23 September 2016

Keynote Address: International Conference on Women and Leadership in a Changing World

Keynote Address

by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality

Frances Fitzgerald TD

International Conference on
Women and Leadership in a Changing World

Queen’s University Belfast 

23 September 2016

Thank you, Professor Millar, for your kind introduction.

I would like to start by expressing my thanks to Professor Patrick Johnston and Professor Yvonne Galligan for their invitation to address the conference. I must also congratulate Queen’s University, the University of Massachusetts and Allstate Insurance for organising this event. As Tánaiste, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, and Minister for Justice and Equality, I am delighted to have the opportunity to give the keynote address this evening on an issue which is very close to my heart.

In 1995, I attended the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing as a member of parliament. One of the objectives was there should be equality for ‘women in power and decision-making’. Hillary Clinton memorably declared what was possible, saying: “human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all”.

Did the Beijing vision materialise? Did things change? It is fair to say that some progress has been made. Hillary Clinton could be elected as the 45th President of the United States. She could join Prime Minister May in the United Kingdom and Chancellor Merkel in Germany as powerful women in leadership positions. A woman could take her place as leader of the most powerful country in the world.

But Secretary Clinton, Prime Minister May, Presidents Robinson and McAleese are still exceptions. They are extraordinary not because they are women, but because they are women who made it.

Last Monday, I addressed the UN Summit of Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants. I subsequently addressed President Obama’s Leaders Summit on Refugees last Tuesday. What struck me forcibly was that both were predominantly male zones. Female leaders were in a very small minority at both events - about 12% at the Obama summit. Political leadership remains a male preserve internationally.

That Beijing Platform for Action had made a difference. Many speeches referenced the particular needs of women and girls. They highlighted the specific risks of trafficking and sexual exploitation. However, it was still a case of men speaking on behalf of women for the most part at that summit. That would not be acceptable for other groups. People with disabilities have championed the motto ‘nothing about us without us’. Yet, society can accept of that as a fact of life decisions will be made about women in their absence. Women are often absent from the decision-making table. This has to change.

I believe firmly that we have to empower women to become leaders. We have to communicate the message as a society that leadership is for women and men equally.

We all know that women make great leaders. What we haven’t fully figured out is how to support women to become leaders.

Your conference has valuably focused on female leadership in business, the judiciary, community organisations and the public sector. I want to look particularly at empowering female leadership across all decision-making sites in our societies. I want women to be enabled to put themselves forward as leaders in their workplaces, in community organisations, arts organisations, agriculture and financial services. I want to see women in leadership positions in the media so that news coverage recognises the diversity of women and the scale of women’s achievements. I want to see women as leaders of sporting organisations, cutting the deals with media organisations to give female sports proper visibility. For too long, international sports have been controlled by powerful men. I want the Ireland of five years’ time to be a place where decision-making belongs to women as much as it belongs to men.

Why is female leadership so important? Because, otherwise, someone else takes the decisions. Women end up walking in shoes made for someone else. They can pinch after a while. You are less able to walk that mile. You start to hobble a little.

It is not enough to get one or two women into leadership positions. We have to achieve a critical mass. As former Irish President and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson has said, that “It's only when you have a critical mass of women in politics that you get women's issues attacked”.

Getting that critical mass of women into positions of power and decision-making has been disappointingly slow. It requires sustained effort over a considerable period of time to change the ingrained practices and attitudes in society which have been holding women and girls back from achieving their true potential.

The traits of leadership have been defined by men. That was understandable until the middle of the last century. The problem is that it is still acceptable.

The possibilities of the present must translate into opportunities for women across Ireland.

And if we have to redefine the traits of leadership – to be a little less combative and a little more collaborative - then so be it.

Justice is the classic example. It's traditionally patriarchal and hierarchical. But of course, effective justice in modern Ireland is as much about collaboration and inter-agency cooperation to deliver safe communities, as it is about traditional command structures.

My portfolio is Justice and Equality - and equality is core to my vision as a politician and it is my core vision for Ireland.

It is the reason why I took my first steps into the world of advocacy and campaigning as a social worker in London.

It is the reason I joined the Women’s Political Association when I returned to Dublin in the 1980s.

It is the reason I decided to go for the Chair of the National Women’s Council and seek election to the Dáil.

The pursuit of equality is the reason I am here today and will be somewhere else tomorrow.

Equality benefits everyone. Gender equality brings benefits for organisations as well as for society. Gender balance on executive boards is positively linked to organisational performance. The risks of stagnation associated with ‘groupthink’ mentalities are reduced by diversity and gender balance.

That is why a feminist lens is more vital than ever in our decision-making.

That is why I want to encourage decision-makers across Ireland – politicians, businesspeople, community leaders – to take action to maximise opportunities for women and to break down remaining barriers.

I know that this will have been discussed quite a lot yesterday, but I’d like to reflect on some of the barriers to women's leadership, and what we’ve learned about working to overcome them.

Concerns have been expressed over many years about the lack of participation by women in politics in Ireland.

I have to stress this point - female participation in politics does not happen by accident.

I remember being elected to Dáil Éireann almost 25 years ago. I was shocked at the under-representation of women. While matters have improved, young women today are still shocked when they actually see how few women are among their public representatives and how male-dominated the Oireachtas still is.

I have to remind myself from time to time that a full generation of Irish girls and boys were born and grew up under female Presidents. Because of Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, Irish voters now take it for granted that a woman can be President of Ireland, and expect to see women candidates included for their consideration.

In 2009 and 2010 the Oireachtas used its cross-Party Committee structure to explore the reasons for poor female membership in the Irish Parliament. It published two reports of its findings, which identified the barriers and recommendations to overcome them. A key outcome was the identification of a set of obstacles popularly known as ‘the five Cs’ – Cash; Childcare; Confidence; Culture and Candidate selection procedures. I want to touch on two of these this afternoon; confidence and candidate selection.

Confidence is crucial to convincing a female candidate to take that crucial first step into politics. It can enable the woman to dream the impossible, to surmount seemingly impossible hurdles. I think of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, the first democratically elected female Head of State in Africa and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. She has said: "Just because something has not been done yet, doesn’t mean it can’t be. I was never deterred from running for president just because there had never been any females elected head of state in Africa. The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough."

Confidence is crucial but positive action is also needed. That is why I am in favour of gender quotas for candidate selection.

We took a bold step in 2012. We enacted a ground-breaking provision in the Electoral Act 2012 which made receipt of full State funding under the electoral Acts contingent on a qualified political party fielding at least 30% women candidates and at least 30% men candidates at the general election. This quota rises to 40% in seven years time. Parties who fail to meet the gender balance targets face losing half of their State funding, and not just for one year but for the lifetime of a Dáil. To put the potential impact of non-compliance into perspective, the total amount available for disbursement to qualified parties in 2016 is some €5.9 million. So the consequences for political parties of not having sufficient women and men candidates at a general election are significant.

The new legislative provisions were designed as an incentive to encourage political parties to apply gender balance in the selection of candidates put forward at Dáil general elections.

At last February’s general election the impact of these new gender provisions were clear to see. 163 women contested the election, representing 30% of the 551 candidates. This was a significant increase over the 2011 general election, where only 15% of the candidates were women. In 2016, 35 women were elected to Dáil Éireann. This represents 22% of the total membership, compared with 15% in 2011. An increase of 7% may not seem significant. However, it is a major improvement. Previously, it took a decade for the percentage to increase even by 1%. But let's be clear. For a developed country like Ireland this is dismal.

One area in which we are strongly pressing for greater representation of women is in the administration of the State. I am pleased that the justice sector is now a role model for other areas. Quite uniquely among countries, women now occupy the positions of Chief Justice, Attorney General, Garda Commissioner, Director of Public Prosecutions, Chief State Solicitor, State Pathologist and myself, as Minister for Justice and Equality. All are leading substantial change programmes in their organisations to ensure that the Irish justice system is responsive to Irish society as it continues to evolve.

The task now is to ensure this is not a convenient coincidence, but rather a hint of the future.

The Government is also seeking to promote greater gender balance in senior ranks of the Civil Service through the Civil Service Renewal Plan. This is the programme of change aimed at creating a more professional; responsive and accountable Irish Civil Service.

The Plan commits us to improving gender balance at each level of the Civil Service, and particularly at leadership level. Although women account for 60% of all staff across the Civil Service, they are under-represented at senior level. The female representation reduces at each step up the hierarchy, with 38% at Principal level, 31% at Assistant Secretary level, and 22% at Secretary General equivalent. There's that figure again - 22%. What is stopping is from getting to 50?

I want to see an improvement in these figures. I want to send a strong message to women who have ambition and talent that we will address any barriers that may prevent them from applying for senior positions. The Government has agreed a programme of initiatives which are intended to increase the representation of women at senior decision-making levels in the Civil Service. The initiatives are intended to support women to advance up the career ladder. Focus is being placed on providing training for interview boards on unconscious gender bias. Departments will also apply a gender lens to job assignments so that women are not segregated into positions that are less likely to translate into promotions. Individual Mentoring programmes are also essential.

I firmly believe that government has a strong role in promoting gender equality. I am speaking to you today with an eye to one of the key justice and equality initiatives in our Programme for Government, namely the renewal of Ireland’s National Women’s Strategy. My ambition for the new Strategy is that it should speak to the society of today and target the barriers to women's achievement of their full potential and their enjoyment of equality with men. Work has begun on preparing the Strategy. A wide-ranging consultation process will be launched shortly. We will be seeking views from a wide diversity of women. I anticipate that issues such as access to work, caring responsibilities and pensions will continue to be areas for concern. However, I also think that the Strategy will need to address emerging issues such as revenge porn and body shaming. The Strategy will have to work for women across all ages, classes and situations.

Research shows that where a country performs well in terms of social progress, it tends also to perform well in attracting foreign direct investment. Ireland’s situation as a member of the European Union and as a small open economy which has benefitted greatly from engagement with the wider world has provided access to a wealth of new ideas and modern business practices from across the globe. Gender equality is increasingly viewed as a key issue to be addressed in order to deliver on the vision of becoming ‘a global innovation leader’.

There are lessons to be learned from the innovative and growing sector of social entrepreneurship, which is leading the field in providing opportunities for female business leadership. The creativity and business acumen of women is abundantly displayed every day across the wide variety of community and voluntary groups operating across Ireland, and in many of our family-run businesses and SMEs. Why then are women not leading enterprises and establishing their own businesses at the same rate as men?

This is a question that occupied the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation in its 2015 report on female entrepreneurship. The Committee identified problems with access to finance, tax disincentives, a need for greater networking and mentoring opportunities, and the prevalence of a largely male-dominated business culture, all of which impact on opportunities and on confidence for women starting their own business. Similarly, Enterprise Ireland’s research points to barriers in the form of low self-confidence and lower levels of risk taking among potential women entrepreneurs, as well as a lack of role models, a shortage of female networking opportunities, less access to finance, and a lack of technical expertise. However the good news from Enterprise Ireland is the big increase in their female start ups since 2011.

Let’s also face this fact. Barriers to women excelling in business, political or voluntary roles are practical ones. When I was Chairperson of the National Women’s Council I remember taking calls at half eight in the morning as I was making the school lunches for my boys. That was the early 1990s, a time when most men didn’t have to factor ham sandwiches into their days. To be fair we see more sharing of responsibilities today.

What was a major help to me in my early career was the Mater Hospital's decision, where I was a social worker, to give me the first ever job sharing position.

The Mater helped me overcome that barrier of managing to combine work and family life and gave me the opportunity ultimately to become a woman in a position of leadership.

The collective task for Government, business and the community is to continue to break down those barriers. The most difficult message to get across at times is that opening up opportunities for women in society is not a zero sum exercise.

Gains for women do not equate to lost opportunities for men, but to increased opportunities for greater economic prosperity for all. For an increasing number of men, the penny has dropped and they see the benefit of gender equality. We now have an expanding cohort of senior business leaders, male and female, who recognise gender equality as a necessity to access the very best talent the workforce has to offer.

They are working, individually and through initiatives such as the 30% club in the UK and Ireland, and Board Diversity Ireland, to advance women into decision-making roles within their organisations. This determination is making its impact felt. In two years, female representation on the boards of the largest public companies listed on the Irish Stock Exchange has risen from 11% to 16%. While much remains to be done, things are going in the right direction.

If I might reflect further on another theme you have debated today, I agree with you on the importance of women’s roles in advancing peace and security. The empowerment and participation of women in decision-making is at the very heart of Ireland’s Women, Peace and Security agenda, which stems from UN Security Council Resolution 1325. Ireland has actively supported the Women, Peace and Security agenda since its inception. We are currently implementing our second National Action Plan which works collaboratively with NGOs to achieve a range of objectives. The Plan encompasses four pillars:

Prevention of conflict, including gender-based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse in conflict;
Participation and representation of women in decision-making;
Protection from gender-based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse and other violations of women’s human rights and international humanitarian law, and relief, recovery and rehabilitation of victims; and
Promotion of the women, peace and security agenda in international regional and national arenas.

Gender is one of the main priorities of Ireland’s international development policy. While we work to ensure that all of our humanitarian relief and development initiatives are gender sensitive, we have also funded extensive work on sexual- and gender-based violence, as well as working with a range of NGOs and international organisations supporting women to participate in conflict resolution, mediation and reconciliation. Through this funding, women have been empowered to take part in conflict resolution processes in settings as diverse as Nigeria, Burundi, Turkey and Colombia. I am proud that Ireland’s international focus is so strongly on promoting gender equality.

Gender equality gains are hard-won. The struggle for equality is far from over and the gains so painfully earned can easily be reversed. But the rewards are immeasurable, not only for individual women and girls, but for the societies in which they live.

How are we going to ensure at global and international level that women are participating at the tables where decisions about security, conflict and peace are made?

Leadership is not a male preserve. The late great Geraldine Ferraro, whom I had the honour to meet many years ago, famously quipped that ‘some leaders are born women’. Too often, society teaches girls that it is not OK to be a born leader. Too often, society is blind to a girl’s leadership skills. I share Sheryl Sandberg’s wish that ‘I want every little girl who is told that she is bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills’. It is in our hands. We today can encourage all of those little girls to dream the impossible, to hold onto their courage and to become the leaders of tomorrow. Our futures will be the better for it.