Get on board
“When you get a good opportunity, just go for it.”
That’s the advice of Vivienne Jupp, a former senior Accenture executive and an experienced non-executive director, to women who’d like to gain board-level experience. In 2010, Jupp and her former Accenture colleague, Anne-Marie Taylor, set up the Board Diversity Initiative to increase the visibility of “competent, capable and willing women” who want to take on board positions.
Unfortunately, Irish boards have a long way to go before membership is gender balanced. More than a quarter of Irish boards have less than 10 per cent female membership, according to figures published last year by the Institute of Directors in Ireland.
Jump right in
Chatting to Broadly Speaking at a recent Royal Irish Academy event, Jupp was one of a number of experienced board members who shared their thoughts on how women can get a seat at the table.
The consensus? Dive right in.
Like Jupp, Caroline Keeling, chief executive of fresh-produce company Keelings, encourages women to grab the opportunities that come their way when it comes to board membership. “Consider what you can contribute, but remember that they wouldn’t have asked you if they didn’t think you had something to offer,” Keeling said.
Alison Cowzer, co-founder of biscuit manufacturer East Coast Bakehouse, sits on a number of boards, both corporate and charitable. Her route to board membership came from “being asked rather than seeking it”.
“Some of the most fulfilling work I’ve done has been at board level,” Cowzer said. “Why didn’t I get involved sooner? Why did I wait to be asked? That’s one of the things that happens too often.”
Cowzer’s advice? “Get in, get involved and make it happen.”
For those who are nervous about joining a board, our experts offered some helpful advice.
According to Sarah Durcan, global operations manager with Science Gallery International and a board member at the Abbey Theatre, the first stop is often talking to others who have already walked the path and asking about their experience.
“Find someone you know who’s on a board. Call them up, drop them an email,” she suggested, adding that people tended to be “generous with their time”.
Believe in yourself
Durcan said that women needed to trust in their own abilities. “Sometimes you have to jump into things, but you do have the skills and you do have the knowledge,” she said.
If you are having second thoughts when a board opportunity presents it, ask yourself why.
Trish Long, general manager of Disney in Ireland and a vice-president of The Walt Disney Company, suggested taking the time to “figure out what is the barrier that is stopping you”.
“Is it a fear of what might be involved or of how much extra time it will take or, the perennial question, whether you can do it?” Long said.
Recently, she helped a friend to answer this question and confided in them that she was “regularly terrified” too. In doing so, she made the opportunity seem less daunting. “She realised that someone she sees as confident goes through that too,” Long explained.
See past the language
And, Long believes, the language used can make a board seem quite daunting.
“The term board can be a bit misleading really,” she said. “Sometimes you just need to change the language. People are intimidated by it.”
Instead of thinking about a board as something far removed from your experience, Long suggested thinking about other similar experience that you already have, such as a local sports committee or a parent-teacher council.
“You’ve probably already done it, but you called it something else,” she said.
If you are interested in joining a board, these resources are a good starting point: