Dan Holland reflects on how Covid-19 has affected the D&I agenda in professional services and highlights the actions businesses need to take to actively embed a culture of inclusion and diversity.


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Dan Holland

Head of Diversity & Inclusion

Have you seen a shift in the number of women in senior management over the last 12 months, and has the pandemic had any impact on those numbers?

At Grant Thornton Ireland, we have an equal representation of female and male colleagues in middle management positions, from assistant manager to associate director. And we’re working very hard to provide genuine opportunities for current and future female leaders. We have a number of female-specific mentoring and leadership programs that have been running successfully for several years.

One area that we still have to do work on is addressing the historic gender imbalance at director and partner level and we’re making steady progress there. During 2020, we appointed 20 new directors, 11 of whom are female; and we appointed five new partners, two of them female. We want the percentage of promotions to be at least 50/50 on an annual basis.

I don’t think COVID has had an impact on these numbers. They’re the result of a sustained approach over a number of years, providing opportunities and mentorship throughout the firm for female colleagues. Anybody in the frame to be promoted is there as a result of years of hard work by them and focus from the firm.

There’s been no slowdown in promotions. In fact, there’s been an acceleration because, from a commercial perspective, we are performing well and that creates a flow of opportunities for people. We have two promotion windows during the year and they went ahead as normal in 2020.

Do you think new working practices that evolved during the pandemic are likely to benefit women’s long-term career trajectories?

The last 12 months have certainly expedited the acceptance of a remote working model. We won’t be reverting to a rigid “must-be-in-the-office” system. In theory, this could benefit women’s long-term career trajectories, but for that to actually happen, there needs to be a genuine, sustainable culture of support for colleagues’ choice to work in a more flexible way.

The advent of a flexible working model over the last year is by no means the end of the journey to creating and maintaining equality of opportunities. Culture has to be a huge part of the ability of an employer to provide opportunities for female colleagues.

What actions do businesses need to take to embed that culture of inclusion and diversity?

For a start, it has to be more than words. It has to be more than a mission statement. For a firm to be genuinely inclusive and accepting of diversity, you need platforms for people to present their ideas.

There has got to be a genuine desire to cultivate and proactively hear from everybody within the firm, no matter who they are or what their background is, and to show them that they’re respected. There has got to be a communication structure that is not dominated by a number of individuals, where people are actively given an opportunity to speak, and where they are expected to express their ideas and fears. And there has to be action based on what they say.

It’s even more important now in a remote working environment. We all know it can be difficult to participate in a virtual meeting if there are more than three or four people on the call. Whoever is chairing needs to ensure there is a structure where everybody can participate.

How has the pandemic affected the diversity and inclusion agenda in professional services?

There has been a lot of positive movement in the professional services industry in Ireland over a number of years. We have to ensure that we don’t lose the momentum that has been garnered. Understandably, when the pandemic hit in March last year, lots of businesses were dealing with a tsunami of commercial and economic issues to ensure they were going to survive, and that had an impact on D&I.

We also cannot lose sight of the fact that there are potential negatives in a remote working environment. Nobody had any choice in how ‘flexible’ working has been implemented. There’s an argument that it’s not that flexible at all. It’s actually a forced working environment, and until such time as choice returns for employees and for employers, there’s a certain rigidity to the model.

We couldn’t put remote working in place from a strategic perspective, we had to do it overnight. But now we have time to reflect on the impact for everybody over the last 12 months. What are the positives and negatives? What do we need to do from a diversity and inclusion perspective to ensure that we don’t lose the positives – or the momentum that we’ve had in previous years?

In the past, creating an inclusive culture was based around events where people came together and collaborated internally or had external contributors. We haven’t been able to do any of that. We haven’t had the positive energy of bringing people with a common purpose together. We need to ensure we are still creating forums where diversity is maintained.

When there’s a sharp shock from an economic perspective, some of the strategic aspects of what firms and companies are doing around diversity and inclusion can get left at the curb-side. Businesses and employers need to be mindful of that and not lose sight of the positive impact of a truly diverse and inclusive culture within a firm.

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