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The inspirational women blazing their own trail

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Pictured at the Women’s Executive Network Ireland’s Most Powerful Women Awards are (left to right) Caroline Keeling, Chief Executive Officer of Keelings; Pamela Jeffery, Founder of the Women’s Executive Network; Louise Phelan, Vice President of Global Operations at PayPal; Cathriona Hallahan, Managing Director of Microsoft; and Christine Heffernan, Director of Corporate Affairs at Tesco

Pictured at the Women’s Executive Network Ireland’s Most Powerful Women Awards are (left to right) Caroline Keeling, Chief Executive Officer of Keelings; Pamela Jeffery, Founder of the Women’s Executive Network; Louise Phelan, Vice President of Global Operations at PayPal; Cathriona Hallahan, Managing Director of Microsoft; and Christine Heffernan, Director of Corporate Affairs at Tesco

Pictured at the Women’s Executive Network Ireland’s Most Powerful Women Awards are (left to right) Caroline Keeling, Chief Executive Officer of Keelings; Pamela Jeffery, Founder of the Women’s Executive Network; Louise Phelan, Vice President of Global Operations at PayPal; Cathriona Hallahan, Managing Director of Microsoft; and Christine Heffernan, Director of Corporate Affairs at Tesco

Having more women leaders is a serious societal goal. The dearth of women in politics at the time of Mary Robinson's ground-breaking election as President of Ireland was what prompted me and a handful of others to run for election. Frances Fitzgerald, now Minister for Justice, was, like me, involved in the women's movement in the early nineties, and we crossed the bridge from private to public life in electoral politics with a certain amount of trepidation. Since then the number of female TDs has remained stubbornly low at around 15pc and out of line with the participation of women in business and in other professions.

It is, however remarkable that in the legal field women are not only equal, but leading. The current Attorney General, Chief State Solicitor, Chief Justice, DPP and Garda Commissioner positions are held by women; a clear sign the dial is moving.

We all enjoy approval for hard work and success. Indeed, to deprive people of recognition by ignoring achievements is a form of passive aggression and very destructive of confidence and performance. Too often the achievements of successful women have been minimised or disregarded. It may be that women too often imagine that if we work hard in our chosen field, whether it is public affairs or the corporate world, that due credit and advancement will be given on the basis of merit. Alas, no.

It was precisely to deal with that predicament that WXN, the Women's Executive Network, brought its credo to Ireland of identifying, rewarding and celebrating high-achieving female leaders in the public and private sector. In 2009, following the success of a similar project in Canada, WXN tested the Irish waters. Research showed that there was a latent need for an organisation which would provide an executive network for women in business, including peer mentoring and training for aspiring female leaders. From small beginnings and with the support of a strong voluntary Advisory Board and a handful of corporate sponsors who shared the WXN vision for female advancement and leadership, the WXN started to host regular business breakfasts with guest speakers. Five years later, the organisation has flourished to its present status as a significant networking forum for women executives, with an objective of inspiring smart women to lead.

This week in Dublin, the fourth annual Gala Awards of Ireland's Top 25 Women took place. It was a celebration of 25 women, high achievers from the arts, business, public sector and a special category of "trailblazers".

In the latter category, the winners were Philomena Lee, whose tragic story was made into an award-winning movie starring Judy Dench; retired Supreme Court Judge Fidelma Macken and the " bravest teenager in Ireland" Joanne O'Riordan, a youth campaigner and advocate for people with disabilities.

The atmosphere was festive and collegiate with older women having shared experience and expertise during the day at a Leadership Summit. Families and work colleagues were there in force to join in the celebrations. There was an array of female talent and entrepreneurs drawn from the corporate world ranging from tech companies to banking, the food industry and global multinationals.

Cathriona Hallahan, MD of Microsoft Ireland, was a key note speaker who shared her story of personal growth and success from accounts clerk in Microsoft 30 years ago to her current leadership role. Philomena Lee spoke of being banished as a "fallen woman" at 18 to a Magdalene laundry and having her three-year-old boy forcibly adopted, never to see him again. And this despite the fact that he was looking for her for years and was misled by the nuns. Her son died aged 42 before they could be reunited.

I recall Senator George Mitchell saying that there is no more rewarding work than public service. He was speaking following the completion of the multi-party talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement. He was not talking about himself, although his is a life of exemplary public service. He was paying tribute to the Irish officials and diplomats who had worked for many years on crafting the documents and strategy of the Northern Ireland peace process. I recall an individual diplomat who was singled out for particular praise being deeply uncomfortable. Civil servants are not usually acknowledged or celebrated in our system of government. But Senator Mitchell, with typical American civility, recognised the diplomat by name, much to the mortification of the man, so unused to public praise.

I was therefore delighted that the WXN awards chose to recognise and celebrate three very senior women leaders in the Irish public service. One was the Irish ambassador to the United States, Ann Anderson; the Garda Commissioner, Noreen O'Sullivan; and CEO of Enterprise Ireland Julie Sinnamon. Each of these women serve in key roles, representing Ireland at home and abroad at the highest level at a critical time for Ireland's recovery and prosperity.

They have gained their positions through hard graft and merit. They are all high performing individuals. To be perceived as half as good as male colleagues, they have to be twice as good to come out on top. Often it is a lonely journey, with many evenings and events of being the only woman in the room. No doubt, partners and children have been short-changed; it goes with the territory. None of the leaders celebrated were particularly notable for their blinding ambition. They were, if anything, modest recipients of the awards, generous in their tributes to their own mothers and original mentors.

The truth is that the generation of women who went before, the mothers of these high achieving women, frequently were poorly educated and deprived by Irish culture and tradition of having careers of their own. Some indeed were denied the right to work by law, once married.

Cathriona Hallahan, in her speech, spoke movingly in this vein of her own mother, widowed at 40, going out to clean offices and schools to support her three children. She also spoke about the importance of authenticity and respecting others when leading organisations. Others, such as PayPal's Vice President of Global Operations Louise Phelan, stressed the value of having a mentor or supportive advocate.

Although an inevitably stylish event, there was an admirable absence of hubris in the room. It was an upbeat demonstration of the business case for gender diversity and for honouring successful women so as to inspire the next generation of leaders.

Irish Independent