An Interview With: Sinéad Donovan

“If you’re hiring and you have not one LGBTQIA+ or non-Irish applying, you need to go back and change what’s stopping them.”
In Fitzgerald Power’s interview series, we’re speaking to people, with different perspectives, who feel they can offer more to the workplace – from the water cooler all the way up to C-Suite.
Sinead Donovan
Sinéad Donovan

The frustrations of equality lie in its difficulty to diagnose and its ability to shapeshift. But for Sinéad Donovan, the new president of Chartered Accountants Ireland, and the chair of Grant Thornton Ireland, achieving it requires a willingness to recognise, shift among, and consider the many different conceptions of what is right.

According to new research published by Chartered Accountants Ireland, the greatest barrier to career progression in the accountancy profession is being both a woman and a parent. Tested across 700 Irish respondents, and carried out under the auspices of Chartered Accountants Worldwide, the global research showed that some 80% of women feel they have a lot to offer the profession and the survey found no obvious initial barriers to entry for women – an ambition that doesn’t reduce with parenthood.

It’s a statistic that resonates across the world. In 2014, the Pew Research Center asked US residents to rank the “greatest dangers in the world.” The vast majority placed inequality in the top three, ranking ahead of “religious and ethnic hatred,” nuclear weapons, and environmental issues. And yet people struggle to pinpoint what, exactly, “equality” means. In 2020, for example, people living in New York City found themselves in a debate over the city’s élite public schools, where some ethnicities are vastly overrepresented, while others are dramatically underrepresented. What to do? One side argues that the city should guarantee procedural equality: it should ensure that all students and families are equally informed about and encouraged to study for the entrance exam. The other side argues for a more direct, representation-based form of equality: it would remove the exam entirely, adopting a new admissions system designed to produce student bodies reflective of the city’s demography. Both groups pursue worthy egalitarian goals, but each approach runs against the other. Because people and their circumstances differ.

Sinéad Donovan is the newly appointed chair at Grant Thornton Ireland, having joined the accountancy and business advisory firm in 2002, made a partner in 2005 and co-founded its financial accounting and advisory services division five years later. She, too, is president of Chartered Accountants Ireland. Equality is something she considers every day. Thinking, in quite clear terms, about what it means and where it leaves us. “There are probably two facets to what equality means to me, and for that, I kind of look at equality and equity,” she tells Fitzgerald Power. “So I mean, equality is that everybody can bring 100% of themselves to work – and I know a lot of people say that most of the time but I really mean that. I mean, the phenomenon of being able to walk through the work doors and not have to worry about what you look like, what you’re wearing, whether you have a nose ring or tattoos or not (Donovan’s silver nose ring sparkles in the light throughout our Zoom call). That to me is equality now, but obviously, you also need to be very cognizant of values and professionalism and all of that. “Equity is slightly different in that it means that everybody is treated with the same ability to progress in the same way. So to me, they’re slightly different, but both are two sides of one coin and equally important. I think we’ve made very good strides certainly in Ireland on equality, but I also think we still have a long way to go with equity. Because do I firmly believe that everybody has the ability to progress at the same rate at the same level? I don’t know if I do in all facets of business.”

Donovan’s journey for equality and equity in the workplace began because of lived examples. When she made a partner back in 2003, she felt no different from her male counterparts. “I now realise that looking back,” she smiles. “That’s because my lifestyle at the time was very much a similar lifestyle to the men around me. So I didn’t have children, I had just gotten married, I was into sports and I worked and played as hard as everyone around me.” It wasn’t until she and her partner began considering a family that she began to notice the changes. “I know it wasn’t out of badness, and I want to stress this wasn’t the fault of anyone in Grant Thornton in the least, but out of pure ignorance, the systems and policies we had in place didn’t and couldn’t work for everyone. We had no maternity leave at the time, and the conversation around me was that I might have a week off for maternity – and it was only when I suggested that I might take six or seven weeks off, that I realised how someone in my position might feel like they’re the problem, not the system.”

It was this understanding that fueled her interest in the subject. Questions like why should differences emerge for both men and women when in mid-career? What are the barriers to opportunity access, gender bias, childcare obligations and diversifying? The answer, she firmly believes, lies in policy change. “Sitting around the partner table here [in Grant Thornton],” Donovan shares. “We had a lot of discussions about how our female partner representation was incredibly low, up to about 10 years ago. I mean, it was down kind of in the single digits percentage-wise. And the statement that kept coming up was, “Well, there are just not enough women coming through”. So that got us looking at our policies, and what we needed to change them to to ensure that women feel supported and encouraged. We needed to see that 50% of those applying were female, or we’re never going to give everyone a fair chance. And that we did, and today under partner roles we have 50% gender parity.” The same can be said for companies trying to diversify, Donovan shares. “If you’re hiring and you have no one LGBTQIA+ or non-Irish applying, you need to go back and change what’s stopping them.”

The complexities surrounding egalitarianism in a business setting can, for employees, feel especially frustrating – because the inequalities are so easy to grasp. C.E.O.s, on average, make almost three hundred times what their employees make; absurdly wealthy individuals shape how a nation is run; urban economies thrive while rural areas are left forgotten; and the best levels of health care go to the richest. Some might behave as if there aren’t many differences among us, while at the same time enjoying business class flights, trends like “quiet luxury,” and the five, different tiers of Uber. That said, we still struggle to address obvious inequalities of all kinds based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and other aspects of identity. Inequality is everywhere, and unignorable. So, for this disease, what’s the cure?

“Companies need to challenge their policies to ensure that they enforce diversity,” Donovan concludes. “Unconscious biases exist, but we’ve been asking people to jump through the same hoops for a while – change is needed. Humans do not like to be pushed outside of their comfort zones, so they don’t go looking for something different. But policies that will encourage and support those who have traditionally been underrepresented absolutely will change things. And it shouldn’t be up to the small group of people who are affected to do it. One or two people aren’t going to change the entire system. It’s got to be changed by guidelines or policies. And it’s got to be done by the people at the top.

Finally, for those feeling underrepresented and looking to make their voices heard,” she says. “Identify who the people are that you can talk to and find those ears. Do it in a quiet, professional manner to give the company the time and ability to change. Most places thankfully have EDNI (Equality Diversity and Inclusion) Committees these days, so I would wholeheartedly recommend going there or to Human Resources. That said, support for women and different minority groups only really works when you have a supportive and flexible manager – that’s been found out in so many surveys. Managers need to be trained to help those around them, but even then, huge work often needs to be done from the top.”