Balance Bill providing for gender quotas on boards and governing councils.

Emer Higgins

Updated Sep 8th 2021, 11:57 AM

WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP set a precedent that proves that gender needn’t be a barrier to success. In the business world, the presence of female role models and seeing women reach the levels of leadership inspires women to start out in their careers to achieve their full potential.

Research tells us that balance is better for business, it’s better for governance, risk and decision-making. That’s why I believe that the introduction of gender quotas is necessary to spark cultural change in boardrooms around this country.

For seven years, before I had the honour of becoming a TD, I was fortunate to work at a senior level in a diverse and inclusive team at PayPal. I got the opportunity to work with many hard-working and powerful men and women, but it was female Vice Presidents who encouraged me to follow my passions.

These women inspired me, not just because of their success or dedication, but because they visibly championed inclusion in the workplace. They knew that diversity around the corporate table meant diversity of thought and better business decisions.

If my experience in the corporate world has taught me anything, it is that we need more of these leaders – men and women – alike. Women like this exist in politics too. Women like Frances Fitzgerald and Ivana Bacik, and Mary Harney, who represented my constituency too, have been advocates for women in political life.

They sent a message that talent and drive, and not gender, should determine how far you can go in your chosen career. More recently, Helen McEntee has shown young women that there is a place for pregnancy, maternity and motherhood in politics.

Change too slow

But frustratingly, women are still not commonplace at the highest levels of leadership, either in politics or the corporate world. This is something that needs to change.

Globally, we are seeing positive trends in the percentage of women who sit on the governing boards of corporate companies and Ireland is improving too, but change is not happening quick enough. The recent Global Gender Gap Report for 2021 estimates that based on the current rate of progress, it will take another 100 years to achieve gender equality.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, gender equality stands to be damaged further by economic instability if we don’t step up our game. We have talked about this problem for as long as I can remember, I believe it’s now time to do something radical to change it.

This week I will introduce the Irish Corporate Governance (Gender Balance) Bill 2021, a bill which I have been working on in close collaboration with the National Women’s Council of Ireland.

It makes provision for gender balance on the boards and governing councils of designated companies, corporations, undertakings, charities and bodies in Ireland with a small level of exceptions, such as for companies with fewer than 20 employees.

It will require companies to report annually on their gender balance at the boardroom level and sets a target for reaching female representation of at least 33% on Irish boards within the first year of enactment, rising to 40% after three years.

Where a company fails to meet the gender balance quota without a credible explanation, it may become liable for an application to the High Court for an order directing that the corporate body complies with the Act.

Balance is better

We know from reports like McKinsey & Company Diversity Wins Report 2020 found that ‘companies whose boards are in the top quartile of gender diversity are 28% more likely than their peers to outperform financially’.

We know from international experience that countries that utilise gender quotas on corporate boards have a far more equitable representation of men and women in their boardrooms. Figures released by BoardEx this year show that France, Norway, Italy and Finland utilise some form of gender quota on board room constitutions and they all rank within the top five countries for the representation of women on boards globally.

Last year, Germany announced they would introduce boardroom gender quotas too. In an ideal world, there would be no need for quotas and targets would be enough to drive gender balance in the boardroom. However, the targets approach is simply not bringing about the change we want to see in the timeframe we want to see it in.

There is no disputing that boards should be filled with individuals who are qualified and suitable for the role. I refuse to believe the lack of women on Irish boards is due to a lack of capable women.

My career thus far has shown me countless examples of intelligent, intuitive, tenacious and capable women, whom any business would be lucky to have serve on their boards.

However, in many cases, they would agree that confidence issues, imposter syndrome or becoming a parent significantly hampered their trajectory towards higher-level management and board level positions – an occurrence that doesn’t seem to impact men in the same way.

While the increase in working from home and flexible work arrangements due to the Covid-19 pandemic has been welcomed, it would be my fear that women’s visibility in the workplace will only suffer further as a result, affecting their chance of promotion.

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Addressing these issues gives businesses great opportunities. An opportunity to ask whether the top-level decision-makers in Irish companies reflect the available talent. Do they connect with 21st century consumers and stakeholders?

And do they represent the Ireland of today? In business, opportunity is everything, and it is my ambition that both men and women should have equal opportunity to not just get their foot in the door but to earn a seat at the boardroom table.

Emer Higgins is a Fine Gael TD for Dublin Mid West. She is former Chief of Staff, Global Operations for Europe at PayPal.

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