Women in Leadership – Pulling up the ladder?

Women in Leadership events and initiatives are becoming increasingly common. This is good news, to an extent. That we are recognising the importance of seeing women in roles of power and authority. To make sure it’s not just the middle aged white guys making all the decisions. But something about the focus on women in leadership was starting to annoy me a bit though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

They don’t really speak to me, those events. I’m not in a position of leadership, nor do I want to be. Should I be striving to be in a position of senior management, even though it goes against all my natural inclinations, in the name of female empowerment?

Women at the Top

We can’t presume that having women in positions of leadership will necessarily be good for feminism, or that they will promote policies which are supportive of women.

Women who have made it to the top in traditionally male environments can be damning of initiatives such as gender quotas. Mary O’ Rourke, an Irish politician who served as Minister of various portfolios in her career, as well as being Deputy Leader of Fianna Fail for eight years is one such example.

“I’ve always found Dail Eireann a friendly place, but it doesn’t have family friendly hours, particularly if you live outside Dublin, and all women have to juggle a lot, but I don’t see why they should get special treatment, and Gender Quotas is a discriminatory action, and I think it’s discriminatory against men and women.”

Speaking at a Women in Leadership event last year Geraldine Kennedy, who became the first female editor of the Irish Times in 2002,  said

“The biggest thing holding women back is the limitations they put on themselves”.

Pulling up the ladder?

Attitudes such as these are failure to acknowledge the systemic barriers in place preventing women succeeding, and in some cases even participating, in certain fields. These women succeeded, in their view, on their own merit and hard work, and therefore why cannot all other women if only they believe in themselves and try hard enough?

They have made it to the top of the patriarchal tree and don’t see why the system should change, rather that women should make themselves fit into the system. But feminism doesn’t just want to replace women with men in the current patriarchal institutions; it wants to dismantle those institutions.

Lean In

Praise was given to Sheryl Sanderg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and The Will to Lead in many quarters, and there’s no doubt that Sandberg is a successful woman, and many women will learn a great deal from the book.


Books like Lean In and Women in Leadership initiatives are often empowering the already quite empowered. They leave behind multitudes of women in their assumptions, because they don’t challenge the inequalities underneath. To paraphrase Jeremy Corbyn, they are for the few, not the many.

“Sandberg’s corporate feminism preaches individual female empowerment in the workplace rather than collective social action, and women who subscribe to that approach are more likely to funnel resources into advanced education and leadership training rather than into the machinery of politics and protest.” Elizabeth Bruenig  Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Philosophy Doesn’t Just Ignore Disadvantaged Women. It Hurts Their Cause.

As an example , Lean In encourages women to ask for flexible working arrangements in order to facilitate their own childcare requirements. But, as I have seen in my own workplace, individual arrangements are seen as favours, and can trap women in jobs they want to leave or have outgrown, as they think won’t get the same flexibility elsewhere.

So what to do?

At the recent National Women’s Council of Ireland AGM Event Trish Long , Vice President & General Manager Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Ireland, and lifetime feminist spoke of the need to

“Work together to pull the world towards us, rather than competing within patriarchal structures.”

To create greater choices and options, not replace one set of rules with another. To encourage women , but crucially also help set them up for success.

Speaking at the same event, Sarah McInerney, host of Newstalk’s Drive programme, told how women are often asked to take part in radio discussions but refuse due to their own perceived lack of knowledge in the area. Men, she advised, typically don’t feel the same reticence. She highlighted the need to instill confidence in our young women and girls.

mediocre white man

All Women

Having women in leadership is important, of course, but must always be considered within a context of wider inequalities. The double discrimination that impacts women of colour and other minorities cannot be ignored. Gender equality at the top of the tree won’t solve any problems if wider societal issues are not addressed at the same time.

Let’s go in to our schools and make sure the girls know they are every bit as able as the boys.  Let’s listen to their voices and encourage them to shout. Let’s work at making systemic and societal changes from the bottom up, rather than starting at the top. Let’s consider what values are really important in our leaders. Let’s look at the pay and conditions of our childcare providers when we consider affordable childcare models. In short, let’s consider all women across all section of society rather than only looking up.



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