'You’re doing phenomenally well with brilliant men; why wouldn’t you want brilliant women too?'

Norah Casey says she wants to empower women to achieve their full potential in the business world, writes Carolyn Moore

Photo credit: Pictured getting their selfie taken by Norah Casey, chair of Harmonia Publications were, Áine Mulloy, Co-Founder, Girlcrew, Sandra Healy from DCU, Gina O’Reilly, chief operating officer, Nitro, and Sarita Johnston, female entrepreneurship manager, Enterprise Ireland. Picture Colm Mahady/Fenn

It’s been the surprise, feel-good hit of 2017, and having raked in over $200 million at the box office, Hidden Figures has sent a resounding message to Hollywood that the world wants to see women’s stories on screen.

In this case, they’re not just any women. Trailblazers Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn were African American mathematicians whose work helped NASA send the first American into space. They’re women who made history — then found themselves erased from it because herstory is never valued the same way.

It’s a film about potential; the potential these women had and the extra hurdles they had to overcome to realise it, underscored by the unspoken reminder that similar potential goes unrealised, countless times over, because vast swathes of the population remain excluded from the workforce by virtue of their gender, race or class.

For years, that fact has been bothering Norah Casey, who tells me: “I say to CEOs, ‘You’re doing phenomenally well with brilliant men; why wouldn’t you want brilliant women too? You’re flying on one wing.’”

Troublingly, she says it’s something Ireland’s biggest corporations already know. “KPMG, Accenture, Pricewaterhouse Cooper — they all say gender balanced companies outperform their competitors on every single metric,” she says. “They tell me: ‘We want women, Norah, but we lose them. We don’t know why, but we can’t keep them in the organisation.’

Master of Holles Street Rhona Mahony

“The reality is, a young man and a young woman can start working in the same company, with the same qualifications, in their early 20s, and the man is ten times more likely to get to the top of that organisation, while the woman is more likely to leave,” she states. “That’s not just about women. That’s a problem with society as a whole.”

She says it’s an issue that’s becoming urgent for Ireland’s businesses. “There are new European regulations coming down the tracks, and Ireland is one of the few EU countries which hasn’t yet gender quotas for boardroom representation,” she explains. “We’re not even at the races in terms of thinking about it. At boardroom level, we have 10%-12% of women, and we need 20%-30% by 2020. We have a huge job to do to get Irish businesses up to that level.”

Casey believes her Planet Woman Academy is “new approach” that can both help women realise their full potential, and help companies address the issue of gender balance in their boardrooms. Last week, thousands of women — and some men — attended her Female Leadership Conference in the RDS, where Enterprise Ireland CEO Julie Sinnamon, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, Master of Holles Street Rhona Mahony, and others, discussed what it took to propel them to the top of their fields.

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald

Crucial to Planet Woman is the inclusion of men in the conversation. “I want men to be a part of this movement because we need ‘He for She’ ambassadors,” she says. “I’m a firm believer in it, and always have been.

“We need good men to stand beside women and say: ‘For the betterment of society, this is what we need to do’.”

Compounding the problem of gender imbalance, she says there’s a real issue in how employers treat men compared to how they treat women. “Until there’s a cultural shift, where both women and men stand up and say, ‘This is wrong, this is not the way the world should be’, we won’t see the changes we need.

“I can’t change society, but as a mother I know it’s very difficult for women to work their way up in organisations that don’t have family friendly policies,” she says.

Pointing to the financial constraints crippling many young couples — not to mention the increase in same-sex couples raising families — Casey says falling into traditional gender roles simply isn’t an option anymore. “These days, both partners need to be employed full time. Neither one can afford to give up work, so both have to pursue their careers as aggressively and ambitiously as possible. That means we need a new approach to family and childcare,” she argues.

“I’ve had men confide in me that they’d be laughed at by male colleagues if they left work for their kids, but that attitude disadvantages both men and women. I’ve sat in meetings looking at my watch, knowing I have to pick up my child, and realising no man in the room is under that pressure.

Enterprise Ireland CEO Julie Sinnamon

“I’ve left, knowing looks were exchanged, and the supposition was that I was somehow less dedicated. I’ve been in that space, but until recently, I never understood how difficult it was for men to be in that space too.”

“As a big employer of women”, Casey adds, “I don’t just loose women for the duration of their maternity leave, I lose them every time their child has measles. It’s never dad leaving his workplace — not because he doesn’t want to, but because he can’t. That’s why I always say, equality is a male/female issue.”

“Within the business community, we recognise all the things that are wrong, but until now we haven’t been focused on the fix,” she says. “I designed Planet Woman Academy to try to help young woman rise the corporate ranks and overcome some of these obstacles.”

See planetwomanacademy.com.


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