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HR Roundtable – Gender Balance at Senior Levels.

May 6th, 2018

Aim: To bring together senior people to discuss gender diversity at senior/executive levels

Emma Claire, Executive Director, BIE
Janet Musgrave
, Director, BIE

Margaret McDonagh, Co-Founder of the Pipeline

On the 25th of April, co-founder Margaret McDonagh, led a round-table at BIE Executive, discussing gender diversity at  executive level. The event was hosted by Janet Musgrave, Director, and Emma-Claire Kavanagh, Executive Director, of BIE’s HR Practice. It was attended by HRDs across several sectors, who shared anecdotes about both their organisation’s and their own experiences on progression to senior positions.

It was thought-provoking to hear how most attendees are struggling to find suitably qualified women to fill roles at a senior level. Also, how the numbers of women being given the chance to progress declines the higher up they go in an organisation. One view expressed was that “a lot of people pay lip service to gender diversity, but how do organisations get genuine, cognitive diversity?” Most gender diversity is usually present in the support functions but there are not enough for board/executive positions.

What counts is having P&L accountability on their CV. The majority of organisations shared a similar story of recruiting roughly a 50:50 ratio of women and men, at graduate or entry levels, only to find that when women reach their mid-30’s they leave or step back. With fewer women in middle management the organisation lacks greater diversity of thought, as well as having fewer women role models, something that is critical in ‘pulling’ women through.


Many of the group felt that their experiences were anecdotal or were symptomatic of their industry, but Margaret assured them that “your anecdotes are not in isolation, they are fact”. The quantitative evidence is there to support this. The positive correlation between economic benefits and greater diversity, has been proven with multiple studies including the IMF and McKinsey & Co, to name a few.

The discussion ranged from the prevalence of unconscious bias in the selection process to suggesting tangible solutions on how to approach these issues. The topic of sponsorship was discussed at length as many felt that women were over-mentored whilst not enough were being given stretch assignments to display their potential. Margaret gave them a concise definition and multiple examples of what genuine sponsorship looks like, and how it differs from coaching and mentoring.

“Once you make a physical change then attitudes change” was the way Margaret described getting the cultural shift to happen. Being decisive and actually making changes shift mindsets. The drive for gender diversity can receive a lot of push back but one contributor said that “I want to find a pathway for them [women] that is easier than the one I had.”

We thank BIE for hosting us and allowing us to share some thoughts on what works and how we can increase gender diversity at the top of organisations.

The next roundtable will be held on May 23rd and we look forward to broadening the discussion with more business and HR leaders