More Young Women in the Board Room Please!

Young women’s leadership has been at the heart of the YWCA movement since its fruition more than a century ago. With more than 50% of YWCA Ireland’s governing board members aged 35 or under,  the association has proven that young women want to lead, that young women can lead and that inter-generational leadership really does work.

Unfortunately, the current reality of women’s leadership at senior level in Ireland generally, is neither positive nor encouraging. With representation on boards a meagre 16%, women are massively underrepresented in key decision making spaces. On Wednesday, 6th September 2017, the National Women’s Council highlighted this issue at their Getting Women on Board – Harnessing Women’s Talent in Companies event, a joint initiative with the Norwegian Embassy in Ireland. Panel contributions by experts from Norway and the Irish private sector set the scene for a lively and informed discussion.

So what is the learning for Irish companies who want to and should involve young women in their leadership?

Diversity and gender equality make for a better, more representative company.  Anne O’Leary, CEO of Vodafone Ireland stated that ‘gender equality is good for businesses’. Essentially, Irish companies who do not have women and young women in decision making spaces are missing out. According to NWCI’s Better Boards, Better Business, Better Society (2015) , “Many studies now show demonstrative positive financial results with an increase of women on the board”.

Gender quotas work.  Else Berit Eckland, Norwegian Ambassador to Ireland, and Liv Monica Stubholt, Selmer,  reported on the success of gender quotas in Norway, where women’s representation on boards increased from 7% to 40% within a few years. Interestingly, both panelists reiterated the often understated fact that gender equality not only benefits women but men and families too!

Furthermore, companies must be aware of their unconscious bias toward women and young women and acknowledge that women are often subject to stricter, more exacting standards than their male counterparts. Margaret Ward, CEO of Clear Ink and board member of RTE, challenged companies to dispel the myths which reinforce the status quo in Ireland in a bid to change the long historical and cultural exclusion of women from decision making spaces, and, let’s be honest, the somewhat unspoken fear that a woman’s career may be disrupted by child rearing.

So what advice is there for young women who want to lead on boards?

Volunteer.  Be bold in putting yourself forward for positions in organisations where you are passionate about their vision and direction. Be fair to yourself and be confident about your competency. Look for opportunities within universities and youth settings but don’t limit yourself to that – see what other organisations are out there and offer your leadership skills. You could start with where a range of board positions are advertised and where there is a commitment to gender equality.

Look for boards that demonstrate quality leadership. Ensure that you will be well supported by staff and fellow board members. Becoming a member of a board should not be about shouldering the work of the organisation. Instead it should be an opportunity to offer vision, direction and governance and working as part of a team to ensure that your vision is achieved.

Be strategic, set your goals and equip yourself with the skills that you need. Don’t assume responsibilities without ensuring that you have the support that you need to fulfill them, whether that is mentorship or further training. Seek out what it is that will help you best to achieve your goals.

What has the YWCA done to advance young women’s leadership on boards?

As well as looking at the composition of our own board the YWCA has also brought a motion to the National Women’s Council of Ireland calling on them to take positive steps to develop a strategy for young women’s leadership. As a leading women’s organisation in Ireland, they can provide important leadership in this area. We are further working to increase awareness of the importance of young women’s representation and leadership in both public and private arenas. For an example of this, take a look at our recent submission to the citizen’s assembly about young women and climate change.

What more can we do to support young women’s leadership? Get in touch and let us know or become a member and help us to realise our strategic vision in this area.


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