With over 35 years of experience in HR in financial services, Gillian Harford discusses the changes and the trends towards a more gender-balanced workplace.

“Gender diversity in the workplace does not lead to women gaining and men losing,” says Gillian Harford, country executive of the 30% Club, a voluntary group of chairs and CEOs who are committed to better gender balance at all levels of their organisations. Instead, she says, “it’s about increasing the flow and availability of talent, removing barriers, and balancing the opportunity based on capability rather than gender”.

What changes have you witnessed in recruiting during your career that suggest a positive change in gender gap issues?

I think there have been quite a few radical changes over the years, that reflect the importance that organisations now put on recruitment as the key to pipeline talent. Organisations are more thoughtful about where and how they advertise jobs, to attract greater balance in the applicant pool from the outset, including better wording on job ads to make them more inclusive. We see much better processes in terms of greater use of objective assessment techniques and better training for hiring managers, especially in the area of unconscious bias, we see organisations tracking metrics throughout the process to watch for bias, and finally we see organisations setting clear targets for better representation across the slate and taking actions to ensure those targets are met.

What initiatives does the 30% Club support to achieve better gender balance on boards?

Within the 30% Club, our vision is 30% gender balance at senior decision-making levels, which includes boards, but also senior teams as well. We see our purpose as being useful to businesses in achieving this ambition, so we split our initiatives over three areas of strategy. 

Firstly we focus on raising awareness and looking at policy issues – so that includes regular interaction with CEO’s of major organisations, and also working closely on government and policy issues such as gender pay gap reporting or the new government-backed review ‘Balance for Better Business’, which will likely lead to targets for Irish boards.  Our second stream is working directly with businesses by generating niche research, providing masterclasses and learning events, setting up industry groups and providing ways for companies to learn from and collaborate with each other. Our third stream is focused on supporting talent – and this mainly involves programmes that support more women moving into the talent pipeline through our mentoring, executive education scholarships and board readiness initiatives.

“Organisations are more thoughtful about where and how they advertise jobs, to attract greater balance in the applicant pool from the outset.”

How did you personally overcome any gender-related obstacles that you faced during your career?

Sometimes I probably didn’t notice them, as when you are living in the middle of a system you don’t always see the patterns until you reflect back on your career. I was very lucky that although I have always worked in financial services, which is a very masculine industry, HR tends to have a much better balance so that allowed me to thrive and progress. I also had the benefit of male mentors and sponsors which is a great support. But I think ultimately a lot of it I built for myself, both consciously and unconsciously – I took advantage of further education with a strong business focus, I regularly put myself forward as the HR person on business projects, where I became one of the team, based on my expertise rather than my gender. Ultimately, I always resisted the temptation to change myself to ‘fit in’ and instead aimed to be true to myself and my personal capabilities.

Do women and men lead differently?

It’s an interesting question, and I’m not sure of the perfect answer. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that to be the case, and there are a lot of stereotypes out there – which typically tend to be based on what people see so I suspect it is mainly true. I personally think that it’s more about masculine and feminine type leadership traits and that men and women can equally display either of them. I think, in general, women tend to be more collaborative and considered in their styles, more verbal and less of risk takers; and men, in general, tend to be more action-orientated, singular and direct.  However, I think many of us learn over time that displaying masculine or feminine leadership traits depend on the circumstances, the team, and the job to be done – so I’m quite a big fan of the idea that great leaders learn to be situational leaders and can adapt as needed.

“I always resisted the temptation to change myself to ‘fit in’ and instead aimed to be true to myself and my personal capabilities.”

Why do women continue to earn less than men?

This is a very complex question, but we know from research and from the introduction of gender pay gap reporting, that the fundamental reason is that women are more likely represented in lower paid jobs, on average, than men. So, if you take the airline industry as a good example, men are more likely to be pilots, who are higher paid, whereas women are more likely to be cabin crew, where the rate of pay is lower. When you add to the mix another range of features, including that women are more likely to work part-time, are less likely to negotiate for salary increases, are more likely to need periods of absence for caring responsibilities, it all contributes to a very observable but ultimately changeable gap.

Is fully-paid paternity leave the key to closing the gender pay gap? From your experience, how do men respond in companies that introduce this policy?

We still see very significant bias in take-up of family leave e.g. in our 30% Club research, ‘Making the Change Count’, women were three times more likely to take parental leave as men, and the duration was three times longer than men; but with men wanting to take leave but afraid of the impact on their careers. We have seen early progress in Scandinavian countries where there is a better approach to pay and leave, and there is no doubt that paid family leave is helpful, both for men and women. However, it’s also about changing the culture of work – we need to show that a more agile approach to work is a great way to attract and retain talent, and that where the process for going on and returning from family absence is respected and integrated into career planning, rather than being perceived as career limiting, men are more likely to feel comfortable availing of this leave.

“I think, in general, women tend to be more collaborative and considered in their styles, more verbal and less of risk takers; and men, in general, tend to be more action-orientated, singular and direct.”

In your talk at UL celebrating International Women’s Day, you will refer to diversity not being a zero-sum game, what do you mean by that?

There is a general perception that when we talk about diversity, targets and balance that it leads to one group gaining (women, when we refer to gender diversity) and one group losing (men), and I genuinely don’t believe that to be the case. Yes, it’s about changing the numbers but for me, that’s about achieving better balance in opportunities, better balance in appointments, and encouraging talent equally. In certain sectors in Ireland we are now at full employment, and the skills requirements are growing – if we can tap into all talent, that’s the way we achieve progress – so, for me, it’s not about win or lose, it’s about increasing the flow and availability of talent, removing barriers, and balancing the opportunity based on capability rather than gender or any other identifier.

Interview by Irene Psychari.