How Bank of Ireland became a champion of diversity

28 Jun 2018

Áine McCleary, director of distribution channels at Bank of Ireland. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

At Inspirefest 2018, Bank of Ireland’s Áine McCleary revealed how diversity is being embraced across all facets of the bank now and into the future.

Growing up, Áine McCleary, director of distribution channels at Bank of Ireland, revealed how as the youngest of four children, she was raised solely by her full-time working mother.

“She was very much a role model for me,” she told Inspirefest last week. “Many of the females in my family are teachers. I bucked that trend when I did commerce in college, a master’s in finance and went on for a career in banking.”

‘Diversity is hugely important in a modern workplace and, based on my own experience, it is something that I am deeply passionate about’

That illustrious career has seen McCleary achieve many firsts, including being the first woman to head up mortgage groups at the bank. She now heads a workforce of 2,600 people engaging customers across contact centres and a myriad of digital channels.

She has also become the first woman to hold the role of president of the Institute of Banking.

At Inspirefest, McCleary began her talk by pointing to a quote by Amelia Earhart, who flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean about 90 years ago: “Everybody has an ocean to cross if they have the heart to do it.”

Crossing oceans

As a mother to four children, twin boys and two girls, McCleary said she wants her children to grow up in a world where they have equal opportunities.

The first of many oceans that McCleary herself had to cross was when, as a young graduate who started in the back office at the bank, she was puzzled how a male colleague who joined was immediately promoted to a prestigious cashier role.

“I remember asking my manager at the time why and the answer I got was in a deadpan way: ‘He is seen as the branch officer of the future so there is no need for him to start in the back office.’”

As her career progressed, McCleary had to deal with other similar incidents. Because she was a junior female employee, she was the one constantly asked to fetch visitors from reception or to organise the tea and coffee for meetings.

“In hindsight, these are examples of unconscious bias but also I have to look back and challenge myself and ask myself, was there any role I played in this?

“When I started, I bought myself a pinstripe trouser suit, trying to blend in and be less of myself.”

The Bank of Ireland of 2018 is a very different place to what McCleary encountered as a young graduate and you get the feeling the same changes are being felt across the entire financial ecosystem in Ireland.

McCleary quoted GM CEO and chair Mary Barra, who she described as a role model: “Cultivating diversity isn’t about making a gender count when you walk into a room.”

She said that diversity on all levels has been deeply embraced by the bank, with senior managers and directors personally sponsoring change.

Taking diversity to all levels

An illustration of McCleary on stage at Inspirefest 18. Image: Liza Donnelly/New York Times

An illustration of McCleary on stage at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Liza Donnelly

“She [Barra] is right, diversity is about valuing everyone with different backgrounds and experiences. I have found that diversity in teams is that secret sauce that leads to high performance and success.

“I believe that when people are their true selves, when they are not acting as others want them to act, it creates an environment of trust and deeper understanding and, ultimately, an environment of success.

“Diversity is hugely important in a modern workplace and, based on my own experience, it is something that I am deeply passionate about.”

McCleary cited statistics that showed the journey is still going to be a long one. According to the Institute of Banking’s membership numbers, 56pc are women. In terms of academic attainment, 55pc of the institute’s female members have qualifications compared with the balance of the body’s male membership. However, when you look at the ranks of certified bank directors in the Institute of Banking, only 23pc are women.

“It is clear that as we move to the senior levels, things start to decline at an alarming rate.

“Women in STEM in Ireland is 25pc, which is strong versus the EU but still a stark number.”

She also pointed out how within Fortune 500 companies, there are more CEOs named John (5pc) and David (5pc) than the total number of women CEOs (4pc).

“This is despite 85pc of purchasing decisions being made by women and that 80pc of Twitter users with more than 10m followers are women.”

Diversity breeds success

McCleary pointed out that change is inevitable. “When it comes to success in the corporate world, 20pc of financially successful companies have twice as many women leaders. Diversity leads to better commercial success, it contributes to better performance and, ultimately, better companies, shareholders and employees.”

She said that in the last 12 months alone, there have been some notable firsts in the banking world.

Bank of Ireland appointed its first woman CEO, Francesca McDonagh; the Institute of Banking appointed its first woman CEO; and McCleary herself was honoured to become the first female president of the institute.

Across the Irish business world, companies such as Vodafone, the Irish Stock Exchange and Bord Bia, to name a few, are led by women CEOs.

McCleary told Inspirefest that as an organisation, Bank of Ireland wants to be a national champion for diversity “to enable customers, colleagues and communities to thrive”. She continued: “But first, we must look internally and champion the wealth of diversity in the organisation.”

She explained that there are six diversity networks that have been established across the bank in terms of standards, behaviours and governance, including: gay pride, gender balance, intergenerational, multicultural, parents/carers and accessibility.

Not only that, but Bank of Ireland was awarded the Champion of Inclusion and Diversity in the 2018 Championing Diversity Awards, which she said was a “milestone in our journey to embed change and a sign we are moving in the right direction”.

The reason the bank is succeeding, she said, is because senior executives at the bank are sponsoring each of the diversity networks.

“We have set an organisation goal for 50/50 gender balance in all senior appointments by 2021.

“We have accelerated our female talent strategy; we are investing in education, modern ways of working and unconscious bias training, and modern ways of working around flexibility.”

While all of this is good on paper, McCleary admits being puzzled and disappointed by a recent case where only one woman out of 15 people applied for a senior role at the bank recently. “I spoke to a few colleagues and one word kept coming up: fear. Fear about not being successful or not being able to balance work-life commitments.

“We as role models need to help female talent get beyond fear.”

She concluded by referring once again to Amelia Earhart: “Some of us have great runways already built for us; if you have one, take off. If you don’t, grab a shovel and take off by yourself.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years