Written as an OpEd for The Gloss Magazine, September 2015.
My story is a familiar one, like many others, I started to work for myself in the teeth of the recession – 2010 – when the economic landscape was bitingly bleak, change was constant and fear was ever-present. To be honest, I really didn’t know what I was doing – I had good experience, a degree and a smattering of other qualifications – but like so many colleagues I’ve spoken to over the years, I was fairly uncertain of what the future held.
Networking, I’ve discovered since then, is key for many reasons – not least of all, when you’re a woman in business. That may appear trite, but as I uncovered in the early days of self-employment – the more business-centric events and meetings I went to, the more I noticed that I wasn’t in the majority. I joined Network Ireland at the ripe old age of twenty-five; I’d just moved back to the West of Ireland and was seeking a bit of connectivity. Almost eight years on, I’m bringing our National conference to Mayo – a job which, to be honest, I couldn’t have foreseen or imagined back in 2007.
During the course of those eight years, I’ve started the aforementioned business, watched it develop – built an extraordinary bank of connections, learned more than I could ever have at university… and I’m still learning. This Network of ours is a source of great peer support, informal mentoring and confidence-building. When I open our conference on the 25th, I will do so as a somewhat accomplished public speaker, a person who has honed skills through being forced into the limelight by encouraging colleagues. Someone who, back in 2007, would have smarted at the notion of any of this.
It’s fair to say that I’m not afraid of the ‘feminist’ label but wear it proudly – I come from a long-line of them, both men and women – so being a member of an organisation which subscribes to the ideology of promoting women’s professional advancement is hardly surprising. Occupying the role of National President this year affords an extraordinary opportunity to really show our members and women, in general, what’s possible.
Women account for around 85% of politicians, 70% of board-members, 70% of entrepreneurs… oh, wait, it looks like I got that the wrong way around. In fact, our percentage representation is exactly the opposite – with women in various strands of decision-making, from politics to boards, broadcasting to leadership, hovering between 15-22%, and at its upper limits around 30% on public boards, where quotas apply.
I’m often asked why this is – if we have so many talented women in the membership of organisations like Network, why aren’t they more visible? If only this was a straightforward question to answer. The reality is, it’s a multifaceted and complex situation – for many women, the barriers are cultural and societal. Women possess the vast majority of caring responsibilities, and this isn’t just in the context of children and parenthood, but often other caring roles for dependant family members. In essence, women juggle two careers – that of mother or carer, and worker.
Applying this reality to the corporate world, or politics, or indeed, self-employment – does not make scaling the ladder of progression a simple task – it makes it an almost impossible feat. Policy, in both an organisational and government context, must be modified and modernised in tune with the complexity of women’s working lives. It is simply impossible to attempt to compete on a fundamentally uneven playing field where real life responsibility is penalised and overloaded lives are expected as the norm.
But to suggest that the only issue facing equal representation is a society which actively promotes an unequal work environment [Article 41.2 “recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved”] is to negate a whole other argument.
“You can’t be what you can’t see” is a phrase oft-quoted, and it’s resoundingly true. Role models play a crucial part in developing the pipeline of leadership-ready candidates – and don’t tell me they’re not out there, I meet them every day! The meritocracy stance is a hollow one, when in practical terms; unconscious bias feeds the majority of women into administration rather than leadership. This is what makes both networks and active measures central to really activating and developing women in leadership… visibility, accessibility and learning.
Without delving into a myriad of well-worn reports authored by both international and national research bodies and organisations, “gender-typing” is a long-embedded issue for organisations. I’ve often joked [and blogged] about being the assumed note-taker at many meetings over the years – a fact which I do shirk off with a level of humour – but at its core is a very concerning stereotype, one which stymies progress and creates real obstacles for women. In addition, innate risk-aversion and self-selection have long been identified as barriers, and I can attest to both experiencing this myself and seeing it in others. Self-selection can be directly attributed to the cultural issues already mentioned, whilst risk-aversion, ironically, brings balance to decision-making – a fact propounded by the abundant research on boards and governance.
So, what can be done? Undoubtedly, there are wider discussions happening as I write, not least of all by colleague organisations such as NWCI. Policy, culture and behaviour are central issues – but everyone can play their role in shattering the last vestiges of this archaic ceiling. Ultimately, gender-balance in the working world is everyone’s responsibility – but women’s collective, supportive action is a potent force and will continue to be necessary to really accelerate the pace of change.
This year, Network Ireland’s theme is “Harnessing Opportunity in Changing Times”, a theme which I felt connected with so much of what we experience every day – in business, society, the economy – things are constantly changing. It’s what we do to harness these opportunities that really matters. Of late, we have been subject to unprecedented turmoil – the wake of this severe change provides the perfect canvas on which to paint new realities – for society and for business.
For over thirty years, Network Ireland has been connecting, supporting and developing professional women – SMEs, artists, professionals, managers – to be their best self, and realise their innate potential. We recognise our talented membership at the National Businesswomen of the Year Awards and are conscious that every year, we must do something more. Adopting our conference hashtag #NoMoreGlassCeilings is making it clear that this is something we can all take part in – through collaboration, engagement and commitment. Please do join our conversation on the 25th…