In a letter to the Irish diaspora, President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins spoke of a woman who was ‘unafraid to raise her voice in a male-dominated world’. He wasn’t talking about a modern-day feminist, but one who lived in Ireland back in the fifth century – St Brigid.
I was invited to partake in a panel discussion on The Role of Women in Modern Society: Perspectives & Experiences hosted by Irish Ambassador to Hungary Ronan Gargan at the residence. A man blessed amongst women on this particular day, Amb. Gargan opened this inaugural St Brigid’s Day event by reading said letter from our President.
Being a Kildare woman myself, I have an affinity for the bauld St Brigid and love how she put one over on the Chieftain of Leinster all those years ago. She wanted land to build a convent and said they agreed she’d only take whatever her cloak could cover. She and three other nuns each took a corner and as they walked in opposite directions, the cloak grew, eventually covering what is now the Curragh of Kildare, some 2000 hectares. Others say the Chieftain gave her the land as payment for reducing the size of his ears. You choose.
My initial reaction to the invitation was one of surprise. I mean, what could I possibly have to contribute to the such a discussion. I haven’t won any prizes, published any books, made any movies. I haven’t started any movements, spearheaded any campaigns, invented anything of note…or anything at all, for that matter. But in a stalwart attempt to keep the number of regrets I have in life to what I can count on one hand, I said yes.
It’s no secret that I’m allergic to oestrogen. Too many women in one room makes me nervous. A sizeable chunk of my career has been in male-dominated industries. I’m comfortable around men. For the most part, the men I’ve worked with have been supportive, pushing me to be the best that they thought I could be, even if I didn’t want to be that person, or get that promotion, or do that role. During my corporate days, I found women to be less supportive, perhaps because, as Bob Thaves said of Ginger Rogers, they had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels.
There were a handful of men in the audience, but mostly it was women. All five panellists were women, too. Three Hungarian, two Irish, including the guest of honour, the long-standing feminist activist Dr Gráinne Healy, co-head of the famously successful YesEquality campaign that helped realise marriage equality in Ireland back in 2015.
Each panellist spoke of their experiences before the discussion was opened to the floor for comments and questions. This was one of many conversations taking place around the world this weekend to mark St Brigid’s Day and I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into. But life, as usual, conspires to teach me lessons, even when I least expect them.
Gráinne described St Brigid as
‘an early day feminist, a clever woman who used all her powers in the service of others’.
I liked that. Ireland’s more famous patron saint, St Patrick, usually gets top billing and it was nice to see Brigid recognised in her own right. Gráinne gave us the numbers: Ireland’s gender pay gap (13.9%) is lower than the EU average of 16.3% but that still means that a woman will earn about €250k less than a man in her lifetime. I thought it would be more. Of third-level graduates in Ireland, 52% are women. Perhaps most interesting though was the number of registered homemakers in Ireland – 445k are women; 9k are men. This was something that would come up repeatedly as other panellists had their say. I had a particularly proud moment when she told the audience that Ireland, by voting 62% in favour of marriage equality, was the first country to ratify it by public vote. That’s impressive. But it was Gráinne’s closing words that hit home:
‘A woman’s place is where she wants to be rather than where history thinks she should be.’
Judit Horváth Lóczi is an internationally exhibited contemporary fine artist and one of 10 winners of the 2018 art contest Hungary Emerging. More recently she won a major grant from the New-York-based Pollack-Krasner Foundation. She’s currently working on a solo show for Berlin scheduled for this March. Judit’s work is informed by her personal stories and memories and her body of work is an interpretation of her life. She mentioned a series she did representing the difficulty of talking about how hard it can be to be a mother. I went looking for this after the fact and read:
Judit Horváth Lóczi regards herself neither feminist, nor a women artist. She rather believes in the principles of ars poetics of Louise Nevelson, one her masters, who said, “I am not a feminist. I’m artist who happens to be a woman”. Still Judit Horváth Lóczi is a women artist in certain sense: for years her topics derive from situations connected to women roles, such upsetting events and happenings that direct and influence her life. Her art is such a medium by means of which she is able to express changes that happen in herself, special features of different life situations, problems.
I like my art. I don’t know much about art as a subject – a piece either speaks to me or it doesn’t. In closing, Judit spoke of how underrepresented women are in the art world and the inequality between what male artists command for their work and what women can ask, it seems that the gender pay gap knows no boundaries. She asked us all to consider buying art from women artists – but first I suspect we’d have to look hard to find galleries that exhibit them. I got to thinking of what I have on my walls and except for one piece I bought by Costa Rican artist Lorena Villalobos, all have been painted by men. That shocked me.
Ágnes Mideczki is Corporate Communications Manager at GRAPHISOFT, the Hungarian company that so impressed Steve Jobs with the work it was doing back in 1984 in 2D/3D technology he sent them an Apple computer. Despite being in the comms business for 15 years, Ágnes too experienced doubt when asked to join the panel. She wondered if she’d be interesting enough. But this fleeting thought was soon followed by a question to herself: Would a 37-year-old man have the same doubts? [Hah! Where do we get this insecurity?] Ágnes described balancing family and career as a mud fight but said that the more we talk about those difficulties, the less effort it will take. She’s worked it all – from consultancy roles in agency settings to being a small-business owner, to working on corporate comms teams – and sees comms and marketing (roles in which women have a strong presence) as gatekeeping roles that decide what messages get through. Her observation that the role models used to inspire a younger generation are generally 50-70-year-old men got me thinking about the need for younger, more diverse role models and how they might better speak to equality.
Author Orsolya Nemes illustrated the male/female inequality with a personal anecdote. She was heavily pregnant at the launch of her book Generational myths – How to prepare for future challenges. While her husband was being congratulated briefly on the forthcoming birth and then being asked about how business was going, she was being asked about the baby and the pregnancy, her book all but forgotten. In her comments, Orsi turned the whole traditional thing on its head for me. If you’d asked me what the traditional role of a woman is, I’d have said to stay home and have kids. But this is a relatively recent tradition. Think back to pre-industrial revolution times, when farms and mines were worked by women. That’s hard labour. Manual labour. Farming women, she said, don’t fall into the delicate flower category. But when families moved to the cities in search of work, the family unit separated – the men went to work in the factories, the women stayed at home. And so it was until the two major wars of the twentieth century. With men on the front line, women had to staff the factories – they were back working outside the home. One of the main challenges to equality today is the distribution of unpaid work. More progressive parenting with men taking a greater share of the ‘housework’ will go a long way towards redressing the imbalance.
I thought about that, and of the work my good friend Elena Sisti is doing in making women more aware of the value of what they do. Think of a 70-year-old woman who has raised five kids and helped raise 15 grandkids. Now draft a CV listing all they did using corporate terms: financial management, procurement, mediation, negotiation, education, logistics, forecasting, … why do we sell ourselves short?
Comments from the floor were lively, insightful, and entertaining. Most were familiar with the subtle discrimination that men don’t see. Lots of nodding heads agreed with the observation that when women use the same language as men we’re perceived as aggressive and intimidating. While women give the nod to their supportive husbands, how many men do likewise for their supportive wives? Is the former a bonus, the latter a given? What about the burnout women are increasingly experiencing, even in Sweden, a country noted for its work/life balance? The bell of the 3Rs in feminist foreign policy in Sweden – rights, resources, and representation – rang loud and clear.
That the role of women in society has changed is a given. That it is continuing to change is a given, too. How we shape our future, close the gender pay gap [the World Bank says it will take 202 years], and make our voices heard at C-level and in government are challenges we all face. We’ve come a long way but we have more road to go. We need to be supportive of each other, be conscious of the words we use when we speak to avoid unnecessary apologies and hedges, and properly value our contributions to society. More discussions like this honour the memory of the women who have blazed a trail before us. I’m left wondering what St Brigid is thinking as she looks down on these discussions some 1500 years after she left the world.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute (thanks to the Embassy of Ireland in Budapest for the invite) and to learn from women who are walking the talk. Here’s to you, St Brigid…