Kenneth Carroll is founder and Managing Director of Carroll Food Services, one of the largest independent contract catering companies in Ireland. Based in Ringsend in Dublin, the business was set up in in 1994 and currently employs 40 staff.
This interview was conducted by Clodagh Hughes in October 2017.
How do you perceive the issue of gender balance in business from the perspective of the owner of an SME?
Women have traditionally been well represented in the catering business. Right now the gender balance fluctuates for all of us in the industry. To be frank, we are operating in a market where there is such a skills shortage that it’s a matter of who presents for the role.
Currently the balance of men to women in my business overall is 50/50 and it’s 60/40 in favour of men at management level.
Is work life balance an issue in what’s perceived as a long hours culture in the catering business?
The traditional perception of catering — that it has largely unsocial hours and that it doesn’t favour family life — is wrong.
I do have a seven-day business but the working week for staff is a five-day one and operating hours are mainly between 7am and 7pm. We make a point of rostering well in advance so people can really plan their lives around their work commitments.
For example, one of my main chef managers works in a school in Drogheda. She works when her children are in school and doesn’t when they are not. This type of working arrangement is very conducive to both men and women and we fully facilitate it.
Have you experience of the diversity issue outside of your business?
I am on a charity board and diversity is very important to us. We have a 60/40 split between men and women on the board at the moment. But we are struggling to find females to fill roles that will be coming up as part of our succession planning.
Maintaining diversity is nearly impossible on the board I’m on. We recruit mainly through Boardmatch but most of the people applying through that mechanism seem to be men. We are working very hard trying to maintain the gender balance. Women just are not presenting themselves and I don’t know why that is the case.
Again thinking beyond your business, do you think gender diversity matters to the SME sector in general?
As a businessperson in isolation, you could be cynical and say they are ways in which it doesn't matter. But it’s a societal issue in my view. If you have an interest in contributing to society then yes, it’s important. And from a business perspective, I am convinced that you need a breadth of views when making business decisions and when dealing with people. I draw on my female managers a great deal in this regard.
Are women making it to senior positions in SMEs?
I come across a lot of strong women in my business so yes women are well represented at a senior level in our industry. In my experience, some of them try to be too much like men in terms of the way they exert authority and power.
It doesn’t, in my view, suit women — or indeed men — to behave in this way. The key message I would have is that we need to celebrate the difference and respect the talents that both sexes bring to the table. Respect and seeing the value in the other person is what good leadership is all about.
What are some of the key challenges when it comes to gender diversity and the SME sector?
As owners or managers in the SME sector, I think we need to change our views on the issue of flexibility of work. By way of example, storm Ophelia threw up real challenges for us and we had to be extremely flexible in facilitating those who couldn’t get to work and those who needed to leave early to ensure they got home safely.
Sometimes you have to flex the rules a bit. This isn't always easy with the amount of red tape and health and safety regulations we all have to contend with.
What‘s your view about targets and quotas?
If gender diversity is seen in the same vein as regulation, you have lost the battle. If you try and force it on people, it will fail. Everyone needs to be educated from day one. A cultural change is needed that goes to the root of what we are about. If it’s forced, we could end up with unnecessary tensions and pressures in organisations. That will serve no good purpose and, in my view, will create divides that won’t serve anyone.
Business needs to appreciate both men and women without one taking precedence over the other. I am really pro gender diversity but I have concerns that pushing this agenda too strongly has a danger of creating a divide between men and women, along with operational difficulties for businesses.