Peter Barrett is CEO of SMBC Aviation Capital, the leading global aircraft leasing company which is headquartered in Dublin. It also has representation in China, France, Hong Kong, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore and the United States.
This interview was conducted by Clodagh Hughes in October 2017.
Why has little changed in women reaching senior roles in business?
First of all, this topic is very close to my heart. I am passionate about gender equality. I have a wife, daughters and sisters. It is important to me that my daughters get as much access to opportunity as my son does. I was also raised by a very strong mother who instilled in me from an early age the importance of equality.
There are two reasons I believe that contribute largely to the lack of real change in this area. The first is societal – how society sees men and women and how we see ourselves.
By the age of 12, people are often conditioned to see men as the breadwinners and women as the homemakers. This bias plays out in the working world, very often unconsciously. And unconscious bias is a really challenging thing to address.
A lot of this has to do with education in the home. My job requires that I travel a lot, but when I am at home we make a real effort to ensure our children see both of us doing the same thing. I strongly believe that until gender equality happens at home it won’t happen in the workplace. Trying to change people at the age of 30 is very difficult, in my view.
I also think the stereotypical role of men in society has an influence. There is still a lot of pressure for men to be seen as the breadwinner – the hunter-gatherer kind of thing. I also think material status is more important to men than women and this drives competition in the workplace. It should be equally accepted for a man not to have a demanding and “successful” career.
And I think women are often far better at making choices about what works for them. Some decide that succeeding in the corporate world may not just be worth it when they weigh up everything else that is important in life. So, they either opt out or make decisions to prioritise clearly around work and family. I think men often make poor decisions in this regard.
What is your view on the challenges women have in balancing career and family responsibilities?
Child rearing and all the challenges and practicalities that go with that is a big issue. In SMBC Aviation Capital we work very hard to be family friendly. We provide good maternity leave and we encourage our staff to take extended time. We also offer paternity leave to our male staff but there’s limited take up (societal roles again). The reality is that women might leave the work place for six to 12 months and men don’t. So, if women decide to have children (and, for most of us, having kids is a very important part of our lives) it can be at an important point in a woman’s career.
So for example if you have three children you could be out of the loop for three years. That's a challenge for how people and companies manage careers. We do ensure that “out of sight, out of mind” doesn’t happen to our staff but the realities of corporate life don’t always make that easy.
We try really hard to encourage young women to apply to the SMBC Aviation Capital graduate programme. We make a point to ensure our collateral and the subliminal messages we give when recruiting for staff are inviting to women. I think parental influence on graduates’ career choice is high and has an influence.
My sense — although I’ve no hard evidence of this — is that young women are encouraged to go study and arm themselves for a career in the professions like accountancy and law. As a result some of the best and brightest graduates are being funnelled into the professions. On the other hand I think young men are encouraged by parents to take more “risky” career choices.
We know that men can over play their strengths and women can underplay theirs. We make sure to take all this into account when we are recruiting.
What do you believe females need to do?
I think the corporate world needs to embrace the female way of working. But females also have to flex their styles, adapt to that corporate world and learn to take risks and so on.
The best case scenario is a combination of both styles and that demands changes from both men and women.
What should leaders do?
Leadership is very important and by that, I mean the behaviours and actions from those in leadership positions. Everything I do as CEO is seen, parsed and analysed. As leaders, we cast a long shadow.
So, when I collect the kids for activities or leave for PT meetings or sports days, I don’t make excuses for doing so. It is a very important part of my life and if I don’t pass the message down to those who work with me that it’s ok to do this then it won’t happen.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t spend long hours in the office, travelling or at work functions. I do. You can’t be a CEO and not do that.