Friday 19 December 2014

Liz O'Donnell: Irish women entitled to celebrate after a 40-year struggle for gender equality

Published 18/06/2013 | 17:00

When it comes to the role of women in society, the last 40 years have been transformative, particularly when it comes to the workforce.

Joining the EEC in 1973 was a game-changer. Ireland opened up to the wider world economically and socially. The abolition of the marriage ban in 1973 was a seismic change for women. Prior to this, married women were bizarrely forced to leave their jobs in the public sector and in much of the private sector when they got married.

The introduction of free secondary education, however, in the 1970s, was the critical turning point for women. Before that, many low-income families could not afford to educate girls to second level, thus excluding them from university.

So the first generation of confident skilled and educated women came on stream in the 1980s. These days, girls outperform boys in state and university exams and professional entry competitions. Women compete energetically with men in the modern Irish workforce. Equality legislation helps protect women from gender discrimination. In theory, women can aspire to a life without limits.

But it is not all plain sailing. The childcare needs of working mothers are a hot topic at the moment in the light of recent exposures as to standards in that sector. Many women struggle to combine family and work responsibilities and these stresses increase with the seniority of the position.

Many young women find the pace unsustainable in the gym jungle of career advancement. There are institutional barriers, sexism, sexual harassment, and a tendency for employers to favour men over women when it comes to promotion.

Research shows that men are promoted on the basis of potential while women are elevated on the basis of achievements.

Like it or not, maternity leave is an ongoing silent negative for women when it comes to eligibility for promotion, given that advancement opportunities usually coincide with childbearing years.

But apart from the institutional barriers, for which there are solutions and statutory protections, there are equally powerful internal obstacles influencing women's progress in their chosen careers.

Some women are holding back and deferring to male colleagues because of a lack of confidence, or are opting out. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, calls this the "leadership ambition gap". In her recent book, she urges women to "lean in" to their careers and "sit at the table" rather than in the margins.

Many high-ranking corporate and professional women speak of the loneliness of being at the top of their game in a male-dominated environment. This is where networks are so vital for peer support, encouragement and mentoring.

The Women's Executive Network (WXN) is an organisation established in Canada and in its fifth year of operation here in Ireland. It boasts 2,500 Irish members and its credo is to "inspire smart women to lead".

Last week in Dublin, 25 women were honoured in a Gala Evening of Celebration hosted by WXN and HSBC. It was the second year of the 'Ireland's Most Powerful Women Top 25 Awards'. There were five categories of awards to honour proven achievers in the private corporate, public and not-for-profit sectors.

How dazzling and uplifting it was to see these women, enjoying the adulation of their peers and families.

Ann Heraty, founder and CEO of CPL Resources, was a second-time winner of the Entrepreneurs Award and a keynote speaker.

There was a special award for the late Maeve Binchy, whose work so accurately captured Irish women's lives over the last 30 years. It was refreshing to see top civil servants being recognised, such as Revenue Commissioners chief Josephine Feehily, Clare Loftus, the first female DPP, and Geraldine Byrne Nason, the senior diplomat in the Taoiseach's office running the Irish EU presidency. Olympic gold medallist Katie Taylor was also honoured.

Watching from the audience, I reflected how our grandmothers had little or no opportunity to excel. For them it was a small life of manual labour in the home or farm with few choices or personal freedoms. Gender equality and female success has been hard won; it should be celebrated with aplomb.

Irish Independent

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