A recent Derry conference organised by cross-border project Women into Public Life (WIPL) marked the culmination of three years’ work and celebrated the achievements of over 100 women who are determined to readdress the number of women in leadership roles. JULIEANN CAMPBELL reports...
Funded by the EU’s INTERREG IVA Programme, this project ultimately aimed to address the under representation of women in public life.
Over the past three years, participants have immersed themselves in innovative leadership training programmes, attended seminars and undertook policy work and research into gender balance. The major conference heralded the end of the project and featured several keynote speakers including MEP Martina Anderson, Bernadette McAliskey and Kathleen Lynch TD.
“It’s all about being more informed and addressing the under-representation of females in public life,” explains Noirin Clancy, Coordinator of Women into Public Life.
“By that I don’t just mean politics, but also women who may be on a parents-teachers committee, or heading up a community group, or indeed running as a candidate in the next election – it’s really about supporting and empowering women to try for these roles and to put themselves forward.
The WIPL project involved two accredited courses, a Going Public Programme, which was Level 2 accredited, and a Level 5 Strategic Leadership Programme for women already in leadership roles.
“The Strategic Leadership part of the project enabled women to visit the European Union and gain a better understanding of Europe and how it works. That is pretty important as the EU has such an influence on all our lives!
“Every woman can effect change, and while these women were actually on the Strategic Leadership Programme, one applied to the NI Fisheries board and was successful. So that was brilliant.”
“But we have enough training,” Noirin continues. “What we really need is for opportunities to be opened up. The gender balance of public bodies certainly remains an issue, and in fact our research statistics show an average of 34% of females currently on public bodies – a figure that has stalled and shown no increase over the past decade.”
Having a choice
Derry woman Maureen Fox was responsible for WIPL’s core programme, Going Public.
She elaborates on what the course entailed: “Going Public was for women at a grassroots level who were thinking about going into a public arena, which could be things like PTAs, local boards or voluntary committees within community groups - basically supporting initiatives within their own communities.
“For instance, women would learn how they could lobby to get a local mother and toddler group more money, or better resources. They learned what steps they would take and who they could talk to to help make it happen. It’s all about women knowing they have a choice to do whatever they want to do.”
“The training itself covered a lot. We had seminars, stand-alone training on interview skills, public speaking and presentations, how to breathe effectively or reduce your use of words when speaking publicly. We did voice coaching, which was hilarious!
“We also looked into effective communication, looking at the EU and who represents you at the EU, who can you actually take to task. It examined issues of local parliament, how do they work? What are the women in parliament doing for you? What can you change and how can you have a direct impact in what is decided?
“As well as Stormont, we took the women to the Dail too so they both got to know both parliaments, which was a very good comparative tool for them,” Maureen reveals.
The other course on offer was Strategic Leadership, a Level 5 accredited programme for women who are currently effective leaders in their community or organisations or in positions with a certain level of power. It’s about helping them up. We have many women who make it to middle-management and then they disappear, so its about encouraging them to aim even further in their positions.”
Maureen also believes the trip to the EU was of immense benefit to the women.
“They had their say in Brussels. They weren’t too happy with the interest shown by any of the female MEPs over there - this was before Martina Anderson became an MEP - and they weren’t afraid to speak up about it.”
“Altogether, we trained 108 women in Going Public and then 26 women in the Strategic Leadership programme,” Maureen adds.
WIPL’s research ultimately found that women remain underrepresented in public bodies and key decision-making bodies, and that none of the boards of cross-border bodies surveyed have gender balance or meet the 40% target figure.
In Derry and Donegal, the figures highlighted that only two bodies have gender balance, RAPID (Rural Area Partnership in Derry) and the Donegal Education Centre, and that women represent the majority of board members in the childcare sector in both regions and have a slight majority on the policing board in Derry. However, findings also showed that the enterprise sector has the poorest record, with no female representation on its board in Northern Ireland.
The research paper concludes: “The summary of the findings do not reveal any surprises. The over-representation of women in the childcare sector reflects their traditional roles in society as the main care givers and the reality that childcare is still ‘women’s work’... It is interesting to note that a policing body in Derry/Londonderry has a majority of women.”
The overall WIPL project was a massive success. Theresa Kenny was one of the many women who took part in the Going Public programme and says that the field trips to Stormont and the Dail were “by far the best learning experience” for her personally.
“It was interesting to compare the differences and the similarities of the two governments,” she reflects.
“The going public training encouraged us as women to ask questions of the MEPs and discuss their answers. That’s something we wouldn’t have had the confidence to do before.”
Ella Hegarty describes Going Public as “fun, challenging and very educational,” while Mairead Sheerin says: “It’s been a positive experience for me and has given me a chance to share my thoughts on a weekly basis and to challenge me to debate women’s role in society. I now feel my own opinion is of value.”
Neola Nelis-McCrossan “My biggest challenge was preparing and delivering a presentation, I would never have done it before attending the Going Public programme I now speak up at meetings...”
Hilary McClintock had never taken part in a course for women before. “Our group learned from and challenged other women who have positions in public life,” she says now.
“I’ve adopted a new attitude, instead of saying not me, I’m saying - why not me?”
Helen Henderson agrees, saying the programme helped her develop a “can-do attitude”. “I’m more confident and I now feel that I can influence policy on issues I’m passionate about.”
Unfortunately, the current cycle of funding from the EU is now coming to an end, with WIPL wrapping up the project in December this year.
At least it concludes in the knowledge that it has empowered and inspired scores of women in both Derry and Donegal.