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Deeds, not words

Feb 10, 2020
While support for diversity and inclusion is welcome, it is now time for business leaders to instigate meaningful change, writes Rachel Hussey.

In the past ten years, diversity of all kinds – but gender diversity in particular – has become an area of focus for almost all business leaders. In what can be interpreted in many ways as progress, the 30% Club, which I currently chair, has been asked more frequently if 30% is a sufficiently ambitious goal.

30% Club Ireland is a group of Chairs and CEOs of 260 Irish organisations who agree with our goal to ensure that 30% of board members and senior management in Irish businesses are women. The Club was founded in the UK in 2010 by Helena Morrissey, and the Irish chapter was established in 2015.

The 30% title was adopted because 30% is the critical mass that a minority must reach in a group to have an effective voice. And 30% is very much a floor and not a ceiling in terms of our goals and ambitions.

I am a lawyer, but law firms and advisory and accounting firms face the same challenges around inclusion and diversity. In this rapidly changing world, with new careers emerging all the time, professional services firms have to find ways to stay attractive to graduates (both men and women) and to retain them once they have been trained. In other words, diversity may be a moral imperative, but it is also a necessity for business. Today’s graduates expect to find diversity where they work.

That wasn’t the case in the 1990s when I started in practice. There was no discussion about diversity in business back then. There was a concept of ‘equality’, which was confined mainly to pay and conditions. The feminist movement was a social one, focused on issues like contraception. The Women’s Political Association was advocating for more women in politics, but the business world was separate to all of that. And I think many of the women who were in that business world either didn’t focus on the lack of diversity or were too isolated to speak up in any meaningful way.

I was, of course, aware of the social movements while I was in college, but I assumed that the world was mostly a fair place and that if you were good enough, you could do whatever you wanted to do. Women were very well represented in the top of my class in Trinity. I didn’t even notice when I was doing a master’s degree at Harvard Law School that only a quarter of my class were women. After I qualified, however, a few incidents surprised me. When I attended an event with my then-boss, and we met his sister, she asked me how long I had been my boss’ secretary. When I was pregnant with my first child and was the primary breadwinner, I realised that I was going to have to rely on social welfare payments to survive. And then I had to make – and saw other women having to make – career decisions that weren’t decisions, as there was no choice.

Spurred on by all of this, my women partners and I came together in 2008 and came up with plans to empower the women in our firm. And when I saw Helena Morrissey speak in Dublin in 2013, I knew the 30% Club was a real game-changer because it had clear goals, was business-led and – most importantly of all – included men, without whom no real change will ever be possible.

There has been some progress, but perhaps we in professional services firms need to take some bolder steps now – for our men and women. We need to recognise the needs of a more modern workforce and find ways to integrate family life and absences into a career path rather than separate to, or an exit from, a career path. That includes better career planning built around family absence and greater recognition and accommodation of the needs of men in their desire to play an equal part in family life. 
We need to recognise the potential for 24-hour demands in a digital age and become more agile in how we work and how we rest – as individuals, as parents, as carers and as human beings – and we need to demonstrate and practise this, starting from the top. We all state our commitment to diversity and equality of opportunity. It’s now time to prove our commitment.

Rachel Hussey is Chair of 30% Club Ireland and a Partner at Arthur Cox.