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Blazing a trail for women - in spite of the sneers

This is a man's world, Ballyfermot balladeer Mary Byrne memorably crooned on The X Factor -- and this week it transpired that some football pundits, at least, certainly still think so.

Sky Sports' Andy Gray was shown the red card by the station after he and fellow commentator Richard Keys were busted making sexist remarks about assistant referee Sian Massey off-air during a match.

"The game's gone mad," bemoaned Keys of the 25-year-old female officiator, before they agreed that the delicate female mind couldn't possibly comprehend the offside rule.

So just why are they still so surprised to see cracks in the glass ceiling -- when all over the world, women are seizing prime roles in previously male-dominated arenas such as business, sports and politics?

The whole sorry misogynistic mess had a whiff of the famous Harry Enfield sketch urging women to 'Know Your Limits!'.

But from cracking crime to literary acclaim, for Ireland's trail-blazing ladies, it seems the Sky's the limit -- pun intended.

Take Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin, who this week threw her hat in the ring to become the eighth leader -- and first female leader -- of Fianna Fáil.

Though ultimately well beaten by Micheál Martin, Hanafin unashamedly played the gender card in the race for Brian Cowen's political grave.

"This is a party, this is a country that is divided evenly 50:50 male and female," she said. "We should never have a situation where the largest party in the country is presenting four men to contest the leadership."

And when asked if the old boys' club of the Dáil was ready for a lady leader, Hanafin conceded: "I'm ready to lead them. The question is whether they're ready for me to lead them."

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With prominent female TDs Beverley Flynn, Olwyn Enright and Mary Harney all exiting the corridors of power in the past few months, it remains to be seen if Mná na hÉireann will be as motivated to vote in the upcoming general election as they were in 1990.

A watershed moment in women's lib, female voters came out in force to make 46-year-old lawyer Mary Robinson the country's first female president.

As a left-wing candidate with designs on shaking up laws on divorce, homosexuality and contraception, Robinson's detractors scarcely needed to resort to sexism à la Gray and Keys to get their digs in.

But that didn't stop Pádraig Flynn from controversially accusing the mum-of-two of "having a new-found interest in her family" to boost her bid for the Áras.

Thanks in part to that case of foot-in-mouth, underdog Robinson went on to yank the rug from under Fianna Fáil favourite Brian Lenihan.

"Something has crumbled away in this election," she said, "the old preconceptions, the old ways."

If the looming election looks set to be massacre for the outgoing government, it's nothing compared to what Ireland's first female State Pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy has witnessed during her career.

Over the past 25 years, she has examined over 10,000 bodies and helped crack some of the country's most gruesome crimes.

Turning up at crime scenes in Victoria Beckham-style sunglasses, the mum-of-two is portrayed as something of an anomaly -- a woman in control of her emotions.

Her defence is simple.

"When I first started, being a woman was alien," she recalled in TV documentary Death Duties, "particularly to the police.

"You must remember that until fairly recently, forensic pathology was essentially a male preserve.

"Nobody can prepare themselves for the shock of dealing with a mutilated body," adds the distinguished Glaswegian. "(But) I can deal with it because the person is dead.

"They are not suffering any more, but the families are suffering and they need answers.

"The families don't want me sobbing in a corner."

So as 'Pee' Flynn intimated two decades ago, must ambitious women sacrifice part of their femininity to survive in a man's world?

"It was never that difficult for me," tells author Anne Enright on juggling career and motherhood. "I remember rocking the pram with one hand and typing with the other.

"I think being a woman is like being Irish," quipped late Dublin-born author Iris Murdoch. "Everyone says you're important and nice, but you take second place all the time."

Except perhaps, in the history books, where ground-breakers like Aer Lingus pilot Captain Gráinne Cronin, who retired last year, will be remembered long after any balding buffoons.

Touching down for good after 33 years of service in the skies, the airline's first female pilot admitted it "wasn't easy" working in such a male-dominated industry in the late '70s.

But the company praised the Malahide mum as a 'trailblazer' who paved the way for other female pilots. And that's a word that's unlikely to ever be used in the same sentence as Andy Gray and Richard Keys.

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