Not a PowerPoint picture. You have to
work with me, here.
Two young people, side by side. Early
twenties. One male, one female.
With me so far? Good.
These two young people are leaving
University, highly qualified. The female may be marginally more qualified than
the male, but let’s leave it that they both have good degrees and are headed
for great careers.
Now, let’s move on twenty years and
view the same two.
One of them could to be a Managing
Director, or a Government minister, or a General Manager or a top figure in
One of them isn’t.
And if you join the dots, the one
less likely to have achieved high office, in the public or private sector, is
the woman. If she has achieved high office, she will have been the exception.
That’s the reality, as we stand here,
decades after the first great feminist battles. Feminism, in the early days,
fought for equality. Equality facilitated and empowered by equal opportunity.
What we’re now seeing is that
equality is not necessarily delivered by equal opportunity. Things happen in
the lives of women that divert them from the outcomes their ambition, their
brain power and their credentials would make you assume they’d reach.
Does that mean a malign conspiracy
against women? I don’t think so. But I do believe we need – more and more – to
understand two things.
1) That equal opportunity does not
necessarily deliver equal outcomes.
2) That every area of Irish – and
international – life, NEEDS those equal outcomes.
We have to square that circle. And we
can do it. My experience proves that good analysis, anger at injustice and
collective energy can get things done.
That’s what got me into
I began my career in Ireland at St
Ultan’s Children’s Hospital. It was a place where a lot of people subject to
terrible disadvantage brought their children, gave birth to them and sometimes
Working at St. Ultan’s exposed me to
real disadvantage for the first time.
And it made me angry.
My belief that disadvantage and
barriers to opportunity are the greatest causes of inequality began to
crystallise. Opportunity had been the defining theme of my life, and my
family’s lives. It still is
After St. Ultan’s I got a job in the
psychiatric inpatient unit in St James’s Hospital. That began a lifelong
interest in mental health, something I share with my husband Michael, who I met
at St James’s.
Places like St Michael’s Estate, St
Teresa’s Gardens and Dolphin’s Barn were in the hospital’s catchment area. In a
very depressed Dublin these were severely disadvantaged places.
Increasingly I wanted to do something
about it, to channel it somewhere.
I moved to London to do a Masters in
Social Administration and Social Work
I had no political ambition at that
time. I was never one of those people who wanted to be a politician as a child.
But while I was studying at the LSE I
got involved with the National Childbirth Trust, an organisation that campaigns
to improve maternity care and for better services for new parents. It’s still
After I graduated I spent a few years
working in the city with a group of around 20 social workers.
I lived in a garden flat in West
Dulwich. That put me close to Brixton and the riots that broke out in 1981
because of deep social and economic problems. This happened at a time when I
was already aware of the corrosive and dangerous effects of disadvantage. The
views of the girl who graduated from UCD nine years earlier with a social work
degree were evolving.
Five years later I came home and
began working as a social worker at the Mater. Ballymun was one of the main
areas where I worked. My interest in inequality deepened. My anger over
I began to think about politics.
Garret Fitzgerald was the leader of
Fine Gael and I liked what he and the party stood for. I was a committed
feminist. Still am. I wanted something done about how women were treated in
Ireland. The party’s progressive social stance and its inclusivity on Northern
Ireland and the European Union attracted me. I wrote a letter and joined. But
to be honest it didn’t go much further at that stage.
Then I discovered the Women’s
Political Association and the Council for the Status of Women, later the
National Women’s Council.
I became the Chairperson for three
wonderful years. Then Garret Fitzgerald came back into my life with a bang. He
was retiring and Fine Gael asked me to run for a seat in Dublin South East in
You know yourselves – it’s not
comfortable when life puts it up to you, when life says “If you want to change
things, here’s your chance.”
But I had to do it. So I became a
politician in my early forties with three young children.
The anger over disadvantage and the
belief in equality of opportunity drove me forward into this political world.
During my years in politics, women
have made significant advances. No doubt about it. But the second picture I
asked you to imagine still stands: the outcomes don’t match the apparently
One thing I didn’t ask you to imagine
about the guy in the second picture is that he owned and ran his own business,
whereas the girl didn’t. But that’s the reality. The number of women starting
their own businesses is markedly less than the number of men.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on
Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation reported in July 2015 on female
entrepreneurship. This influential Parliamentary 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.
Many of these issues bear a
remarkable similarity to those identified as barriers to greater female
participation in politics.
In politics, the inhibitors can be
succinctly summarised as the 5 Cs – cash, confidence, childcare, culture and
candidate selection procedures. The first four are equally applicable in an
enterprise context. And it leads us to the Q word. Quotas.
Everybody has their views on them.
But they work. Not only do they work in the area where they’re introduced –
their effect is much, much wider.
Australia’s an interesting example.
They brought in quotas to ensure an increase in the number of female
politicians. It did the trick.
But what was fascinating was an
increase in female entrepreneurs following the introduction of the political
quotas. Not saying it was cause and effect, but it’s certainly
Having lobbied in Ireland for gender
quotas I am delighted to see that we have more women in the Dail than ever
before – 35 women, 22.2% of all deputies. But you know what? I still think this
is pretty dismal. We have so much more to do.
There is something about 22%. The
number of female entrepreneurs supported by Enterprise Ireland where the
number of High Potential Start Ups supported increased from 7% annually up to
2011 to 22% in 2015.
This is a welcome achievement
particularly when we compare it with the global comparisons where only 8% of
global technology entrepreneurs are female but again, more to do and,
importantly more being done.
To assist potential entrepreneurs in
bringing their business ideas to life, the State has established strong
programmes directed specifically at women entrepreneurs and take account of the
reality of women’s lives. Enterprise Ireland’s dedicated unit to promote female
enterprise is one such initiative.
One my priorities at the moment is
finalising a new National Women’s Strategy.
A strong business case for the
benefits in respect of improved governance and economic performance of
increased diversity on company boards, including gender diversity, has been
made by influential organisations, such as the European Commission and the IMF,
and academics. This is something that the Government has noted and is acting
My aim for the National Women's
Strategy is to promote the theme of female leadership across a range of
sectors. It will certainly contain actions to promote women's leadership in the
business sector. This is an issue which emerged as a priority from the public
consultations and work is being undertaken to see what would be most effective.
Ideally, I feel that an EU wide approach should be taken.
Successive Governments have actively
promoted the advancement of women into leadership roles, with this having also
been a strong theme in the previous National Women’s Strategy. In early 2016,
my Department concluded a two year programme in partnership with Ibec, the
National Women's Council of Ireland and the EU to advance gender balance in
decision-making in Ireland. This had a strong focus on championing gender
equality in business and provided much of the impetus for action by companies
which continues today.
I should also point out that targets
for gender balance at board level are not new in the Irish context. Such
targets have been in place for some time in the public sector, in regard to
State Boards. The Government's action to ensure greater transparency in
appointment to State Boards through the use of the PAS system is also improving
the percentage of women on State Boards, which has increased to 38.4%. I am
raising this issue at Cabinet tomorrow to highlight the continuing need for
Ministers and nominating bodies to be alert to the need for gender balance in
I should digress here, briefly, and
talk about dancing. No, not about Des Cahill and Teresa Mannion. I never take
Back in the days of black and white
movies, dancing was as compelling as it is for TV viewers today. Led by Fred
Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Stunning dancers.
Key difference between them – a
gender driven difference – is that Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred
Astaire did, only backwards and in heels.
That’s the reality of life for women,
still. And that, in turn, is why an event like today’s – and the other events
of this week – are so important. Because we rarely get time to stop. Hit the
pause button. Meet each other. Learn from each other.
Today provides an opportunity
to focus on the successes of women, whilst also being real and talking about
our experiences and the challenges that have got us to this point.
The importance of a listening ear and
a knowledgeable and supportive voice cannot be underestimated. Networking is
crucial if we are to continue building on the strides women have taken in
Ireland. I urge you to make it your aim today to share your thoughts, advice
and ideas, to broaden your personal network, and to build the contacts that can
support and grow your career within the Central Bank – or indeed outside the
I want to make a point about
It shouldn’t be a brisk exchange of
business cards. That doesn’t work. May make everybody feel connected, but it’s not
Real connectedness lies in
involvement, engagement, energetic commitment. Reaching out.
Once you have a powerful woman’s
email address, that reach out can happen. Transfer of a potentially useful
piece of information can happen. Indication of particular competence in solving
the other person’s problem can happen. And – most of all – when someone is
going through public bad times, it’s possible to be usefully supportive.
Networking is not just about knowing
women. It’s about active engagement with women. It’s about suppporting younger
women and pushing them to achieve all they can. It’s about fighting for older
women to prevent them being pushed aside. It’s about promoting the interests of
your own age-cohort with generosity and vision. Just do it. Every day, do it.
Great differences in life are made by individuals who take the time to care
about others and see potential in others. We sometimes talk about an old boy
network. Well, we need a new girl network and we need to work it like a muscle.
I said at the beginning that every
area of Irish – and international – life, NEEDS better outcomes from equal
Gains for women do not equate to lost
opportunities for men, but to increased economic prosperity for us all. Organisations
like the 30% club in the UK and Ireland, and Board Diversity Ireland, seek to
advance women into decision-making within their organisations, knowing that a
better balance at the top benefits everybody.
One last point.
Set backs. Disappointments. Kicks in
They happen to each and every one of
us, and they’re what separate the success stories from the stories that don’t,
in career terms, end happily ever after.
Watching women from my days as a
social work to my current role as Tanaiste and Minister for Justice, I’ve had
it hammered home to me, day after day, year after year, that the women who
ultimately make it to their chosen place in politics or business or the public
service are the women who examine their own failures without grief.
That process is helped by friends,
but it is essentially a solo task. A task that at times seems too big to
contemplate. You just have to do it, knowing that other women have done it.
And, when it leads you to greater success, do something else. Shut up about it
in public, but share in private so that other women can say “If she could get
over that obstacle, I can meet my current challenge.”
Let me leave you with my definition
of success for women.
Being a successful woman is not
defined by reaching the top.
Being a successful woman is not
defined by appearing in media.
Being a successful woman is not
defined by titles or money or cars.
Being a successful woman is defined by
doing what you want to do when you want to do it. By living up to your
potential. By helping other women live up to theirs. It’s about being daunted
by the impossible and doing it anyway. Like Ginger Rogers. Doing everything
Fred Astaire did, only backward and in heels.