What does a 235-year-old business feel about issues like gender equality, inclusion and diversity? Andrew Keating, the chief financial officer with Bank of Ireland, discusses the historical changes afoot in Ireland’s largest and oldest bank.

Most successful, well-established businesses have a life cycle of fewer than 50 years. Bank of Ireland was established in 1783 by Royal Charter, making it 235-years-old. For a company to survive this long, it must be good at many things, but mainly it must be an expert at adapting to generational social, political and economic changes.

18 months ago a decision was made at a board level to change the bank’s culture and develop a framework to make it a more inclusive, diverse and gender balanced workplace. One of the leading advocates and architects of this framework is Andrew Keating, CFO of the Group.

Why change now is the obvious question?

“There are obviously human and moral reasons,” says Keating. “But there are also very clear and very tangible commercial reasons. We know that our colleagues all have unique strengths and by embracing these, we can be better for our customers. Ireland is now a much more diverse country and we, as a business, must reflect this so we can serve our customers and our communities better.”

In practice, what does it mean?

“To be diverse we must have a culture that values uniqueness,” explains Keating. “To be inclusive means inviting diverse groups in – ensuring that people with different viewpoints, cultures, genders, and races can take part in company life.”

“Inclusion and diversity won’t work unless people feel they belong.”

Is it as easy as that?

“We can’t just say we have an inclusion and diversity agenda and hope it works out,” admits Keating. “Inclusion and diversity won’t work unless people feel they belong. Belonging helps each person be fully known and accepted for who they are. We have a dedicated inclusion and diversity council at the bank and a governance framework and strategy in place to drive this important agenda. We also have goals in place, and the leadership of the Group will be held to account for these goals.”

“A lack of diversity negatively affects the behaviour and culture within firms.”

Why diversity at the top matters

A 2017 report by the Central Bank showed that since 2012, 80% of the almost 18,000 applications for regulatory approval for senior level roles in financial services firms have been for men.

A lack of diversity negatively affects the behaviour and culture within firms, their decision-making and their risk management. In short, it is easier for group-think to emerge and evidence clearly shows that greater diversity at management level reduces a business’ risk of mistakes and failure.

Having board-sponsored and executive committee sponsored diversity policies and programmes in place show that diversity is a real priority at Bank of Ireland, says Keating.

“We want to give more support to our colleagues who are parents.”

The gender agenda

Regarding gender diversity and equality, what is the bank doing to ensure female colleagues are treated equally?

“Finance and banking don’t have a good historical track record when it comes to gender equality,” admits Keating. “While acknowledging the past we are very focused on the present and changing the future.

“To take a particular example: as anyone who has children knows, having a child is wonderful but can be exceptionally challenging at times. We want to give more support to our colleagues who are parents and make sure that the supports are consistent and codified so managers can also understand the challenges new parents are likely to experience.”

Keating also believes that the bank needs to achieve better gender balance at all levels.

“There is no question that gender balance on boards and at executive level means better leadership and governance,” he says. “It also means better all-around board performance and increased performance for our colleagues, customers and our shareholders.

“We have signed up for The 30% Club because we believe in its mission. 60% of the graduates who come into the bank are female, but at senior level, this percentage drops off dramatically. This needs to change.”

“I think it’s a fitting ‘arc’ for these coins, once a symbol of such blatant discrimination, that they now represent inclusion, diversity and equality.”

Gold Sovereigns

One of the most symbolic initiatives Keating launched involves the famous ‘Gold Sovereigns’.

“The Gold Sovereigns are a tangible symbol, a reminder, of just how far we have come as a company (and as a country),” explains Keating.

“Before Ireland joined the EU in 1973, a professional woman who got married had to give up work and ‘return to the home’. I mean looking at it now it was such a shameful law.

“In Bank of Ireland, pre-1973, a female colleague who got married would be given a Gold Sovereign on her departure from the Group. Can you imagine? What was worse was that if she were marrying a male colleague, she would only get a half-sovereign and he would get the other half-sovereign!

“We have a stock of these sovereigns in our vault, and now we present Gold Sovereigns to colleagues and people who are driving the inclusion and diversity agenda in the bank and in our wider society. I think it’s a fitting ‘arc’ for these coins, once a symbol of such blatant discrimination, that they now represent inclusion, diversity and equality. I think it says a lot about where were have come from and where we are going as an organisation.”

Interview by Stephen Conmy. 

Related Resource

Brid Horan of The 30% Club explains why a lack of diversity damages society.