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Interview with Yvonne Harris

#LeadTheChange #ChooseToChallenge

Yvonne Harris

Yvonne Harris is Irish Water’s Head of Customer Operations and Connection Developer Services, and a member of its Board of Directors. Yvonne joined Dublin Gas in 1983, at just 18 years old. The organisation would later transition from Dublin Gas to Bord Gais, and finally to Ervia, the parent company of Irish Water and Gas Networks Ireland. Yvonne’s own career has also undergone remarkable transition, from her first clerical job in IT and business services to her current role.

Committed to continuous learning, Yvonne has qualifications in Finance, Business Management, Project Management, IT Service Management, Organisational Development and Transformation, as well as a Master’s in Business Practice. She’s recently begun the Institute of Directors' Chartered Director Training Programme.

If someone refers to you as an ambitious woman, what does that mean to you? Do you think “ambition” plays out differently for women than for men? How?

Throughout my career, my ‘ambition’ has been to bring my whole self to work, to contribute to the best of my ability, to put myself forward for new challenges and to always look forward to the next opportunity. As a result of this work ethic, I have succeeded. Do I think others consider me ambitious in the traditional sense? Absolutely.

The connotations associated with ambitious women are usually negative. This is the result of traditional gender norms, which expect men to be ambitious and women to forego ambition in favour of the domestic sphere. These stereotypes are inequitable for both sexes. For an ambitious woman or a less ambitious man, they can be a hindrance.

For women, this can lead to fewer professional opportunities, or criticism if they forge ahead. To challenge this inequity, we have to become aware of our unconscious bias.

How have you seen gender equality evolve throughout your career? Have you witnessed meaningful change?

Having worked over 35 years in industry, I have seen phenomenal change. When I started work in 1983, there was one woman who held a managerial role in our organisation. But that seniority did not extend to senior leadership or board positions. Today 40% of our senior leadership positions and 30% of our board positions are held by women.

Our organisation is currently actively reviewing how we advertise roles and what supports women applicants need in order to move into more senior positions. We are also looking at our talent pipeline entering the organisation. As an engineering industry, we are encouraging young women to take STEM subjects in college. Every year, during events such as Science Week and Engineers Week, we shine a spotlight on the expertise of the many female scientists and engineers who are currently working on significant infrastructure projects in Irish Water.

In order to encourage more women to progress within the organisation, Irish Water, and its parent company, Ervia, we launched our Diversity and Inclusion Programme in 2019. The programme has moved at pace since then and now includes a number of support groups, including the iBelong Women’s Network.

What are the challenges companies face with respect to gender equality? How can they have concrete impact?

Unconscious bias is probably the greatest challenge we all face. Typical male dominated industries need to open their minds to welcoming women into their organisations and recognise the benefits offered by a diverse workforce. Equally, as women join organisations, they must be given equal opportunities as men.

 Women are often overlooked for promotion because it is assumed that they would not be interested or could not juggle work and home responsibilities. This assumption is seldom made for men.

The unconscious bias behind this kind of assumption must change on an individual and societal level. But this does not mean that companies are off the hook. We can’t wait around for cultural conditioning to evolve; we have an active role to play. The onus is on organisations to drive improvement by supporting women and providing Role Models that show young women what they can achieve. Organisations must put systems in place so that women feel supported as their careers progress.

Creating a women’s network is a really positive step towards understanding what challenges women are facing in an organisation. It’s important that male managers support the network and listen to the challenges women are facing and respond accordingly.

We also have to recognize that not all women (or men) want to get promoted. It is important that we give women opportunities to express what they want from the organisation. We need to identify those who want to move up, and provide feedback, education, and flexibility to support their ambition.

Do you feel the glass ceiling exists in your industry? How can women break through it?

In the past it has certainly felt that way but things are definitely changing for the better. As a new generation of senior male managers are appointed, they bring with them an awareness and desire to see women sit at the management table. The onus is then on the women to ‘lean in’ to use the Sheryl Sandberg phrase, and not wait in the background, not wait to be invited to sit at the table. There are cultural issues that women also need to change; sitting in the background delivering great things and hoping to be noticed will not work. Women need to put themselves forward for projects, raise their own profiles, be seen.

How can companies attract female talent? What is your position on affirmative action?

I believe we need some sort of affirmative action to move us from the societal position we are in now to a stronger position, where females are better represented in senior management and on boards. The 30% Club, which aims to achieve better gender balance at all levels in organisations,. is now widely recognised in industry, and membership is very positively perceived and earns a badge of honour, which in itself is a huge success. Senior leaders are speaking our language and striving to meet the 30% quota.

The 30% Club believes that gender balance on boards and executive leadership not only encourages better leadership and governance, but further contributes to better all-round board performance, and ultimately increases corporate performance for both companies and shareholders.

What piece of advice would you give to women aspiring to join your industry?

I believe networking is a skill that every woman in industry should develop. Building a broad network of contacts will help you as your career progresses. In my experience, women are typically ‘delivery’ focused and do not take enough time to network.

If you are not known to managers throughout your organisation, you cannot be considered for opportunities, whether that be inclusion on a project, or a promotional opportunity. Put yourself out there. Make sure people know your name. Surround yourself with people who recognize that you’re driven, an achiever. Companies have a role in this, too, but women must ‘lean in.’ Building your profile through internal and external networking is a critical success factor for women in business.

What challenges lie ahead for gender equality, in general?

In order to achieve true equality we must continue to challenge stereotypes and biases and create opportunities for people of all gender identities.

This kind of progress starts on an individual level. In a professional context, the methods and initiatives I’ve spoken about will help us to achieve this goal.


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