Terry Prone: Bored of the same old tired talk around female appointments

'He seemed astonished that I was not bowled over with enthusiasm at the opportunity to telephone all of my rich friends and dun them for money to hand to him'
Terry Prone: Bored of the same old tired talk around female appointments

Michael Noonan and Gemma Hussey in 1986.  She said since she retired from public life, she has been offered not one single directorship other than those which — you’re way ahead of me — require her to call her rich friends to beg money from them.  Picture: Eamonn Farrell

When the client/friend rang and asked me if I’d consider being a director of a prestigious organisation, and if it was all right for him to give his pal, the CEO, my phone number, I was cool about it, not wanting to be embarrassingly eager. 

You know yourself. I put his pal’s number in my phone and, within hours, up he popped. More than touched, he was, to know that I would positively consider a directorship, me being such a phenomenally successful businesswoman over such a long period of time. 

I preened a bit. And, he went on, my connectedness knew no bounds. I was about to preen a bit more when reality bit. When you’re seeking a new board member, you don’t need to butter up the target. Red lights came on all over the inside of my head and I sought clarification. Board membership of his organisation, right? 

Well, he said.

Killer, that “well".

This was a very special board, he explained. Oh, I said, freezing him like I was Elsa from the children’s movie, not the main board. This very special board, he fumbled on, would draw on the unequalled, the unique connections I had built up over the years. No, it wouldn’t, I told him. Not interested. He seemed astonished that I was not bowled over with enthusiasm at the opportunity to telephone all of my rich friends and dun them for money to hand to him.

Now, I do have rich friends. At least two of them. One of them would do an Elsa on me if I ever contacted her in mendicant mode, and while I might confidently ring the other if it was two in the morning and I had a body that needed burying, I would be skin-crawlingly unwilling to ask him for cash. 

I ended the conversation, removed the CEO from the phone, and forgot about it until I read a recent interview with former government minister Gemma Hussey.

In that interview, she shared, with some amusement, the fact that since she retired from public life, she has been offered not one single directorship other than those which — you’re way ahead of me — require her to call her rich friends to beg money from them. I figure Hussey has more rich friends than I do, because I move in muckier circles, but she doesn’t seem to have been any more eager than I was to take up any of these causes, although she’d have been fine with a real directorship. 

This is a woman who ran a business, who got herself elected first into the Seanad, then into the Dáil, served in government in senior positions during a particularly difficult economic time, and then published an authoritative analysis of the state of the nation. 

Yet male-dominated boards look at Hussey and make the ultimate misogynistic judgment that she’d be no good on the A team, but could be useful on the B team, cosying up to rich people and charming money out of them. 

Wonderful, the irony of so treating a woman who has spent her life fighting for the advancement of women.

For a while there, Ireland seemed to be getting it nearly right when it came to board appointments. For one brief shining year, that being 2019, 60% of Iseq board positions went to women, meaning that Ireland was 10% above the European average. Before the fizz was off the champagne, that reverted to the norm. 

According to the delightfully named Heidrick & Struggles, a US-based executive search firm, of the new directorships taken up in the last year, 31% went to women. Only a little better than 2018, when 29% of such appointments were won by women, putting Ireland at the bottom of the list. It suggests the “maybe we should have a woman on the board” impulse does not run deep in corporate Ireland. Bully for the women who made it onto private sector boards in 2019, but they seem to represent a statistical blip rather than a trend.

This despite women earnestly trying to “qualify” themselves for boards by doing diplomas in corporate governance and putting their names on websites indicating their willingness to serve, together with their qualifications for so doing.

In fairness, a number of men do corporate governance courses — and subsequently encounter a paucity of board appointments. But the number of women who do it in the latter stages of their careers, or when they’ve taken retirement, with high hopes of such appointments, is sadly instructive of an underlying truth. 

Men have always been appointed to multiple boards based on track record and connections, but that doesn’t happen with women — with one outstanding exception named Rose Hynes — so they go looking for qualifications that might even out their playing field.

That needs to be questioned, as do the occasional statements that the financial crisis of a decade ago would never have happened if more women had been on corporate boards, worldwide, because women are naturally more cautious, more given to husbandry than hunting, in financial terms. This is not useful. 

Selection based on the general sexist statements about women as a gender against which we have fought for half a century is not the way to go.

It might also be worth questioning those worthy, well-meaning lists of women egging for board positions. A guy on a number of boards because he’s smart and able (nearly as smart and able as some female friends who are not on any boards) seemed a good person to run this past. I asked him if he had ever consulted an online list of potential directors on the distaff side and he gave me the wide-eyed silent smirk guys of a certain age use when they know telling the truth is going to get them into serious trouble. 

The smirk said “Are you kidding? Search a list of wannabes without the cop-on to conceal their failure thus far?” The only organisations significantly drawing from this pool are state bodies with a gender equality imperative. (And minuscule financial reward.) Right now, men are shoo-ins for the €50,000-a-year grunt-a-month private sector directorships, whereas women, for the most part, aren’t.

The third fallacious route to directorships for aspirant women is to warmly embrace invitations to be on the fundraising boards of charities, on the basis that participation in this ghetto will be noticed and appreciated by those on the real board who will then invite the woman from the fundraising board to consider elevation. This may have been studied, but in the absence of solid data, it’s fair to assume that it doesn’t happen. 

Of course, some successful women may regard asking rich pals for money for good causes as a way of “giving back". I’m all for giving back, but if it takes the form of an invitation to a fundraising board, they know where they can stick it.

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