Above: a talk during the conference. Photo credit: Roisin Guyett-Nicholson.
500 people attended UCD’s second annual Women in Leadership Conference held on 9th February, in O’Reilly Hall. The event featured several panel discussions relating to women’s roles in STEM industries, the media, professional services, and sport.
The main topics included the causes for the disproportionately low numbers of women in leadership positions; the need for positive female role models; and the possible actions that can be taken to overcome barriers to women’s success.
Notable panellists included Geraldine Kennedy, the first female editor of the Irish Times; Sinéad McSweeney, the Managing Director of Twitter Ireland; and all-star Cork GAA player and physiotherapist Rena Buckley. The keynote speaker was Tina Roche, award-winning human rights activist and CEO of Business in The Community Ireland.
An emphasis was placed on building a support system between professional women. Between the panel discussions, speed-networking sessions were organised to allow attendees to make business connections both within and outside their fields. While there was some debate on issues such as gender quotas and the ethics of “personal branding”, the atmosphere of the panel discussions was generally cordial and consensus agreements were reached on many of the topics.
The conference was organised by a committee of current and former UCD students, and funded by a combination of ticket sales and support from partners such as Arthur Cox, Citi, Boston Scientific, Aldi, UCD Societies Council, and UCD Estate Services.
Women in Leadership was first started last year when UCD graduate Eimear O’Flynn “recognised a severe gap in activities to promote female empowerment within the university”. In his opening address, Principal of Social Sciences and Law Colin Scott mentioned that even though over half of students and staff in UCD are women, only 20% of lead professors in the university are women – which is only just above the national average of 19%.
One line which resonated with many of the attendees came from ground-breaking journalist Geraldine Kennedy, who said “the biggest thing holding women back is the limitations they put on themselves”.
Much of the systematic discrimination against professional women of the past has been eradicated, and while some unconscious bias remains, many companies are actively encouraging female employees to aim higher, recognising that women can contribute dramatically to the talent pool.
However, as the panellists at the conference noted, women tend to underestimate their abilities and strengths more than men, and are therefore less inclined to apply for a promotion or opportunity due to fear they might not be good enough.
Several possible causes for this mentality were suggested – societal pressure to be modest and self-deprecating, a lack of female role models, good-intentioned yet narrow-minded parental influence – but the speakers generally agreed that inspiring women’s confidence in themselves was necessary to raise a new generation of female leaders.
The conference was considered a success, with speakers and attendees recognising the importance of its goals. Panellist Marguerite Sayer, managing director of the ESB, expressed her hope that the conference would help “normalise [equality] so that events like this aren’t needed anymore”.
UCD student Eimear North felt that “it’s not about us adapting to a man’s world, it’s making sure that there can be different approaches [to leadership], for both men and women”. Though there were only a handful of men in attendance, those asked said they still “felt involved and included in the conversation”.
As the conference is a relatively new venture for the university, the organisers are still tweaking the format – for instance, the panel discussions were brought in to replace last year’s series of individual speakers, and the attendees were encouraged to give feedback for future improvements.
Based on the success of its first two years, the Women in Leadership Conference is likely to remain an annual event in UCD.