David Harney is the CEO of Irish Life, one of Ireland’s leading financial services companies with more than a million customers. With a total workforce of 2,400 employees, Irish Life operates in life insurance, pension, investment and health insurance markets.
This interview was conducted by Clodagh Hughes in October 2017.
If the business case for gender diversity is so strong why, has progress been so slow?
I agree that it has been slow, but I do think there has been a lot of progress over the last number of years. I am more positive on where we are on gender diversity than others might be.
Yes, there is still a gap at the C Suite and that's a challenge. However, if I look at Irish Life, the levels of participation at all levels up to C Suite are much better than they have been in the past. They are now getting to levels I am more comfortable with.
We have a way to go yet but I can see the journey ahead and I’m confident that we will make a lot more progress over the next couple of years.
At board level, there has been a lot of progress made already. It’s getting easier to achieve gender balance more quickly at board level. There is now a larger pool of women from which we can draw, so there are no obvious barriers to companies getting their board right from a gender perspective.
Yes, there are still boards out there that could be more diverse. But with the pool of talented females available now it should improve.
The challenge that still remains is the C Suite.
Why are you so positive about the future?
Because I think the gender discussion has moved on to be a diversity and inclusion conversation and that's a better space for it to be in.
It's not seen as a single issue anymore and it talks to everybody about the agenda. I think there has been a real breakthrough in thinking around diversity. People now really understand and appreciate that diverse teams make better decisions. Because of this, people are more comfortable acknowledging the fact that people bring different capabilities.
A few years ago, you nearly couldn’t say men and women were different. You had to view everyone individually and see everyone as potentially the same. Now there is a growing appreciation that groups of people on average are different and that there is a benefit to businesses that recognise this and maximise the value add of different perspectives. This, I believe, is a big move in thinking.
I know that not every company has rationalised this and got into that space but a lot have and those companies will do better as a result.
What type of progress do you anticipate over next few years?
There eventually comes a tipping point. We are not at that point yet and there is no guarantee it will happen. But I can see the journey we need to take over the next three to five years to get us there. And once we reach that tipping point, there will be no going back from it.
Why do you believe it taken so long to see women progressing to senior roles?
There are lots of reasons given as to why progress hasn't been quicker – unconscious bias against women in leadership positions, confidence issues in women, balancing family needs and so on. These have been well documented.
To get a real breakthrough in senior female leadership, people coming up through an organisation need to see roles models. If there aren’t any, it’s difficult and it takes a while to build up that population of role models.
As I said, the debate is in a good space under diversity and inclusion and many companies are making substantial progress, which creates new role models to inspire others.
You talk about the agenda moving on from a gender only discussion to a more diversity and inclusion one. Do you think that negativity has grown around the positioning of gender diversity?
There can be negativity. I suppose some people get defensive about it, especially when it comes to debates on gender quotas and appointments on merit.
There are some good arguments, in my view, for quotas. The whole meaning of unconscious bias is that it is very hard to be aware of it. People can talk about unconscious bias but I don't think they fully internalise what it really means. Everybody has bias. I’ve done the implicit bias test myself but then you sort of forget about it. If unconscious bias is strong in society, then you really do have to tackle it proactively and quotas are one way to do this.
But, that said, I don’t think quotas will happen. Governments and regulators are unlikely to go for it. And when you talk to men and women about it, most don't want it either. Both men and women who want to get to leadership positions want it to be seen to be based on merit.
In a CEO’s world, you always are in the practical realm and you have to focus on what you can do. In a strange way, I think that not having quotas may give us an advantage as a business. Other businesses which are slower to this will miss out on tapping into the talents of a very large group of people and that’s an opportunity for us.
So how will you get more females to your C Suite?
You do need to be clear on what you want to achieve. I have 11 people reporting into me now, two of whom are women. This is low and really should be no lower than five. I would like to see this number increase but it will take a bit of work and a bit of time.
This means that as people move off my team, as part of the natural rotation that happens at senior levels, I need to be mindful of potential replacements and ensure I work harder to create more balanced panels from which to select those replacements.
A certain number will come from within the company and that means continuing to develop our talent. Developing our talent isn’t a gender issue. We have to develop all our talent to make sure we get the best out of all our people to help them to come through to more senior ranks.
Given the slow progress on gender to date, our female talent may need extra encouragement and development. There is also lots of external talent but sometimes you have to work a little harder to find and attract external female talent.
The bottom line to all this is that if, as a company, you are determined to get to a position of more diversity, there is absolutely no reason why you can’t get there.
Do women have a specific role to play in achieving this?
Everyone has a role to play in this. It’s not a problem for women to solve. However, there are lots of successful women out there and I think they have a responsibility to be role models. A lot already do.
I also know some are reluctant to. But, by and large, most successful people are very generous with their time and are willing to give time back to future generations of talent.
I also think that women should not be afraid to advocate for gender balance. People don’t need to be defensive about the benefits of diversity. When we brought diversity to our leadership team here, they were very supportive of the agenda and taking action on it.
What about confidence and the view that women are less confident than men?
That gets mentioned a lot. To be honest I’m not sure how real it is. Confidence may also be an issue for men. It could be an issue for less men but if it is there, it also means we are not maximising our male talent either.
I get that women can have personality traits of being more reserved and cautious, for example, when it comes to going for opportunities. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Organisations need to be more aware of this when recruiting and interviewing. So, we need to understand that the person who puts their hand up first may not always be the best person for the job and that we seek to encourage people more generally to go forward for more opportunities. This is where I think mentoring and role models can have a big role to play.
Women are more represented in support functions than P&L roles in the C Suite. Women, I believe, should be as ambitious as men to go for all types of roles, support and P&L.
What about work life balance?
This is something I think that is as important to men as women. I know lots of men who tell me they want a better work life balance. It’s not always easy to balance a busy career with family or other demands, but it can be done. I have young kids and a wife with a busy career. We share the responsibility and I take my turn with school drop offs and collections. Technology helps – so when I leave at 5pm, I can easily check back in on things from 9pm. When you have a young family, it’s a busy time but then lots of people say don’t wish it away because it passes very quickly.
How important is your role as leader?
As leaders, we should have an absolute belief that better diversity is the right thing to do. I do. I’ve seen it in action. I have been involved in diverse teams and seen that they are better. Once you see the benefits, you have to do everything you can to make it happen. It just makes good business sense and those companies that embrace it will do better as a result.