The General Secretary of my union, the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), is a woman – Joan Donegan – and it has been a privilege to witness her leadership style. It is a style of encouragement and motivation, rather than the directing and instructing style traditionally adopted by many within management roles. There is much to admire in how she leads our union and the positive effects of her particular style are manifold.
Joan is a great leader – and her gender may be part of that. As a woman, she has witnessed and likely endured many of the negative aspects of being female in male-dominated employments. Nobody gifted her a job or a promotion, every step in her career progression was earned. Indeed, the challenges she faced as a young Administration Assistant in 1975 in a general workers’ union have played a part in transforming Joan into the trade union leader she is today.
In Ireland, a marriage ban, requiring women to leave their employment on getting married was in place until 1957 for primary teachers; it remained in place for civil servants until 1973. In the early 1970s, less than five per cent of the Irish workforce was female – and this is the environment in which Joan started her working life. It is safe to say that the education system in Ireland in the early 1970s was not geared towards educating women for the workforce, and it certainly wasn’t geared towards educating female trade union leaders for the future. It takes a very determined and focused person to take on the system and burst into what was clearly a man’s world, and then to excel and to become the General Secretary of our trade union.
There’s a lot more to the leader of my union than her job: she has family, friends and interests outside of the job, which is important for any trade union leader as this provides an alternative perspective to the vison that we, inside the movement, surround ourselves with. Joan also has a keen interest in lifelong learning and education and is currently completing her PhD on gender equality.
I firmly believe that the challenges in employment, including employment within the trade union movement, remain greater for women. Our work in respect of these challenges is not yet complete, but the greater participation of women in leadership roles will help to alleviate those challenges – and, in time, to remove them altogether.
I fully support the leader of my union and acknowledge and celebrate the skills she brings to the role. In IFUT, we don’t believe that ‘behind every great man is a great woman’ - we put ours out front.