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woman up - Joyce OConnor

Professor Joyce O' Connor

Professor Joyce O’Connor is the Founding President of the National College of Ireland and has particular interest in the area of gender balance. She has held several non-executive roles in the private, public and voluntary sectors. Currently she is a professional coach and mentor to CEOs and other leaders.  She is an Eisenhower Fellow.


This interview was conducted by Aileen O’Toole in October 2017.​

Why — if there’s so much evidence about the benefits of better gender balance at leadership levels in business — hasn’t there been more progress?

Like a lot of other areas where there is good evidence available, unless the actions around gender balance are integrated into the culture of the board, and into the belief system of the company or the organisation, nothing will happen.


Is gender balance a board issue?

The board sets the agenda. If gender balance is not an agenda item and the board does not discuss it in terms of leadership development, talent management and succession planning, then it will not be a priority.


A board needs to be clear about its role in developing talent within their organisation. Failure to include gender balance as part of this discussion can indicate a lack of focus on talent development and succession planning.


So, this is a talent management issue not just a diversity issue?

Boards and senior management must be clear how women and men are given opportunities to develop; how roles are defined and are adapted within organisations.  The big questions are – how is transparency fostered?  How is an inclusive supportive culture created and maintained?


Women are a key part of this talent pool and talent is in short supply.  As part of their remit, boards must examine how a diverse talent pool can be identified, supported, developed and promoted in the best interests of the organisation.


But is the HR function itself not challenged in how it is perceived at leadership levels?

For a lot of people, the HR function is not considered a serious business.  The reason is that it started as payroll and historically has been seen as being very operational.  The HR function comes into its own around strategy, looking at the future.  


It’s only when you have really good HR strategy that will you get progress.  There is a job of work to be undertaken by HR professionals.  It’s a women’s profession – or seen often to be that way – and it hasn’t really established itself in the same way as, for example, the finance function.


The finance function is taken seriously. The finance person is a Director or is at the board meetings but you very seldom see a HR person, who is a member of the board. That will make a real difference. In a lot of businesses, HR strategy is never fully developed.  So the gender balance question is lost, as it is linked to a wide range of other issues.


What’s your view on the degree of progress that has been achieved in relation to gender balance?

Women continue to be under represented in the workforce at all career levels. Organisations are failing to build future talent pipelines.


Improvements in hiring at the highest levels of the organisation are not extending to lower levels.  Systematic improvements in good HR practice will support long-term success.  Ad hoc actions will not address the issue. 


While women’s programmes, mentoring, training and networks form part of the ecosystem; these initiatives have to be followed through with measurable actions.  If you want to change the face of leadership, to make it more diverse – and not so that leaders can check a box and feel they have complied with a task or they have been politically correct — you need to take action.  


You need to hire, you need to develop and you need to promote.  That is the framework for diversity gender balance in the workplace.  It can be measured and it can be seen.  By these actions – planned over time – we are embracing diverse talent and providing real opportunities for women to thrive and for organisations to have a competitive advantage.


What do you see as the issues around culture and mindset?

Businesses understand that you need good people to work for their organisation.  But culture and mindsets are very powerful.  You need to see, in a practical way, that men and women have talent and it is best to use that talent in all various shapes and form.


A culture and a mindset that says — like in the Institute of Directors survey — that male directors didn’t know females directors prepared to serve on boards, are very telling.  If you don’t “see” talent, if the vast majority of people you meet are other men, what opportunity exists for a change in culture and mindset?  That is how it works.


What about business leaders becoming more engaged with this agenda once their daughters are in the workforce?

Fathers often see their wives in a traditional supportive role for their careers. They more easily recognise their daughters and indeed granddaughters as people of talent, of potential who need to be encouraged, supported and developed.


How important is the childcare issue?

At a certain stage of the life cycle, women look at their options, they ask the question: “Is it worth it?” In reality, it is not women who “opt out” but families, society and business.  A support structure is needed that addresses the issue of adequate childcare supports. We have a limited talent pool, we therefore need to create structures and more flexibility to enable that talent to be retained and promoted.


What advice would you give to women who want to advance their careers?

Be yourself. That might take courage but women have it.  Find your support group. These supporters are the people who know the real you, not your job, title or role.  We all have moments when we doubt what we are doing; we lack self-belief. This support group are the individuals who will give you that push or just be there to listen to you. These supporters are also the ones you can trust and who will tell you what you need to hear and not always what you want to hear. Cherish them.  


Have a broad, diverse, cross-industry network. You will ask for help, explore ideas and listen. Find something that combines your talents and that you have a passion for.  Your supporters will help you get through difficult times while supporting your talent and passion.  We all need to nurture a supporting cast.  Have passion and belief, make it a personal priority, and show perseverance over time.


What about the message we give to children?

Children need to be told that they have an equal opportunity in life regardless of gender.  This must clearly be reflected in behaviour in the home.  They must come to see themselves as learners, always improving. That their varying talents will only develop with effort, questioning and support. That they can succeed. In short, we, as parents, need to encourage our children to pursue their passions, love learning and constantly re-invent themselves.


Can people really change their behaviours?

Human behaviour changes all the time.  A mindset that recognises challenge, change, discussion, debate, relearning and continuous development will thrive in an era of rapid change. Organisations that embrace this mindset, will encourage talent and sweep away the obstacles that inhibit the most vital members of their workforce.  Boards and senior managers who do not embrace a growth and have a talent-based mindset face serious problems.

What’s your view on gender pay gaps and what needs to happen to eradicate them?

There needs to be total transparency and accountability. If pay scales are published for all positions, at all levels, then women know what the situation is; where they stand within an organisation and they can make better decisions.  Equipped with facts, you can take action.

Are women’s negotiating styles an issue, particularly their tendency not to drive as hard a bargain as men in pay negotiations?

Natural negotiating styles may vary between the sexes.  A more universally “acceptable” style can be taught through appropriate training and a clear system of corporate goals and evaluation criteria.  This can be led by the HR function that has standing and value at board level.  It is important to combat female stereotypes of negotiating.  It is critical that you ask questions when you are negotiating so that you can put your situation in context.   As some authors have advised: “learn to speak the language of status and confidence.” Speak calmly and be deliberate.

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