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woman up - Niamh Brennan

Professor Niamh Brennan

Professor Niamh Brennan established UCD’s Centre for Corporate Governance in 2002 and is a leading authority on corporate governance in Ireland and internationally. She is Michael MacCormac Professor of Management at UCD.


This interview was conducted by Carol Bolger in September 2017.

If the business case for gender diversity is so strong, why has progress been so slow?

This as a very, very complex issue and needs a carrot and stick approach.  A UK accreditation initiative, called Athena Swan  awards gold, silver and bronze standards based on a university’s “gender friendly” policies and processes. To demonstrate the importance of this award, the NHS in the UK said it would only give research funding to a university that achieved a minimum of silver standard.


When it first came to Ireland, out of seven universities reviewed, only two got bronze awards – Trinity College Dublin and the University of Limerick. This year UCD achieved a bronze award and has introduced initiatives such as changing the start times of meetings to support people with families.  

Initiatives like Athena Swan can make a difference as they have a value – research funders making it a condition – and in effect it’s a “carrot and stick” like approach.  However, there are still the “dark pools”, where in reality what women often experience in the workplace is far from equal. ​

Why do you believe that this is so?

Because women can be treated utterly disrespectfully by male superiors who would never treat a man like that. ​

Why would men behave like that?

It’s possibly because they are insecure. It’s male ambition, climbing the greasy pole. Men want to get on and they don’t want any woman to get in their way. In my experience, a man who has a wife who is pursuing a career is more sensitive and conscious of these issues. 

Women are more interested in the broader “you” and we have a much more diverse portfolio of interests.  I think this is a strength in that if I don’t get the top job, in my head and in my female world, it’s not the end of the day. 

For a man, it’s the career and nothing else. In their conversations they are not talking about their kids or their wife, they are talking about their career. There is more pressure on them and, because they are so programmed to get to the top, the idea that there are women out there competing against them doesn’t sit well with a lot of them.  I’m not talking about all men but many of them.​

To what extent is confidence an issue for women?

Confidence is another complexity, as is the fact that women don’t put themselves forward. The reason I have my job is because a woman pushed me to apply for it.  She rang me up on a Thursday night and asked me if I was going to apply.  I said: “You know I’m not going to get it.”

She went on to say: “If you don’t apply, you are signalling that you are not professorial material.”  I knew she was absolutely right.  She goaded me into applying – and I got the job.  I got the job because she pushed me into going for it.   

The decision to have a career can impact on domestic life and to some extent one has to abandon ship. When you are in work and you are driven, you put huge effort in.  It requires absolute singlemindedness.  A lot of women don’t want that because in their head the job is only part of their life and that’s their choice.

I wrote a piece for The Irish Times a few years ago about how women who are rearing their families are made in a way to feel like second class citizens nowadays.  And I wrote that these women are keeping the whole show on the road. They are looking after the children, the grandparents, doing volunteering work in the schools and if we didn’t have people willing to take a back seat in the workplace, society would suffer.

What kind of messages are we sending to women: you have got to get to the top, have to be successful and by the way we want you to have kids in the middle of all this?

It is such a complex issue. To bring it back to something simple: what we really want is a society that gives women choices. So, for example, my dear mother-in-law had no choices.  She had to retire when she got married. 

In a perfect world, we would have choice that would allow women to feel comfortable in deciding they want to spend their time rearing the kids and also allow women who want to put more effort into their career the opportunity to get to the top — if that’s what they want to do.


I got incredible opportunities by virtue of being female. I got my first non-executive directorship and I believe it was probably because they decided they wanted to have a woman on the board.  Being female when there were much fewer females wasn’t a disadvantage.​

What are the challenges for senior leaders in moving that gender diversity dial?

In relation to getting to the top, what are the types of people who get to the top? And when I say the top, I’m talking about CEO type roles.  It requires ruthlessness, climbing the greasy pole and it requires stamping down anybody else who might be on that greasy pole.  Sometimes the people who get to the top are not exactly the nicest of people.  So in terms of challenges for senior leaders in moving that dial, you have to ask:  do they really care?​

Do you believe tone from the top has to be authentic for this to be successful?

I believe this is part of the complexity of the issue. In how many businesses do the people at the top have the freedom to say what they want to say?  Senior leaders don’t have independence of mind; they have to tow the party line. And if you have been brought up to tow the party line, to what extent do you tell the truth and to what extent is a lot of stuff lip service?

They have no problem with the rhetoric and they buy into it but when it comes to the crunch, it’s just lip service. Sorry to be so critical.

On the other hand, there has been an awful lot of progress. I don’t feel discriminated against at all and I never have.  When I have had issues in the workplace, I felt they were not related to my gender but more to my attitude. 


What actions would accelerate progress; are there any outstanding initiatives you have seen from your experience?​

Looking back on my own career, I made so many mistakes but what would have made a difference would be if someone had sat me down and talked me through the rules of the game. ​

I think mentoring and support is absolutely critical and I think there is an awful lot more of that now. 

It depends on your character, for anybody who gets to the top no matter what realm of society, it requires focused discipline, a 24/7 approach.  That will never change and not everybody wants to do that.  I think men are more ambitious than women, more single-minded.

In terms of actions, I’d advocate the Athena Swan type initiatives – forced from the outside with resource implications. In Malaysia, for instance, they are going to name and shame companies, which lack female board members, and they will be barred from bidding for government contracts. 

There has to be a “carrot and stick.” The carrot on its own is not enough. There has to be stick.

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