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'Diversity isn’t just about gender': Q&A with Samantha O'Keeffe, Head of Corporate Strategy, CEO Office at Permanent TSB

July 31, 2019 | Daisy Bernard

We spoke to one of the many women driving Permanent TSB, Headline sponsors for Women in Finance Dublin, forward.

Samantha O'Keeffe is a business professional with experience in Finance, Strategy, Operations, Consulting and Change. She has worked internationally across a variety of industries. Her roles have included assisting small start ups, working on large scale transformations projects, and latterly building a key business area from inception, including the development of processes, governance and recruitment. We spoke to O'Keeffe about diversity in finance, work/life balance, and why Permanent TSB decided to sponsor Women in Finance Dublin. 

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Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m originally from Dublin but lived and worked as a Consultant in Boston and London for a number of years, before returning home to join Permanent TSB in 2012. I started in the Strategy and Planning Team but moved to Treasury shortly thereafter and spent five years working in Corporate Development, leading our Portfolio Sales. During this time, I also managed the Bank’s Resolution Planning, Senior Unsecured Debt Programme, Debt Investor Relations and, laterally, Capital Management. 

I recently moved into a new role in Group Finance, leading our Corporate Strategy Team. It is an exciting time to join, as we are focused on growing the business and optimising the Bank’s Balance Sheet and Business Model. 

 

Why have you decided to get involved with our Women in Finance World Series?

I think it is really important to connect with peers across the industry to understand the challenges that we are all facing. This series provides women in Ireland with an opportunity to develop industry connections, discuss shared learnings, and of course, hear from leading experts on matters that are shaping our sector and the modern working world.

 

What is Permanent TSB doing to promote women in finance?

Well, firstly, we are a headline sponsor of the ‘Women in Finance’ event in Dublin, which is a testament to the importance that our Executive Committee is placing on addressing gender issues at the Bank. 

We also launched our Diversity & Inclusion Programme last year; gender is one of a number of areas that PTSB has set ambitious D&I goals for. There is real buy-in from colleagues across the Bank and momentum is building in all areas. Since its launch, an employee-led ‘Women’s Network’ has been established by employees from across a wide range of departments and levels of the Bank; this initiative is sponsored by the Bank’s CFO and Executive Board Member, Eamonn Crowley. 

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Why do you think there is a lack of senior female role models in finance?

I think it is a result of women needing to step back from the intensity of their roles, for short periods in their career; unfortunately, companies do not always have support systems, and the culture does not allow for women to stay engaged during these periods. This puts many female professionals in a disadvantaged position when it comes to moving to more senior roles in an organisation. 

The world is changing though, and I am beginning to see different attitudes and approaches to “ways of working” and managing your career; this benefits all employees, regardless of gender, allowing everyone to manage competing priorities, in their own way. I think Finance and Financial Services, which can be viewed as more traditional industries, have been slower to embrace newer “ways of working”, relative to say, the Technology Industry; however, as things change in our industry, I believe we will see more and more woman managing their career to fit their life cycle, moving to senior roles and forging the path for younger female colleagues.

 

Work/life balance is very much a popular topic at the moment. Do you think a lot of women feel that they have to be Superwoman all of the time?

Absolutely! Regardless of the stage you are at in life, we all having constant demands and expectations to be all things, to all people. Some of this is internally driven – in reality, most people are too worried about their own lives to judge others – but I do think that modern society has set an expectation that women need to be the perfect employee/leader/colleague… at work, the perfect wife/mother/daughter /sister … outside the office, and still have time volunteer, maintain a wonderful home, be a supportive friend and run the odd marathon here and there!

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we don’t need to excel at everything, all of the time; sometimes doing well enough in some areas of our lives allows us to free up time, to focus on things that are relatively more important to us, for where we are in that moment. There is no point comparing yourself to others around you or on social media; they likely have a different set of priorities and are probably looking back at you and wondering how you keep it all together.

Learning to identify what is important to me and focusing my energy on those priorities has been a learning curve; but I am getting better and suppose we only get there by trying and failing a few times!

 

What do you think is holding back the advancement of diversity in the corporate world?

People tend to gravitate to those that they have an affinity with; this means you are far more likely to hire someone that has a similar background to you than you are someone that you do not immediately relate to.

We need to understand that we all have these unconscious biases and recognise the real value that diversity brings to our businesses. Diversity isn’t just about gender; it’s a diversity of thought, background, experience, and so on. We should consciously look for people who will act as the contrarian and challenge our ideas and opinions – this is how we can guard against our blind spots. We should also focus on integrating diversity into the team and ensuring everyone has a voice, to present alternative views. In doing so, we will begin to build a more diverse and inclusive workforce. 

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Finally, what can our readers, as individuals, do to push for gender diversity and help their organisations invest in the right teams of people?

We should acknowledge the huge progress that has been made in recent years in this area; I am certainly seeing a shift in mind-set and expectations; but we’re not there yet. 

In my experience, it is the day to day micro behaviours that have the biggest impact on women’s confidence and identity in the workplace. Throughout my career, I have witnessed women being spoken over and ignored in meetings, assigned the more menial roles/tasks in projects (despite having a superior skill set) and being frequently compared to one and other (relative to male colleagues, who tend to be assessed on a stand-alone basis). When this happens regularly, it has a compound effect on person’s confidence and self-belief – it also robs the individual of an opportunity to grow and prove their abilities – so that when a more senior role becomes available, they are less likely to put themselves forward. 

I think we need to do more to recognise these behaviours and encourage equal participation in our day to day lives, so that when opportunities arise, everyone is equally prepared to put their best foot forward. By creating equality in opportunity, equality in outcome may follow. 

It is important to mention that some of my most supportive colleagues to date have been male - they were the people who challenged me the most and told me to take a chance, when I didn’t believe I could. Regardless of gender, we all have a responsibility to support and encourage our colleagues, so they reach their full potential. 


Women in Finance Dublin, powered by Permanent TSB, is coming to CCD Dublin on the 12-13 September 2019. Navigate the labyrinth to leadership in our two day conference with 50+ speakers and 500+ atendees from PayPal, Google, Deloitte and more.

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