Monday, May 20, 2024

Ireland becomes second EU state with no women leading listed companies

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Only 8 per cent of CEO positions at the largest listed companies in the EU28 in 2023 were women (Photo: Freepik)


By Olivia Fletcher and Jonas Ekblom

Ireland has become one of only two European Union states to have no women leading any of its listed companies, in a setback for a country that has become known for achieving rapid social change in recent decades.


Since Margaret Sweeney retired Tuesday as chief executive officer of Ireland’s biggest private residential landlord Irish Residential Properties REIT Plc, all 31 companies listed on Euronext Dublin’s website are to be headed by a man.


Overall the picture isn’t much brighter across the EU for women in leadership positions with it being common for even large stock exchanges to have less than a handful of female CEOs. However, Ireland, with a population of 5 million, will be an outlier from Wednesday, when Eddie Byrne succeeds Sweeney as CEO.


Almost every other EU country, except the small state of Luxembourg, has at least one woman at the top of a listed company, according to analysis by Bloomberg. All other member states have female CEOs, besides Slovakia, which has one company, Biotika AS, run by three directors including a woman, and Philip Morris’s Czech out posting, led by a female managing director who is set to be replaced by a man in June, according to a company statement.


Only 8 per cent of CEO positions at the largest listed companies in the EU28 in 2023 were women, according to the European Institute for Gender Equality. It’s a bleak insight into the state of gender equality in corporate Europe, and now especially in Ireland, which has become a poster child for progressing in a short stint of time.


Even in similarly-sized Scandinavian countries women are scarce in top roles, despite their progressive reputations. Sweden’s main OMX Stockholm 30 index was earlier this year left with only one female CEO among 30 after a series of resignations among women in top roles, including fast-fashion giant H&M AB’s Helena Helmersson and phone carrier Telia AB’s Alison Kirkby. Both were replaced by men. 


The lack of gender equality at the top of companies listed on Ireland’s exchange is exacerbated by the fact it is dominated by traditionally male-heavy industries like construction, said Gillian Harford, Ireland’s country executive at 30 per cent Club, a campaign group that aims to increase female representation on company boards. Euronext Dublin boasts large caps such as Ryanair Holdings Plc and Kingspan Group Plc.


The picture in the US is only slightly better, with 10 per cent female CEOs on the Fortune 500 in 2023, according to Fortune. Globally, quotas have been set for improving board diversity, although most appear not to specifically target the top job. The EU has mandated that non-executive boards of listed companies must consist of women. The US’s Nasdaq sets board targets too. In Ireland, the government set a 33 per cent target for women on boards by the end of 2023.

“Where the represented base is already small, sustainment has to depend on succession planning, and that’s where we see the gender power gap becoming most prevalent,” Harford said. “Until we achieve constant focus on succession and gender balance across all functional roles, and remove or reduce the gender power gap it will be a challenge to maintain momentum on gender progress at CEO level.”

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While there has been progress on achieving equality at board level in Ireland, the lack of a female CEO in a listed company shows there is much to be done to shatter the glass ceiling. A government-led report from November 2023 showed female board representation stood at 39 per cent, up from 18 per cent five years earlier.


Outside of listed companies, Ireland has a burgeoning startup scene that appears to attract more women than the public companies. It was the third in Europe for investment in women-led startups, according to financial research firm PitchBook. However, many of those companies have decided not to IPO in Ireland so far, a wider struggle for Euronext Dublin which has seen some of its most well-established companies including Flutter Entertainment Plc flock to larger pools of capital in the US. 


“Right along the scaling escalator we have specific strategic initiatives to support and ensure that the correct policies are in place to encourage a pipeline of strong female managers and female founders to come through the ecosystem,” said Jenny Melia, executive director at government business agency Enterprise Ireland. “There certainly is a big focus on it here in Ireland.”

First Published: May 01 2024 | 7:29 AM IST

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