Women who enter public life must ensure they bring other women with them if they are to achieve the “critical mass” required to improve women’s representation in politics and on other decision-making bodies.
“It’s ‘critical mass’ -- that’s the only way that women are going to make a difference,” said Eithne Tinney, former RTÉ Lyric FM producer and a former non-executive director of the Educational Building Society (EBS).
Eithne was speaking in Letterkenny on Tuesday, as part of the Women Into Public Life (WIPL) project’s seminar on women’s representation on boards of public bodies and key decision-making structures.
Noirin Clancy, coordinator of Women Into Public Life, said the seminar will become part of the project’s report on the composition of public boards and decision-making structures in Donegal and Derry. WIPL will launch the final report at a Sept. 27th conference in Derry, marking the end of the project.
WIPL hopes to start a strategic, action-oriented forum for women after the three-year project comes to an end, Noirin said.
“I think it could be a very good space to continue this discussion,” Noirin said at Tuesday’s seminar.
Eithne Tinney was voted off the board at the EBS annual general meeting in 2007 after voicing her concerns about decisions the society was making in what became a very public row. “When I started making my waves I would be ostracised,” she said. The two men who shared her concerns did not receive the same cold shoulder from colleagues, she recalled, adding, “So there is a difference being a woman on a board.”
Eithne would go to the canteen by herself during coffee breaks because she would be left on her own if she remained in the room with the other directors, she said. Still, she was voted back on the board in 2008 with 13,000 votes. An article in The Irish Independent at the time said, “Eithne Tinney’s re-election as a director of the EBS represents one of the most spectacular comebacks in recent Irish business history.” She retired from the board in May 2011.
“Reform doesn’t mean commissioning reports,” Eithne told the seminar. “It means taking a bone from a dog, and watch out.”
Paula Leonard of the Donegal County Community Forum offered the women a civil rights slogan on bringing others along: “Lift as we climb,” she said. “It is really important that we support other people to replace us.” She added later that it was not simply a question of bringing in women, but of the women who are brought into these decision-making bodies.
“It has to be about changing the status quo, about holding the values that we hold dear,” Paula said. She said it was equally important to increase the diversity of board membership, by bringing on women and others from different ethnic groups, different abilities, different sexual orientation.
“There aren’t enough women on boards but there isn’t enough diversity on boards either,” she said. Women who serve on boards, “tend to be quite similar in a lot of ways,” Paula said,
Other speakers told of their own experiences of board membership, including Catherine Pollock of the Derry Policing and Community Safety Partnership; Helen Henderson of the Northern Ireland Fisheries and Harbours Authority; Shauna McClenaghan of the Donegal County Development Board; and Avril Sweeney, the manager of Donegal County Childcare Committee and a director of the group Start Strong.
Eoin Murray, Women’s Equality in Politics project coordinator with the National Women’s Council of Ireland; and Ann Marie Gray, senior lecturer at the University of Ulster, also addressed the context of women’s under-representation north and south.
Women’s representation on state boards has remained stagnant across the regions at about 34 percent, despite a target in the Programme for Government that women should make up 40 percent of state boards.
Catherine said she sought out women mentors in the community and voluntary sector when she decided to apply for seat on the partnership. “We probably just need to go for these things,” she said. “Sometimes we’re our own worst enemy.”
Shauna and Paula said it was important to develop allies on a board, but equally important for members to maintain their integrity in the process.
Avril urged women on boards to challenge the culture of siding with the chairperson. “Be a good public advocate for any group you’re involved in,” she said. Before Avril joined the board of Start Strong she was already known by the national board for her submissions to public consultations involving early childhood education, a field she is passionate about. “That gets you recognition,” she said.
Speaking after the seminar, Noirin said that as the WIPL funding winds down the question remains, “How do you keep these things on the table?” The final report that the project will launch in September will offer recommendations as well as research. A women’s forum, she said, “could be the space to see that these issues get out there”.
During Eithne’s remarks she offered those at the seminar a saying: “If you want to travel fast, travel alone,” she said. “But if you want to travel far, travel with many.”
Donegal County Council is the lead partner in the regional EU-funded WIPL partnership between three women’s groups, Second Chance Education Project for Women in Donegal; Foyle Women’s Information Network in Derry; and Engender in Scotland.