International Women’s Day: Where are we on the road to change?

8 Mar 2017

Dr Michelle Cullen hosts the Accenture International Women’s Day event at the Convention Centre Dublin. Image: Luke Maxwell

On International Women’s Day, Elaine Burke reflects on the visible and the invisible challenges blocking the way forward for gender equality.

The UN has celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8 March each year since 1975, though the day has been etched out as a time to campaign for women’s rights since the early 1900s.

For Accenture, an annual International Women’s Day celebration has been in the calendar for the past 13 years, and will continue to be so.

“I have to say, this morning – maybe this year more than ever – to walk into that auditorium and to see more than a thousand people there to celebrate women, to recognise International Women’s Day, it’s really powerful,” said Dr Michelle Cullen, head of inclusion and diversity at Accenture Ireland and the driving force behind the annual event.

Admittedly, much has changed since the last time Cullen took to the stage to welcome IWD guests to the Convention Centre Dublin (CCD). “It’s been a really interesting year and I don’t think any of us would have predicted this year,” she said.

“In many ways, gender equality has come off the stage and into every boardroom, every newsroom, every locker room. It’s been much higher on the public agenda and I think that’s been, in many ways, very positive.”

‘Gender equality has come off the stage and into every boardroom, every newsroom, every locker room’

In her welcoming address, Cullen declared, “Invisibility can happen right before our eyes”, before tracing through a history of women excluded from public life in Ireland. “Nevertheless, we persist,” she added, echoing those now-famous words intended as a warning against the behaviour of US senator Elizabeth Warren but now championed as a battle cry for feminists.

The issue of visibility was revisited by speakers throughout the event with a session discussing the Women on Walls campaign from Accenture, which has become the focus of a one-off documentary screening on RTÉ 1 at 10.15pm on 9 March.

Cullen teamed up with her colleague Eithne Harley for Women on Walls, commissioning five new paintings for the Royal Irish Academy. Unveiled in December, these are the first portraits of female academics ever to be put on display in the public areas of Academy House, and they feature 12 phenomenal women from Ireland’s scientific past and present day.

During a panel discussion with business and policy leaders, Lorna Ross – Accenture’s new hire to lead the Fjord studio in Dublin – noted how women’s work can sometimes be invisible. Relaying an experience from her previous role at the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, she expressed concern that new graduates and young professionals tend not to notice because they are so used to having the support of women in their lives. “Women are expected to help, while men are rewarded for help,” she said.

While teen entrepreneur Ciara Judge would like to see more women role models she can follow, she also wants to also be able to see the road ahead, unobstructed. “I think what’s most important when it comes to gender equality is not so much funnelling young girls into specific sectors – like ‘we need more girls in STEM’, or, you know, ‘more girls in engineering’, whatever. … It’s about getting rid of all the barriers that do exist in those sectors to women, so that girls can see a clear path ahead of them to the career paths that they want.”

‘The change that we require is not just organisational; it’s actually a mindset change’

As managing director of Twitter Ireland, Sinéad McSweeney is perhaps the most visible woman in tech in the country right now – even if she is reluctant of the limelight, having spent much of her career as the adviser behind the scenes.

“I think that, across a whole range of industries, we have issues around female participation, female advancement to management roles – so, even in places where we have more women coming into organisations or professions, they’re still not making it to the leadership and management roles,” she said. “I think that, in essence, the change that we require is not just organisational; it’s actually a mindset change.”

That’s the real uphill challenge facing companies, sectors and entire industries attempting to shift the gender balance to a less extreme divide. Women have been advocating for change on International Women’s Day since the beginning of the 20th century, yet here we are in 2017 being told that the gender gap will not be closed in our lifetime. Campaigns for visibility and powerful slogans will inspire a new generation but, unless we tackle our deep-seated cultural biases, they will retread a well-known path of treacherous glass cliffs, impenetrable glass ceilings and, even, some self-defeating sticky floors.

The sentiment of the IWD CCD event would lead one to believe that we are on the right route to change but – to borrow Accenture Ireland MD Alastair Blair’s metaphor – we need to put the foot on the gas, and speed up the progress.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.