Female talent bank to balance the 'boards'

A Government initiative to have women make up at least 40% of State boards may finally be acted on, writes Political Editor Mary Regan

LONG before Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney revealed he had “binders full of women” willing to take on top jobs in the US administration, Ireland’s own Charlie Haughey had his Talent Bank of women.

The directory of women who could potentially become members of State boards was launched by the then taoiseach in 1982.

Drawn up by the Council for the Status of Women, it included female academics, psychiatrists, barristers, teachers, civil servants, and architects willing to sit on boards.

At the time, 10% of government appointees to State-sponsored bodies were women, and Haughey said the directory would be a “great advantage to have” when filling positions.

Haughey was soon out of power and, by the time he got back in again, five years later, the level of women on state boards had risen to 18% in the interim period, when Fine Gael’s Garret Fitzgerald was taoiseach.

As that particular talent bank appeared to fritter away over the years, the issue of female representation on State boards has continued to be raised on the floor on the Dáil by the equally low rate of women politicians.

As the new minister of state for equality, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, noted, the target to have a minimum of 40% representation of both women and men on all State boards was set in 1993. The target was not only reaffirmed in this Fine Gael-Labour Programme for Government, but the minister responsible for public sector reform, Brendan Howlin, went further and committed that the quota would be part of broader reforms of how State boards are appointed.

He brought a memo to cabinet in April 2011, a month after coming into office, stating that all of these positions would be publicly advertised on the websites of Government Departments.

Furthermore, he said the adverts would contain the line: “In considering applications, due regard will be given to Government Policy on gender balance on State boards.”

While more than 80% of the positions filled since did not come from the publicly advertised process — as previously reported in the Irish Examiner — most Government Departments have also failed to reach the gender quota target.

Of the 265 State-funded organisations run by 3,426 people, just 34% of board members and 21% of chairs are women.

Women have the lowest representation in important economic, decision-making positions, and make up just 25% of members of boards under the Department of Finance and 22% in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

In contrast, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has the highest representation of women on boards under its control, which are made up of 63% female members.

A report published by minister of state Kathleen Lynch just after she left the Department of Justice, where she had responsibility for equality, makes a number of recommendations on how the position can be improved.

Its top recommendation is the re-establishment of a talent bank of females, which it says should include a provision of self-nomination. It says “active steps” should be taken to identify suitable qualified professional women to offer their expertise “in particular to the more economically focused State boards where there is a significant gender-deficit at present”.

The report also says that private companies should be asked to help to identify women to serve on State boards, and that each Government Department should have to publish material on the steps they are taking to ensure they reach the 40% target.

One of the first actions of Mr Ó Ríordáin was to get the approval of cabinet to implement these recommendations.

He has announced that a talent bank will be created, to be accompanied by closer monitoring of progress, with each Department reporting every six months on its progress in reaching the 40% target.

While there have been many steps forward in recent years, he said, “a number of Departments fall below this average and there remains significant under-representation of both sexes on certain boards”.

To date, this Coalition has wasted the opportunity to tap into the under-used resource of female talent to serve on important decision making boards in organisations set up to serve the Irish public. The new minister for equality has shown a determination to build on the slow progress that has been made to date. Let’s hope the latest initiative amounts to real action and not just more empty promises.

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