This article was originally published in the Irish Times on 12 October 2015.
Market-led approach tackles prejudice about women in leadership roles
KPMG Ireland’s graduate recruitment policy ensures a 50:50 gender balance in each year’s intake, and this is reflected right through to manager and director level. However, that does not follow through into partner level, where women remain in the minority. This has led the firm to take a series of innovative actions aimed at achieving greater diversity at the top.
“The whole landscape is changing,” says KPMG partner and head of financial services markets Darina Barrett. “There are more female buyers of professional services than there used to be, for example. We are lucky in Ireland that the environment is not hostile to women and there is a realisation generally that greater diversity and inclusivity is good for business. Lots of companies have programmes to promote it as they understand that more diversity gives better decisions.”
This is certainly understood at KPMG. “We don’t want to get left behind – we want to be a leader. That’s expected of us. When we looked at the pyramid within our own organisation we started asking questions of ourselves. We recruit 50:50 but this isn’t reflected at the top. We asked ourselves if this was something to do with society or other external factors or if it was something internal. We realise we can’t do much to change the external world but we can certainly do a lot internally.”
Tackling the issue wasn’t simply motivated by it being the right thing to do.
“If you really want change you’ve got to care about it,” says Barrett. “And people here do care. They think about their own children and what the future will hold for them. They also don’t want to look back and think they worked for some kind of dinosaur of a firm.
“But it is quite an emotional issue to tackle. When we are attempting to change things we don’t want to give the people involved the impression that we think they have been unconsciously or consciously biased against people. You’ve got to be very careful.”
Mirror the markets
Some organisations approach the issue from a human resources point of view, but KPMG has taken a market-led line.
“HR can be quite process driven,” she says. “We want to align with and mirror the markets we are dealing with. For example, if someone was going to Japan or Saudi Arabia to deal with a client they would naturally prepare for it and get educated in relation to the market. We have to think the same way about markets at home and whether we are selling to male or female teams, and whether it is males or females selling to them. We have to ask ourselves the question if we need to do anything differently when approaching that transaction.”
The firm is also advocating for change externally. “We are involved in a number of initiatives including the 30% Club, the Women’s Executive Network and Going For Growth. We are very active in these organisations in terms of promoting greater involvement by women in the leadership of companies and in entrepreneurship.”
The 30% Club began in Britain as an organisation aimed at achieving at least 30 per cent representation for women on the boards of stock-market-listed companies. Barrett says the Irish group has been adapted to suit local conditions.
“We don’t have so many plcs here so our aim is more to promote greater awareness of the issue and get companies to commit to supporting us and to work at achieving diversity and inclusivity in their organisations.”
KPMG’s involvement in these different initiatives entails both practical support in the form of seminars for entrepreneurs and staff members taking part in other activities.
“We don’t just tell our female staff members to go out and network with other women,” she says. “By engaging with these organisations we offer them opportunities to do it and learn from the experiences of others. That way we make a contribution and help our own people at the same time.”
She says KPMG Cork partner Caroline O’Driscoll has just won a Women Mean Business award for her work with the I Wish initiative. “This is aimed at encouraging schoolgirls to get involved in STEM subjects and involves us at another level in terms of promoting diversity.”
These efforts are more than matched by the actions being taken internally. “What we did was start off with a number of focus groups,” Barrett says. “We had our own view of what needed to be done, but we wanted to ask people in the organisation what they thought and we introduced a number of changes as a result of what we heard.”
One of the first was quite simple but important nevertheless. “We got rid of the term ‘flexible working’ and replaced it with ‘intelligent working,’ ” she says. “Flexible working came with the implication that one person wasn’t necessarily working as hard as another. Intelligent working is different: any one at management level can work whatever hours they wish as long as they are available between 10 and 4; and they don’t have to be at their desk in the office. We have the devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops which enable people to be in touch and managing their teams from wherever they are.”
That means people can choose to do the school run, look after a parent, go out to football training, or whatever it is that they wish to fit in with their working day.
“The culture is one where we trust people to the work and we make it possible for them to do it through technology. We don’t need to see you to know that you are working. We are able to hold on to good people for longer by helping take stress out of their daily lives.”
Role modelling has also been promoted. “If you ask people who they think would make a better CEO, a man or a woman, in many cases the answer is a man. This is because people have grown up seeing men in those roles. But, as we know from the world of investment, past performance is no indication of the future.
“We have decided to put some female role models up in lights so that people can see how they perform in the CEO role. We have been running a series of talks by female CEOs such as Anne O’Leary of Vodafone and Anne Heraty of CPL Recruitment. This has proved very valuable for both our male and female staff.”
Internal role models are also to the fore. “”We have a number of female partners in KPMG who are now meeting female managers and directors from different parts of the firm for regular lunches to talk about themselves and their careers. People tend not to be good at talking about themselves and the lunch format is very good at breaking down barriers to this. These occasions are helping create networks within the organisation and that is very good for the future.”
Other measures include special assistance to help people catch up on what they might have missed out on during a career break or parental leave, split parental leave to fit in with lifestyle requirements and active work to tackle the unconscious bias people can have when it comes to women taking leadership positions.
“We started on this journey about three years ago and we are seeing positive results,” says Barrett.
“It has made us question more and listen more. It has also made us better as an organisation. When you compare the performance of companies around the world those with better diversity and inclusivity policies do better.”
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