Friday March 7 2014
'The glass ceiling is a concrete one' for women in business and politics - TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor
By Barry Egan
Fine Gael TD Mary Mitchell O’Connor – touted by some as Ireland’s first female Taoiseach one day – thinks it is not so much a glass ceiling for women in business and political life as “a concrete one.”
“We do need to get through it,” she told independent.ie on the occasion of International Women’s Day.
"And I think that it is important that when we break through it – especially women who have reached the top echelons – that we put out a helping hand and drag others up. Sometimes women don’t do that. They can be quite unforgiving; once they get to the top themselves they don’t care about any one else. So it is really important that we bring other women up too.”
Asked how far women have still to come in Ireland, Mary replied: “A long way.”
“Women have got to kind of middle management,” she continued, “but it is about taking that next step. I talk about the invisible woman – the woman who is at home, has supported her husband at work, has reared her children, then reaches her mid forties, her fifties, and feels there is nothing else that she can offer. Of course we need young women and we need young women of child-bearing age in Dail Eireann, but we also need the older woman. She has loads of life experience that she can bring into the Dail. She should be heard as well.”
Mary also cited women in Irish business who she admires for the work they have done: “Louise Phelan of PayPal jumps to mind. She is really strong. Norah Casey [of Harmonia publishing] is another very strong woman who is well able to get out there and articulate her views.I have another very good friend, Nicola Byrne who owns 11890. They are all women who employ hundreds of people. “
Mary added that what these brilliant Irish business women bring to the table echoes what Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said in her book ‘Lean In’...
“That’s what women do - they lean in and they take control; yet they have empathy towards their employees,” Mary said.
“If you have people working with you, I think you should be interested in their lives. You should know if their parents are ill or if their children are ill. That’s not to say that you expect them not to come to work but I think it is very important that you are emphatic and that you know about people’s lives. Society is not an economy. Society is not a factory. It is actually about people. That’s what I believe women bring to the table," Mary said.
She expressed doubt that Ireland is less of a sexist society towards women than it was. “I am not sure, really.”
Asked had she ever felt discrimination because of her gender, Mary answered: “I probably did as a younger teacher."
She added that "women would tell me that sometimes if they are going for a job and if looks like that they might get pregnant during the phase of their job that they may not land the job. That is difficult for women at that stage of their lives. And the older woman thing – being the invisible woman – that is difficult for women.”
Does she feel women suffer more from ageism in Irish society than men?
“Yes, I do. Honestly, I think women at a certain age are kind of written off as too old to be employable,” she said, adding that “especially during the recession, I am aware of loads of women who have said to me that maybe they were let go from their jobs and are now trying to get back into employment again. Yet they feel deep inside themselves that they are too old.”
Mary is candid enough to admit that “if I was being really honest that I am really sorry that I didn’t start in politics ten years earlier. I would like to be ten years younger and be starting off in Dail Eireann. But I’m going to go out there and fly the flag for women. I think that it is important,. I am in my fifties. I have a life experience with me that probably I hadn’t in my thirties. So I am going to bring that and make sure that that is heard in our parliamentary party and in the committees that I sit on.”
What wisdoms would she bring to the table?
“I have obviously reared children. I ‘ve been a school principle. So, look, I have counselled people, I have been with people and cried with people. I am a people’s person and I think that’s what needs to be heard at a table in politics because, as I’ve said, sometimes men feel that they’ll make a policy and they mightn’t think on how it impacts on women and children and families. You know – on real people? It sounds good on paper but sometimes when it is on paper it is a different thing to when it has to be worked out on inside on a family. “