We aren't nearly there yet: diversity and inclusion means sustained commitment and action

CXO Interviews

Anne O’Leary, CEO of Vodafone Ireland (pictured), writes that much more needs to be done for firms and individuals to benefit from diversity, but Ireland is blazing the trail.

Despite sustained focus and commitment to gender diversity globally, statistics show a lack of female representation at board level in many countries and across all sectors. However, Ireland boasts several initiatives aimed at inspiring women to pursue science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects in an engaging way, encourage them to remain working in industry, return after time off and help them progress to senior levels.

In the tech sector specifically, Ireland has one of the highest levels of female representation. According to the European State of Tech Report 2020, 32% of software developers in Ireland are women compared to an average of 30% in Europe. This is a promising figure that will we hope will increase and be reflected in other areas of industry.

Sustained effort

Diversity and inclusion for all takes real, sustained commitment, investment, passion and understanding before long-lasting transformation can be realised.

At Vodafone, diversity and inclusion is deeply anchored within our culture and I feel proud to lead a business that has Inclusion for All at the heart of its purpose. We are over ten years into our diversity and inclusion journey in Vodafone Ireland and I am proud of how far we have come.

We now have 56% female representation at leadership level, a 50/50 gender split across our total people manager community and some of our goals are to be the best employer for women and for mental health by 2025 and to be recognised and admired as one of the best places to work for LGBT+ people in Ireland.

The business case for diversity is well documented*, from a colleague, customer and community point of view. It enables our business to succeed through talent attraction, creating a culture of trust and innovation, as well as making Vodafone a more enjoyable place to work for everyone.

Innovation gains

For me, innovation has been one of the great wins of an inclusive culture that emphasises belonging, trust and valuing each other’s voices – it creates the environment for new ideas and solutions that best serve our diverse customer base.

My vision has been heavily supported by my team and we focus on creating an environment that empowers everyone to bring their whole selves to work, putting diversity and inclusivity at the forefront. On our inclusion journey at Vodafone, we have learned that there are some key ingredients to building an inclusive workplace culture.

Our approach is both top-down and bottom-up and our leadership team are passionate advocates of our diversity agenda and continuously champion inclusion by sponsoring our employee-run networks such as, the Women’s Network, LGBT+ and Friends and our brand-new Ability Network DiverseAbility.

We have also introduced workplace policies that make Vodafone a very supportive environment for our people to develop and progress in their careers, while enabling a work life balance. Some of these policies include; smart or remote/flexible working, conducting unconscious bias training and our ground-breaking domestic abuse, maternity and parental leave policies.

I am particularly proud of our work in domestic abuse. Internally we launched a policy to support employees, who may be experiencing domestic abuse, and externally we have worked with Women’s Aid on BrightSky Ireland, a free app that connects victims of domestic violence and abuse to advice and support services across the country.

Maternity matters

The business benefits of our diversity policies are clear, for example, our maternity leave policy has fantastic talent retention stats. The policy provides 26 weeks fully paid, but also allows returning mothers work a four-day week but get paid for five days for the first six months after they return to work

This is a huge benefit for enabling returning women ‘ramp back on’ after maternity leave, which is often a time of potential anguish and challenge. We know that more than 90% of women who take maternity leave at Vodafone Ireland return to us and have an average tenure of more than nine years.

When it comes to gender equality, we have learned that progress cannot be banked over time, but instead it requires continuous focus and maintenance. We constantly check and measure our leaders and managers on diversity and inclusion through our HR processes such as, reward, performance management, talent management, recruitment and promotion. This relationship of mutual accountability and ownership between our leadership and our networks are key to the success of our inclusion for all targets.

Pandemic impact on women

The COVID-19 crisis has been worrying in relation to its effect on women and their careers.  A recent report carried out by the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee examined the impact of COVID-19. It found women have been and will continue to be disproportionally affected by the pandemic.

We know that women are more vulnerable to COVID-19 related economic effects because of existing gender inequalities and gender roles. Women, who have traditionally taken on primary caregiving duties, have been especially hard hit, with added daily responsibilities and a host of new challenges to their work and life arrangements. 

To combat the pressure primary care givers may feel within Vodafone, we create and support a culture of flexibility. We have always measured on overall output and not presenteeism and have given our people the flexibility to manage their working day as they wish. We encourage a system where no meetings are held before 9am or after 5pm, showing respect for people’s individual personal time and circumstances.

This is also supported by a no email at night or weekend principle unless crucial. Our Work Your Way programme offers our people the opportunity to shape their workday around their personal commitments e.g. 9-day fortnight, part time and term leave of 1 week to 3 months.

National level

On a national level, Ireland offers a number of initiatives that help to promote women’s representation in senior management and supporting female talent with a selection of programmes, such as the 30% Club Ireland and Women Mean Business.

As mentioned, our ambition is to be the best employer for women by 2025. We believe our sustained focus and commitment to diversity brought to life through our policies and activities will bring us a step closer to achieving that goal.

While I am so proud of our successes, I continue to hold my team to account in this new landscape. The pandemic is adding extra pressure to the lives of our people and I want to ensure that regardless of the challenges thrown at us, everyone still has a chance to progress their career in a way that feels right to them.


*Editor's note: The World Economic Forum put the cost of gender discrimination alone at $130 trillion to the global economy.