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Gender Balance

The Solution is Societal and Organisational

written by Sinead Burke

Sharon Donnelly speaks to Sinead Burke about gender balance, the importance of changing mindsets and challenging the status quo, as Chairperson of the Bank’s Gender Balance Network.

The representation and acceleration of women in industries such as finance, technology and politics has ignited great debate and contradicting opinions. Some of the solutions put forward include workforce gender balance targets, amplifying the voices of role models and incentivising the study of particular subjects in education. Meeting Sharon, she agrees that all of these pillars are important but perhaps it is also through daily, implicit gestures and actions which we can all take that will truly make change and equality sustainable.

Challenging the Status quo

“I think it’s important to continuously challenge the status quo, this was something I learned early in my career in the bank. I remember a day, years ago, when a female colleague in operations approached me to ask whether I had any interest in computer programming. She had just left a meeting with a senior leadership team, and had challenged the shortage of female candidates in consideration for an upcoming job opportunity. It was a great example of challenging assumptions and reminding decision makers of the importance of diversity in the talent pipeline.

Ultimately I chose to apply for a programming position,was awarded the role and thus began my career in IT. It seems like a small thing now but at the time, challenging a leadership team about gender balance in recruitment  was completely against the norm - I love that at such an early stage in her career my colleague took a stance to challenge and question equality.”

Considering the workplace with a fresh lens

Within those three decades, Sharon said that she had never noticed any overt biases about gender within work, but looking through her current lens as joint Chair of the Gender Balance Network, she notes that for quite some time, she was the only woman in the room and this brought challenges she had not appreciated at the time. “Thankfully that has changed and is continuing to change. Through my new role in the network I am learning more about what is a complex issue – we need to continue to ask more questions of both ourselves and our organisation.” 

Working mother – simple gestures

When we first met, Sharon introduced herself by telling me that she is a working mother and that it has been incredibly important to her to attain the right balance, or strive for that balance, between what happens at home and her role at work. “When I had young children, it was my mother and family members who would look after them and encourage me to go back to work, but those first few months returning to work were incredibly difficult. I remember on my first day back, I sat in my car outside of work and kept thinking, ‘I can’t do this. I won’t even remember my log-in’. It was a female colleague who literally held my hand and made that transition back in the door so much easier. Simple acts of kindness and empathy remind me to try and mirror those behaviours and the generosity I have been privy to throughout my life and career.” Asking about how we could all be kinder people, Sharon says, “it takes just a moment to reach out to someone and let them know that you are willing to listen, the impact simple gestures can have is incredible.”

Sharon taught me how to be more conscious of my own interactions with people I meet, but imputing empathy within the practices of a large organisation takes a little longer. The solution “is both societal and organisational”, says Sharon and “we must change mindsets by creating a space where we can be curious, question the status quo and not take things for granted. We must build on the change that is happening in society and ensure that it transforms the organisation internally and externally. We must create a space where people are free to bring their whole selves to work.”

About the author and this series of interviews

Academic, writer and rights advocate Sinéad Burke met with a number of our colleagues to present their lived experience in the context of the six Inclusion & Diversity employee support networks in Bank of Ireland. In these interviews, they share their perspectives and experiences of inclusion and diversity in work and life.

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