By Kirsty McManus, National Director, Institute of Directors (IoD) Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is fortunate to benefit from a strong network of female business leaders, many of whom gathered last week for Institute of Directors (IoD) Women’s Leadership Conference.

And yet, company boards and senior management teams across the UK and further afield continue to lack diversity, despite studies that suggest greater representation of females and other minorities at the top of business can have a significant impact on the bottom line.

The Women’s Leadership Conference, which has been running annually for more than a decade, coinciding with International Women’s Day, provides a tremendous showcase of the high-calibre of female leaders in Northern Ireland making their mark locally and on a wider stage.

This year’s event was no exception, featuring a host of local business leaders such as Alice Charles, originally from Co Fermanagh and now leading all cities and urban development work for the World Economic Forum in Geneva; Marie Macklin CBE, Chair of Macklin Enterprise Partnerships where she invests in entrepreneurs and Carmel McKinney OBE, the first female Chair of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service.

Each of them, and there are many other examples that could be mentioned, have risen to the very top of their chosen fields but they remain in a minority.

In fact, just one-fifth of the 467 individuals currently sitting on the boards of Northern Ireland’s Top 100 companies are women, according to a recent report. This is despite research that suggests placing women in senior roles can greatly enhance economic outcomes.

A study by McKinsey and Company in 2015 found that greater gender diversity on the senior executive teams of business in the UK corresponded to improved performance. It said that for every 10 per cent increase in gender diversity, earnings before interest and tax rose by 3.5 per cent.

And when international business advisory firm Grant Thornton posed the question: “Do companies with diverse boards really perform better than those run purely by men, which currently dominate the corporate landscape”, the answer was yes, they perform much better.

In a 2015 study, which covered listed companies in the UK, United States and India, it was revealed businesses with at least one woman on the board outperformed male-only boards by $430 billion in relation to returns on assets.

Yet, women are still considerably outnumbered at the top end of the business community with just seven female chief executives at the UK’s FTSE 100 companies, prompting employment agency Green Park to suggest this could a have a major negative impact on the UK as it seeks to increase trade with non-EU businesses and countries following Brexit.

McKinsey World Institute perhaps stated the case for women even more strongly when it said $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality, adding that if women – who account for half the world’s working-age population – do not achieve their full economic potential, the global economy will suffer.

It is a stark warning and is one of the reasons why the IoD works to promote increased diversity at the top level of our companies, not just by employing more women in senior positions but creating opportunities for all minorities, based solely on merit.

For many, the main take away from the Women’s Leadership Conference, was that as a business community in Northern Ireland, we are certainly moving in the right direction as we continue to encourage strong female leadership across the economy and ensure our businesses can reap the diversity dividend.