Thursday 12 December 2019

'I was bawling crying at leaving my baby to go back to my work'

Three of the country's most powerful businesswomen talk to Niamh Horan about the trials of getting to the top

Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

IT was six weeks to the day after giving birth and Julie O'Neill was fighting a battle between the demands of biology and the demands of the workplace.

Standing at the end of her childminder's drive, the Ryanair director describes how she stood there, "still leaking milk, bawling crying" as she handed her tiny baby over to a childminder for the first time.

Julie O’Neill, director at Ryanair (Photo: Paul Sherwood).
Julie O’Neill, director at Ryanair (Photo: Paul Sherwood).

"It was crazy. My hormones were in bits," she recalls. And then, the candid admission: "The reality is if I had taken that time out, I would have missed out on opportunities."

Julie is adamant that women today should not have to face the same emotional trauma. Now a director at Europe's most valuable airline, and one of Ireland's most powerful women, Julie says childcare is a "disaster area" that badly needs to be addressed. And she believes a major culture shift is required in our whole way of thinking when it comes to maternity leave.

She told the Sunday Independent: "It's about thinking about the way in which we define the 'workplace'. In Ireland, we are still very much focused on 'face time'. It's all about being there, being present and showing up on time.

"But let's put more emphasis on what people produce and deliver and less on where they are physically located to do that. And we can use technology to do it."

She believes the advent of the 'remote office' will enable women to stay on top of their career while raising children.

"Since I left the public service, my iPad is my office. I can work at any stage of the night. If I am doing a bit of consultancy I can I work the same hours but with more flexibility. And I think portfolio life suits women.

"Our biology defines us as women and we can't get away from it. So let's accept it and start working with it."

Her ambition ultimately paid off. The former civil servant climbed to the position of secretary general at the Department of Transport and also landed several directorships, including a seat at Ryanair's boardroom table. But being Ireland's top businesswoman also raises other issues.

"The number of times I have been asked in my life – 'does your husband mind that you earn more than him?' Actually, he doesn't. But he pointed out a piece of research that says the number of couples, where the man earns less than the woman, who end up in divorce, is very high and I think there's a whole lot of ways in which we define men's status and men's self-respect.

"Having a life partner who is comfortable in their own skin and respects your choices, and is not threatened by your success, is great. And, of course, who will roll up the sleeves and get stuck in on his share of the household tasks is the key. I think we are into a generation now where this might be possible. Their feminine side is more developed partly because they have come from a generation of mothers like myself."

So how does a feminist like herself find working in the male-dominated Ryanair boardroom?

For starters, she is very impressed at the airline boss's decision not to surround himself with a gaggle of 'Yes men'. And she tips her hat to him for stepping outside his comfort zone to bring in someone from 'the opposition' in Government.

But she can't help but smile at the 'willy-waving machismo' which was once used to describe the company before her arrival with fellow businesswoman Louise Phelan.

"It was very funny and I thought– yep!"

She added: "It's a very macho culture in the organisation, there is absolutely no two ways about it. But I think it is changing, I mean, the whole approach is... is Michael going to change dramatically? No. But the qualities and machismo he has is what has brought that organisation to where it is."

So will we see the end to the airline's infamous bikini calendar?

"'Watch this space' is all I will say," she replies.

Julie O’Neill, director at Ryanair (Photo: Paul Sherwood).
Julie O’Neill, director at Ryanair (Photo: Paul Sherwood).

Julie was speaking last week at the Irish Tatler Academy for women who have made their mark in business. The 'Game Changers' event also featured Kathryn O'Donoghue, director of ads policy operations EMEA at Google. In a rare public appearance, the Google boss drew upon the reasons there are so few women in tech companies, describing the decline as a "tragedy".

"Someone once said to me girls opt out of tech early because they think it's not social. They think it's all about sitting on a phone and playing the game all by yourself. And so women are very community and relationship focused. Research shows that girls don't want to get into technology because they want to be on a team and to work with people and they don't associate that with the sector, which is a shame."

Another leading businesswoman, Carolan Lennon, managing director of eircom Wholesale, spoke of the need for women to let go of their inner "control freak" when they are chasing their career ambitions while their husbands keeps things together at home.

She admits she sometimes has to keep herself in check when she found herself telling her husband off over household chores.

"I think women are a bit 'control freaky' about childcare and their house. I remember after my first son was born I went back to work and [my husband] Sean took him to the doctor for a small temperature, it wasn't even anything serious. And I remember getting home and I was in such a snot because I hadn't been consulted. And I had been at work all day. He probably wouldn't even have been able to get hold of me. And I remember saying 'he's my baby, he's my child' and afterwards I thought 'Oh my God, I really need to get over this'. And I wanted the bathroom cleaned a certain way, the way I like it, and Sean was like 'you have got to be joking? Let's get someone else to do it so. Let's not sweat the small stuff'. So we compromised."

This, according to the host of the event, broadcaster and former Dragons' Den judge Norah Casey, was the perfect example of how busy working mothers can strike a balance.

She told Carolan: "I like your style. You don't say we will do it your way then, you get someone else to do it how you like it in the first place. That's a woman's compromise."

Sunday Independent

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