Pioneering Irish businesses are rapidly discovering the business benefits of seeking gender balance in leadership roles, especially in sectors that are traditionally dominated by men. This was a key aim identified by Enterprise Ireland in its 2020 Women in Business strategy, and already the leadership gender balance strategy is paying off for those businesses that have worked hard to increase the number of women in senior management and leadership positions.
Fast-growing tech firm VRAI, a leader in the field of data driven VR simulation training, specialising in training for “risky, remote and rare” activities such as working on off-shore wind turbines. Not surprisingly, this sector is overwhelmingly dominated by men, so achieving gender balance in any part of the business, much less in leadership roles, is quite a challenge.
“Our sector is technology and we would be hiring software developers, data engineers, 3D artists etc,” explains VRAI co-founder and managing director, Pat O’Connor. “If I was doing straightforward hiring, for instance through LinkedIn, it would be about 80% male. It’s even more challenging as you get to higher level roles. The question is, what do you do about it? We’re trying to change things, and for a number of reasons. There’s the ethical reason, that it doesn’t seem fair or right; it seems that systemically women are not getting the same opportunities in what is a very exciting industry.
“But there’s also a strategic reason – what we are trying to do is really complex, in an emerging market. One of the ways to mitigate that complexity is having diversity of mindset in the senior team. We’re already doing something that’s very hard, and it would be a lot harder trying to do it with a mono-mindset team. So we’re doing it for business reasons as well as ethical ones.”
Deeds not words
Pat agrees that more people are realising the importance of gender balance in business – the big question is though, are we doing enough on a practical level? “I think people are thinking about it, but what’s important are deeds, not just words, it’s about doing something to change the situation. Thanks to our own strategy, I feel that more people are engaging with us to learn about diversity on a business level, to see how they can do it in their own businesses.”
Pat and the VRAI team have created a practical strategy to promote gender balance in every part of their business. “As a business, we have adopted a triple bottom line. In real terms, this means that as a director of the company, you have a responsibility not just for profit but also for people and the planet. We are striving to create a more meaningful workplace, where we’re achieving something else, not just earning profit. As part of this, we are committed to a gender-balanced workforce.
“We set out to be a gender-balanced company and we set out a number of milestones. At VRAI 10 (when we had ten employees), we had gender parity.” says O’Connor.
“As we got bigger though – we now have 18 employees – that figure has altered somewhat, we’re now 66-33 toward men. That has predominantly been driven by hiring more senior people, and we’ve found that there are even fewer women applying for these roles. Our aim is to get back to gender parity by VRAI 30.
“Early on in the business, we put in a number of strategies at a junior level to achieve gender balance. We committed to a gender-balanced shortlist for every job, which means we take much longer to recruit but it’s the right thing to do. We also sponsored Ireland’s first-ever female-only tech apprenticeship – in fact our apprentice is coming to the end of her two years. In this scheme, our apprentice spends part of her work in college and part in the office with us.
“Now we need to address the issue at a senior level. Our first strategy is to look at non-traditional hires. For instance, if someone has been working at a high level in an adjacent industry, they very likely can bring a lot of experience to this industry too. For example, one of the members of our management team came from a film background, working in production, but because she’s an outstanding performer, she’s able to make a huge contribution to the business.
“Another way is by role modelling people, showing others that it’s possible to get into these roles, even if you’re not in technology now. And finally, it’s providing some sort of flexibility. It’s a big cost to introduce enhanced maternity benefits, for instance, but we felt it was the right thing to do both ethically and for the business.”
Highlighting the issue
At every opportunity, VRAI tries to highlight the issue, and is a great advocate of The Level Project, Enterprise Ireland’s campaign to highlight the benefits of gender balance in leadership and management teams.
“We’re trying to highlight the issue, be advocates for gender balance, so we try to talk about it in the media, and we try to make sure we are using the right language in our recruitment ads, etc.
“Part of The Level Project is the introduction of an online Action Planning Toolkit, which is brilliant because a lot of people want to do something but they mightn’t know where to start.” says O’Connor.
“When you’re a start-up, you tend to prioritise the urgent; but giving yourself time to look at these fundamental issues is hugely important, and this toolkit takes you away from the fudgy, talking-about-it stage to doing something really practical to help the situation.”