International Women’s Day has turned into a sort of feminist Christmas, with events here, there and everywhere of variable quality and interest but all with the aim of highlighting the myriad roles of and issues facing women. The few events I attended – business, social, and political – provided a really great snapshot of a lot of issues facing Irish women at the moment so here’s a quick roundup.
On Tuesday, I was in Dublin to host a panel discussion with Mary O’Rourke, Lucy Gaffney and Veronica Canning for the Insurance Institute of Ireland and the Banking Institute of Ireland. Both institutes have a majority female membership, but this is absolutely not reflected in boards and top level management positions within their respective industries.
The audience heard of Mary O’Rourke’s gamble in which she turned down Charlie Haughey’s offer of a job as shadow women’s affairs minister in the 1980s; Gaffney’s rise through the ranks of Irish business to become a board member of Ulster Bank and chairperson of Communicorp and the lessons she learned along the way from the Sicilians; and Canning’s work mentoring and training women in multinational organisations to develop their personal brand.
The level of engagement from those attending this event was evident; there is a real appetite for change and development among women who are getting more than a little tired of accepting the status quo. The discussion on gender quotas, in particular, was interesting, as it displayed a real will to change the conversation to one of progress and affirmative action. While both Lucy Gaffney and Mary O’Rourke pronounced the notion of quotas as “insulting” to women, some vocal audience members agreed with Veronica Canning that action is necessary in increasing representation of women at the top of organisations. One audience member suggested that the idea that quotas will bring in “mediocre” women to the top of banking was itself insulting to women, pointing out that the failures in the industry over the past few years were not due to a preponderance of “outstanding” men. Another senior executive in the industry commented that women in their thirties require additional support due to the overwhelming burden of raising children and being at a crucial stage in their careers. The event was a really great way to kick off a series of women’s networking events in the industry.
That evening I went to Brussels for a conference on women and the European elections. The conference was also the vehicle for releasing new statistics on gender based violence in the EU; they were appalling. Seven women die every day across the EU from gender based violence including domestic and intimate partner violence. One in three women across the region have suffered physical or sexual violence since the age of 15. (As a reminder, just 0.7 per cent of rapes here result in a conviction.)
Figures are slightly lower for Ireland than the average – the National Women’s Council suggests that this is a result of under-reporting here.
The full survey results are here.
There is no longer anyone in Europe who can claim they don’t know a woman who is the victim of sexual or physical violence. On those statistics, every one of us knows numerous women who have been subjected to this. On Friday, I discussed the findings with Sean Moncrieff – you can listen back to that discussion here.
On Friday, I spent the evening with women from the Ballyphehane/Togher Community Development Project, who have spent the past 20 years building a centre they are incredibly proud of. They have empowered women in the community by providing an excellent community childcare service; by teaching women new skills; and by teaching them to value and market the skills, such as crocheting, that they already have. I was particularly struck by their video which included an interview with Chrissie O’Sullivan of Cork’s Traveller Visibility Group, who explained how she was one of the first Traveller women to put her child in a creche, giving her the opportunity to go to university. That kind of action has real impacts on women and their families and their families’ outcomes – numerous studies worldwide have established that a mother’s level of educational attainment significantly reduces her child’s chances of growing up in poverty.
I also got to meet the lovely Frances Byrne of Open Ireland and her mother Noreen Byrne, a former chair of the NWCI. Inspiring women!
On Saturday, I spoke to women candidates from Fianna Fáil in Athlone – again with Mary O’Rourke! – about their media approach as the local election campaign gets into full swing. I have previously done the same for women Fine Gael candidates – in doing this, my objective is straightforward. I want to see more women elected. I want to have the option of voting for a woman in the next election. Ideally, I’d like to be able to choose between women on the ballot paper – that is a rare choice for Irish voters, because so many constituencies have just one or not even one woman candidate. As there usually is at such events, there was a huge amount of energy, great focus and a lot of hard work is evident. I wish them all the best of luck, and thanks to Christabelle Feeney for giving me the opportunity to meet them.
Thanks to Brian Hayes-Curtin, Louise Cashell and Kieran O’Mahony for keeping the wheels turning at the Cork Independent while I was gallivanting all week.