Three Donegal women at top levels in their careers have shared an eye-opening look at their work in male-dominated sectors.
Leading women from the political, business and education sectors of Donegal joined a panel discussion at the Donegal County Museum ‘Vote for Change’ event on Thursday. The event examined women’s lives over 100 years.
Despite many years of progressive change, the speakers said much more needs to be done to get more women in charge.
Women in Politics
“Women have so much to offer in politics and in their communities,” was the message from Donegal County Councillor Niamh Kennedy. The Killybegs Councillor is one of just three females out of a total of 37 local representatives.
As a married mother of three, Cllr Kennedy said the demands of the role are not suited to women with young families.
She worked full-time in the fishing industry for 20 years before entering politics. Now that her children are grown up, she said, she can fully dedicate herself to the role.
“I now have the freedom that’s needed to be a public representative. It’s demanding, it can be very difficult for women who have younger children. The needs of the children and financial strains on younger families can’t afford position for a female councillor, which is a pity because women have so much to offer,” Cllr Kennedy said.
Women in politics face challenges that are unique to females, Cllr Kennedy said, such as judgement on appearance and personal safety.
‘Scrutiny is out there no matter what you do and you have to learn to accept it for what it is.’
There have been times when she felt vulnerable as a woman working alone in the community.
“One big issue that I never thought about before being elected was personal safety as a female. It’s easy for a male Councillor to call to someone’s door. A woman would have to be more cautious and can sometimes be in a very vulnerable position without knowing it.
“As a representative you have to travel alone, enter buildings alone and a lot of times at night, when most meetings do take place.”
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Cllr Kennedy also recalled a frightening moment when people came to her home office outside town in the middle of the night.
“I was on my own and up the street comes a taxi and two gentlemen stepped out quite distressed. The taxi driver, not knowing there was no appointment made, pulls off and leaves you in a position where there’s two men at your door and they are in a stressed position to do with a homelessness issue.
“You can become quite vulnerable and have to try and manage that, and eliminate those issues as time goes on,” she said.
Cllr Kennedy recounted the many positive aspects of her job, as she enjoys the fulfilling privilege of being in a position to make a change in her community. She is a strong advocate for women entering politics and using their great sense of family, community, health and wellbeing to make a difference.
“I would encourage more women to take up the opportunity when the time allows us, when the time allows you and at whatever stage in life you are at.”
“We really can make some very positive changes and it should not be a male dominated environment” – Cllr Kennedy.
Women in Business
Toni Forrester, CEO of the Letterkenny Chamber since 2008, talked about moments when she has been the only woman in a boardroom, as she called for more incentives for women to enter the business sector.
‘I still work in a male dominated world and that really disappoints me.’ – Toni Forrester
She said: “I see young women today with more confidence than I had when I was their age and they seem to have so many more opportunities But it annoys me that there are still barriers and constraints to why they are not getting to the top and not running everything.”
Ms Forrester grew up in Belfast and worked in Derry for many years as a Garment Technologist, where women were the backbone of the clothing industry. Through her work as a business advisor, Toni saw that women faced more barriers than men when dealing with support agencies such as accountants, solicitors and banks. This inspired her as she co-founded Women in Enterprise in Derry to create interventions for women in business.
The Letterkenny Chamber board has 5 female members out of 16, which Toni sees as an encouraging sign, but there is more to be done.
“I still sit on committees with no equal gender balance and I think we have to challenge that more.”
‘On a government level, something has to be made easier for women and families to be active members of the workforce or if they want to set up a business.’ – Toni Forrester
For a better future for women, Toni said that work needs to pay, and childcare must become more affordable. She said opportunities for women haven’t changed as much as she would like them to, and she expressed her hope for more change in the next 100 years so that more women will be seen at the top of organisations.
Women in Education
Anne McHugh, Chief Executive of the Donegal Education and Training Board (ETB), said the education system is a key driver of change for gender equity.
The Ballyshannon native has led the county’s largest education provider for the past two years and has built up a lifetime of experience in education and school community leadership throughout Donegal.
Ms McHugh said she always aspired to reach the higher levels of the teaching community, but as a girl at school, she realised that females were presented with different opportunities and career stereotypes to males.
There are five female Chief Executives out of a total of 16 Training Boards in Ireland.
“As a CE at a national level, I find myself being the only female at a lot of meetings. We think of teaching as a female thing, but up at the top echelons, it’s all men,” Ms McHugh said.
‘Most primary teachers are female, but most principals are male. I often feel that’s hard on young primary school pupils because that’s the role model they see.’ – Anne McHugh
Anne pointed out that in Donegal’s 27 secondary schools, there are 13 female principals and 14 male.
“We’re not bad in Donegal, I was pleased about that. In other places in the country it’s a lot worse,” she said.
The third level education sector is largely unbalanced in terms of gender equity at the top level, she said. There are no female Presidents of Ireland’s 7 Universities, while just three out of the 17 third level Institutes have women at the helm.
Ms McHugh expressed her hope that students would now have better options in career guidance. She talked about the need for specific teaching on gender education, along with the positives and negatives of co-ed and single sex schools.
“In co-ed schools there is probably a better range of subject choices. Most secondary schools now offer girls and boys their choice of all the subjects, but you will still find the girls going for Home Economics and the boys go for Woodwork. I find it really interesting.”
“As a society we’re still not getting that message across that girls can do the same subjects,” said Ms McHugh.
The education system reflects how good a society is.’ – Anne McHugh
In terms of gender equity, Ms McHugh said there has been much progress, but a lot more to be done.
The ‘Donegal Women’ panel was just one of many talks and discussions at the ‘Vote for Change’ – 100 Years On Seminar at the Regional Cultural Centre and Donegal County Museum.
The free event celebrated the Representation of the People Act 1918 with informative sessions exploring women’s lives in Donegal and in Ireland, along with collective conversations exploring ways for women to continue to ‘Press for Change’ in the Ireland of today.
For more, check out the Donegal County Museum on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Donegalcomuseum/