Inspirational Stories

Northern Ireland: Shattering or splintering the glass ceiling?

How is it that Northern Ireland now has women in pole position in three of the top five ranked companies in the region’s Top 100 companies for 2015? Is there something in the water? It may not be the water that is responsible (!) but it’s interesting that two of these companies are engineering businesses in the utilities sector. Bearing in mind the still small numbers of female CEOs leading large companies in the UK could it be that the engineering sector is providing opportunities for female career advancement that others aren’t?

Richard Kirk, Head of the Institution of Civil Engineers in Northern Ireland, has had quite a lot to say about what he sees this encouraging development that needs nurturing especially as the UK still has one of the lowest ratios of female-to-male engineers in Europe. One of the reasons surfacing time and again from all the surveys undertaken in recent years about young girls’ interaction with the STEM subjects are the lack of female role models who demonstrate by their achievements the positives of studying and building careers in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics. As Richard Kirk says, "It is a growing sector which will need to attract young women in order to meet future demand and deliver better outcomes for society."

The third company led by a woman in the top five of the rankings is in a very different industry from that of engineering and energy generation is poultry giant Moy Park, part of Brazilian company Marfrig, Northern Ireland’s largest private sector company of 11,500 employees in the UK and Europe and a turnover of £1.2bn.

So who are these highly successful business women?

First is Sarah Venning, who was appointed CEO of Northern Ireland Water (NI Water) and is number two in the Top 100 companies’ rankings. She was appointed CEO in April 2014 after serving in the Interim role for three years before landing the full appointment. Her achievement is all the more laudable as she began her career in the utilities sector as a Customer Operations Manager for Northern Ireland Electricity in 1996, from where she moved to Northern Ireland Water as Director of Customer Service Delivery in 2010.

Carla Tully is the American-born President of AES UK and Ireland, part of the Fortune 200 energy generation and utilities corporation, and number three in the 2015 Top 100 companies’ ranking. Her first career post in 1995 was as Staff Assistant for the Committee on House Oversight at the U.S. House of Representatives; from there she graduated to Manager of the Office of Congressman Michael Pappas. It looked as if she was set to pursue a career in Washington politics but this changed direction on completion of an MBA in 2000 after which she shifted into finance and debt restructuring for several years at the American-Africa Investment Bank before moving in 2010 to AES as Chief of Staff, Latin America and Africa. In 2011 she was appointed Chief of Staff, Global Utilities. Within two years she had taken the top spot in Belfast in her current role.

Janet McCollum was appointed Managing Director of Craigavon-based Moy Park, which is number five in the Top 100 companies ranking, in January 2014 after decades of hard graft in the food industry; born in Belfast and a mother of three she took a degree in Business Administration and French at Aston University from where she joined Coca- Cola and Schweppes' graduate management trainee programme. After several years working her way up the career ladder in systems administration and finance, the call of home signalled her return to Northern Ireland in 1993. Moy Park is where she has made her mark, first as Group Management and European Accountant for six years, then for 14 years as Finance Director, which provided the springboard to her eventual role as CEO.

Aside from Janet, Carly and Sarah only three other women made the Top 100 company rankings: Elaine Birchall of food and drink company SHS Group; Darina Armstrong of Progressive Building Society, and Margaret Heffernan, who heads up the supermarket chain Dunnes.

Yet, as impressive as this snapshot of these women is, it doesn’t tell the whole story of corporate and public sector female leadership in Northern Ireland.  

Far from shattering the glass ceiling the ongoing story of women at the top in the region is more like a few flying splinters.

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The facts on the ground show that the issue is certainly more nuanced. Roseann Kelly, Chief Executive of Women in Business Northern Ireland for example claims that the presence of six female leaders in the Top 100 companies in the region in 2015 is inadequate, and reflects a failing of wider society, both men and women. She believes it’s not as simple as saying it’s the result of men stopping women from taking top leadership roles.

I thought I would look at how the public sector is performing in the region so I went online at the Northern Ireland government direct website. There I found that there are three women in the Northern Ireland Executive holding junior ministerial appointments and three women holding full ministerial appointments in Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Justice, and Health. 

First Minister is Arlene Foster, yes a woman!

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Out of a total number of 12 ministerial posts women hold seven, which is more than half. This is to be commended. However, it is in the leading Civil Service appointments that gender diversity fails. Of those occupying the role of Permanent Secretary in the nine new government departments all are men, and led by the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Dr. Sir Michael McKibbin.

Two women have been Permanent Secretaries in recent years: Dr Aideen McGinley at the Department for Employment and Learning, who joined urban regeneration company Ilex in 2009 until 2012 and is now a trustee of BCC Worldwide; and Rosalie Flanagan at the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure until retirement in 2013, who is now a member of the independent panel set up to assess paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. Admittedly, the reduction of 12 government departments to nine in the recent restructuring of the Northern Ireland Civil Service may have played a part in there being no women at the helm in this new configuration but two women out of 12 was not exactly breaking the glass ceiling let alone splintering. Am I being too harsh? I think not.

A report published by Harvard Kennedy Business School in 2015 entitled “Compared to men, women view professional advancement as equally attainable, but less desirable” may provide an important clue regarding the attitudinal response to “women at the top”. Their studies showed that

men and women differ in their perceptions as to what the experience of holding a high-level position would look like

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Nothing to do with holding power but all to do with women having a higher number of life goals than men, with a smaller number of those goals involving achieving a top job. This suggests that lower rates of women in leadership roles might be in part due to other priorities that women have rather than workplace barriers to obtaining the top spot.

Northern Ireland is not quite the land of milk and honey for ambitious professional women, neither is it a desert.

It sits somewhere between the two not unlike the rest of the UK or even the U.S. where the issue of gender diversity been challenged more vigorously. Would it be fair to repeat what Sheryl Landberg has said of workplace opportunity and rebalancing the gender gap, “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.”? 

Women cannot just hope for this. We have to work for it.

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About the author

Tara Howard

Tara has never been shy of a challenge – from trekking to Everest base camp to twice finishing in the London to Brighton Cycle Ride, or to qualify as a commercial pilot and flight instructor at the age of 22.
She now spearheads her greatest challenge, the Venus Awards.

With a background in running a hotel business in Bournemouth, she has turned her abundant energy and business expertise to ensuring that the Venus Awards becomes the UK's premier community for recognising and rewarding working women in the UK.

She is fast becoming a figurehead and influencer for women in business, combining all of this with being a mother of four children.

Check out Tara's vlog - her War on Ageing

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