“I came from a working-class background where my father was a carpenter and my mother ran a public house and also had 9 children.

“In rural Ireland back then, having a female publican was quite unusual. A working mother who did that job was even more unusual. So from a very early age, I had a strong role model, showing that women could have multiple opportunities.

“When I graduated in the 1980s, there was still a tendency for women to be pointed primarily towards the caring professions, rather than broader commercial opportunities.

“I started out, in another executive search firm, as part of an all-female research team. We were in the basement and the partners – all men – were upstairs!”

Role rules

“Similar differences also permeated executive search. For global roles requiring significant travel, the assumption would be that women were less likely to want those roles or be less suitable. Because they would have caring responsibilities.

“I think clients often saw the appointment of women in certain roles as too risky, which reduced the talent pool. Thankfully, there were brave voices out there where this was challenged. But these assumptions reduced the number of women who were promoted, and I think women were often overlooked on appointments.

“And let’s not get too complacent, imagining that everything has changed over the past 20 years. It hasn’t.

Familiar feedback

“Odgers Berndtson has done a lot of work across the professional services sector, for instance, and the same comments come back, time after time.

“Firms say: ‘we recruit really brilliant female graduates. They come in and get to a certain level, but because somebody is needed to be dedicated to clients – which means travel, being available, driving the business relationships out of core hours – we lose these women. Or the women who come back to work after career breaks, come back at a lower level role.’ This is insanity.

“Overall the debate about diversity is now central. Not just across the HR community, but amongst all business leaders, and, of course, touching on all aspects of diversity – not just gender. Chairmen and chief executives talk about this – no longer as just a policy or process, but as an integral part of the success of a business.

Following a different path

“Many women are not prepared to follow the same paths as male colleagues to get to the top. I think many people are now looking for more balanced careers. Some don’t want to give the 24/7 availability that top roles often require. Others are making conscious choices not to take opportunities in the same way others have before.

“I have been a partner in this firm for over 20 years, and for 10 of those, I’ve been a working mother.

“Our success comes from being an organisation which acknowledges how you live your life and what it takes for you to be successful at work.”

“We’re prepared to be more open and discuss things that fifteen years ago probably weren’t talked about.

Opening the conversation

“More widely, a much more open conversation is still needed about the support needed for those in senior roles, especially women.

“How do they achieve support if they have child care or other caring responsibilities? Today, a significantly higher percentage of women would say to me that, compared to ten years ago, they have a partner who assumes that responsibility. That’s an important societal shift.

"But what role does government need to play? There’s a legislative part to this, about equality in access to services, tax, shared parental leave, for example.

“There is also an important affordability question around who provides care, not just for children, but also for parents and other family members.

“Current inequality in pay, and the persistent gender pay gap, brings financial restrictions which are like a set of handcuffs on men and women in terms of the choices that they make."

Rebalancing remuneration

“If there were absolutely no difference in remuneration between both sexes, it would be an enormous step to rebalancing equal career opportunities. Then it would come down to ambition and opportunity – a fundamental shift in getting to a level playing field."

“There are many ways that businesses can help too.

“Flexible working and job sharing for example, simple things that are much more common in the public sector than the private. Technology now enables us to be anywhere at any time. Organisations not using these advances are reducing their talent pipeline, not just for women, but for the generations coming up.

Beyond gender

“Of course there are many other aspects of diversity besides gender – age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental health, disability – to name a few. Thanks to the success we’ve had in bringing gender diversity into the open, we’re discussing these other issues in a way they haven’t been talked about before. That has to be a good thing.”

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Áine Hurley

Áine Hurley is a senior member of the Board Practice in the London office, where she also leads the HR Practice. Her team is responsible for recruiting HR Directors as well as experts in Talent, Re...

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