Bosses, babies and body hair

Sat, Sep 1, 2012, 01:00

TO ATTEMPT TO answer some of the above questions, The Irish Times assembled a round-table group of five women: two older women, one from the accountancy world and the other dipping a toe in the marketplace after 10 years at home. The other three, aged 30 and under, work in theatre, local politics and finance. “Jenny”, the 29-year-old finance professional who participated, wished to remain anonymous.


, 30, is a teacher, a Labour Party member of Dublin City Council representing Dublin 8 and a graduate of international relations at DCU.

is a 23-year-old Trinity graduate and director of Pillow Talk Theatre. She is directing rehearsals of Anna in Between, a topical play, for the Absolut Fringe festival.

is a former professor at DCU and a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland. She is the author of The Minority Interest, a study of women partners at Big Four firms.

is a mother who left work 10 years ago to become a "housewife". She blogs at


Patricia BarkerPeople say, “Sure women have made it now: aren’t there as many as men now, as many partners in banking and finance, law and accountancy?” Well, there aren’t as many, but during the Tiger years firms were really anxious to get staff and would accommodate women. And women by and large were deferring babies, making lots of money, travelling and drinking champagne.

Young women now have never experienced a recession. The gloves are off and it’s the steel fist. They are strolling in and saying business is quiet so they’ve decided to have babies.

But when they return they’re finding very subtle pressure and intimidation. They will be asked to be in at 7am for a meeting or to stay for the 6pm meeting. There will be this attitude of, “You need to be home for the baby? At 6pm? Hmmm. Okay. You’re expressing your milk? You want an hour to express? Hmmm. Okay, we can do that. But do you have to leave at 6pm?”. There’s huge pressure.

Rebecca MoynihanMy mum said to me recently that she thinks women are worse off now than when she was coming of age in the 1960s. Back then the enemy was easy to identify. Now the blockages are more subtle.

JennyI’ve kept my head in the sand because I’ve worked so hard to get where I am. At my level there are loads of women. At the next level, you see a good chunk of them. But at the next level up from there, the ratio favours men. There’s a sense among my friends of looking at the future and at a demanding environment and asking, do you want that? It’s not just the hours; it’s the cut-throat, intense, slightly aggressive way of some people at work.


BarbaraI think we’ve looked to be equal in a world that’s been designed by men for men who have traditional wives at home. That world does not suit women. Society places absolutely no value on the work of caring.

RebeccaThat’s not a just a problem in the corporate world. I represent a very working-class area with a lot of community development projects and often women keep things going. At a kids’ event you will see no fathers or older men, but the people taking on leadership roles tend to be middle-class men.

RebeccaWomen put each other down. In the debates on gender quota, the dominant female politicians implied, “I managed to do it; don’t make it easier.” Politically, women are allowed to be poster girls but not power brokers.

BarbaraYou don’t hear enough female voices in the media. I’m involved in [the campaigning group] Women on Air, and our website has thousands of names, from rocket scientists to ordinary women like me with something to say.

PatriciaI think one of the reasons women don’t get on [media] is because media is about soundbites and fast delivery of information, but women like to tell the story, to fill in the details.


RebeccaI believe so. If you have a baby at 16, you probably won’t have a Leaving Cert. I grew up in Dublin 8. I see a difference between the old working class and the new welfare class. A dependency culture has developed; there are no male role models. These women’s lives are set out from a really early stage. A little girl’s confidence is gone at nine years of age.

PatriciaBut it isn’t exclusive to those women either. The study I did was of women at the very top, and they still ask themselves, “Was it some terrible mistake that I got this job?”

But they won’t create a network. When I suggested that, they talked about how it would be seen as a knitting circle, even though men can play golf [without the same connotations]. They don’t want to be seen sitting together at meetings. Critical mass is around 15 per cent. After that, you can feel gender-comfortable.


JennyYou will often hear people saying they don’t want a female boss. The view is they tend to be bitches and to be moody, but men are less nit-picky and let you get on with it.

BarbaraI think that’s because women feel they can manipulate men more easily than they can other women.

RebeccaMy worst bosses have been female.

PatriciaIf you had men with more female characteristics, you could achieve something. I think men like that should be valued more. To progress in those environments, women tend to have predominantly male characteristics.

BarbaraPerhaps they don’t feel as compromised about their home life. They might be married to a man who’s in touch with his female side.


BarbaraI feel for women who feel the pull of home and time with their children but fear letting down the sisterhood or walking away from their education. [After a decade working in the home] I’m out the other end. There should be a way for women to come back.

JennyMy workplace would be unrecognisable.

Rosemary McKennaIt’s the same in theatre. Unless you’ve made your piece of gold and can wander off and have people wonder where you are, you can’t come back in at the same level of funding. You start from scratch.

RebeccaThe societal bonus of women taking time off and of decent, consistent children is so important: happy well-adjusted children.

BarbaraThat’s what I mean by caring. Not just parents at home looking after children, but the huge cohort of people, mostly women, caring for parents, for children who are disabled, and all the rest. Imagine if they downed tools and said, We’ve had enough.

JennyWhen I graduated, I did think I could have it all. But I’m starting to realise what it means. I just don’t see how you can work those hours: you still need seven hours’ sleep. And at the end of it, do you even want it all?

BarbaraThere are a lot of women working full time with kids in a creche, on a treadmill. When I worked, it was basically to keep the two [children] in childcare. When I stopped, my husband got all the allowances and we were only marginally less well off. But everybody’s quality of life went up.

RosemaryI’d like to do what Barbara did. But you can’t win.

PatriciaI would have gone screaming up the wall if I’d done what you did, Barbara. I worked all the time in an environment where women did not work; certainly not when they had children. I worked for the World Bank in Tanzania for six months and left the children at home with their father, and people said, “Oh my God”. You have to make your own call.


JennyMaybe you’re trying to be something you’re not. You run to the bathroom to fight tears and you think, A man wouldn’t cry now.

Barbara ScullyThe overwhelming opinion, mostly from women, on Twitter was, No it’s not okay. And I thought, Yes it is. You’re a woman, different from a man. You cry more easily.

JennyIt’s seen to be appropriate to be the male thing, which is to be aggressive. Yet if you’re doing a female thing – crying – the view is she’s weak, she’s unable to stand up.

RosemaryCrying and being aggressive are social constructs. Aggression is a human thing [not only male].


RebeccaI wouldn’t have a baby now. I’d feel too financially insecure.

PatriciaI was 23 and living in a recession when I had my first child. But this generation are waiting until their mid-30s and then they have to go into IVF and all of that. Meanwhile, [at the other end of the economic scale], you have kids having kids at 14.


RosemaryI think that’s because casual sexual relationships are part of society. Open access. So men enjoy playing the field into their 30s.


JennyThey are, but with the hope that this guy will be long term. Women are more likely to want a relationship and to form a bond.

RebeccaBut children are being conditioned to a hypersexual culture. I’m 30, and I think even for women five years younger it’s hypersexual . . . I think it has a lot to do with the internet. I read a study about young men having their first experiences through porn on the internet. There is so much objectification of women and the kind of language that suggests if women aren’t available to be bought and sold, it’s a denial of men’s liberty.

RosemaryThere are so many points throughout this conversation where I’ve been thinking, We want to have our cake and eat it. We want the right to work, the right not to work, the right to have sexual relationships without being condemned, and yet we want men who want to commit.

RebeccaYou know what? Men have the right to work and to have kids. Men have the right to have casual sex and to have relationships. So why is it never a question of choice for men?

RosemaryI don’t think men are not looking for commitment; just later. If women didn’t have a biological impetus, it would be grand.

RebeccaI think there’s pressure on women to perform for that, and for men’s expectations and perceptions. Talking to male friends, they seem to have women they will sleep with and a different somebody they’ll see as long term. Then a light goes off in their heads at 34 or 35. So the pressure is on women, if they’re going to get any affection, to be in the category that the men are going to be sleeping with. But they really want to be in the other half. It is worrying to have young men growing up with easy access to porn, with that perception of what women should look like.

RebeccaThe whole thing around body hair encapsulates this because it’s been a phenomenon of the past 10 years. Suddenly it’s the norm to have no hair anywhere.

JennyYou’d be [considered] weird if you had hair anywhere apart from on your head. Puberty or not. It’s the norm. Everybody does it. [All three young women nod.]

PatriciaWe’re hearing more and more from sex offenders about how they learned to do sex, how they’re under huge pressure to perform and they perceive women are laughing at them if they don’t get it up. They see sadomasochism in porn which they perceive as the way to do it and so they engage in behaviour that is nonconsensual and violent, and becomes rape.

BarbaraYou hear about 14- and 15-year-old girls who think it’s acceptable to give a guy a blow job at a disco. The only thing a parent can do is to try and empower their daughters in particular, to say that it’s not right and that you won’t feel good after it.


PatriciaWhen I did an exchange with a colleague from Harvard, he brought his 12- and 14-year-old kids. He said they had a wonderful time, the kids were great in school and had good friends. But why did parents let them out looking like hookers?

BarbaraWe don’t. They’ll say, “We’re getting ready in so-and-so’s house.” And you start finding thongs in the wash.

RebeccaBut there’s a whole subgroup who don’t go round like that. You identify yourself with a tribe. So while you have a load of girls going out in those awful bandage dresses and princess hooker heels, their friends are going to Whelan’s with their hair in a bun and wearing a 1980s jumper.

BarbaraWhere is this subgroup? Can I have their number?

The truth about motherhood: ‘Lone parents don’t have a voice; people don’t take us seriously’


Polish accountant, mother and carer

Deegan was 22 when she arrived from Poland 15 years ago with a degree in accountancy. After a series of gap-fillers, she was offered the first serious job she applied for. It was such a big job that she turned it down. She didn’t trust her English.

Her impression of Ireland was entirely positive. She had grown to love Ireland as a child while visiting members of her extended family here, and that had never changed. “It seemed to me that everyone was so happy and so wealthy. They had no worries. That’s probably what convinced me to stay . . . I thought it was incredible the way people just chatted to you at the bus stop, in the shops or on the street. I still do.”

Bright, warm and unfailingly positive, she was never short of work and four years ago, she married William and was expecting their first child. The recession was deepening, but that was the least of their problems. William was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“We had two years of a nightmare while he was changing from one drug to another. But I can honestly say that the health system here is amazing. It would have been a disaster if that had happened in Poland – or in the US, where he has friends who are sick and it’s been really a disaster for them. William is doing just great now. He’s involved in a trial for these amazing drugs and he’s responding very well to them.”

In the meantime, she has become his registered carer and the allowance, combined with his disability benefit, plus the rent allowance, she says, means “we have a roof over our heads and we have food”.

Now 37, she has just had a second child. Again, she has nothing but praise for the “first-class” care of the midwives and doctors at the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street. Does she think the native Irish complain a lot? She laughs. “If I had to compare it to Poland, I would say no.”


Unemployed lone parent

Ruby is two and a half years old and her attachment to her mother is loud and insistent. “That’s my life,” says Sarah. “I’m everything to her. I never stop, I haven’t time to have a shower. I probably come across as having a nice life but . . . I never thought having a child would be as hard as it is.

“It’s the loneliness, the isolation, almost the sadness of seeing your single friends . . . You have no adult company. If you just want to go for a walk, you have to think of childcare. Then when Ruby goes to bed, you’re alone with your thoughts. I feel isolated by society: we’re seen as scroungers, lazy, sitting watching TV.

“Ruby is starting playschool on Monday [funded by child benefit] and we’re left so vulnerable. I’ve had such a horrible month. I haven’t felt as low as this before.

I haven’t bought any clothes for a year and a half. I live on €190 a week. I pay for gas, electricity and the TV licence like other people. I pay a good bit towards my rent but I’m struggling since the reductions.”

The cost of childcare makes a nonsense of finding a job. “I would skip out that door to work if it were possible.” She was in the Dáil when Joan Burton announced plans for a universal, affordable childcare scheme by 2014. “It was so good to hear that. Lone parents don’t have a voice; people don’t take us seriously.”


HSE manager, mother of two boys

It was a good week for Julie Cruickshank’s elder child. He started school on Wednesday, and it went well. It’s just a year since he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. He is easygoing and at the milder end of the spectrum, says Cruickshank, who is 44, but she doesn’t gloss over the reality. “It is life-changing. Asperger’s is going to be a part of my life for the rest of my life. You have a feeling of loss. Will he be denied things? Will he be able to form relationships? Will he be able to live independently? What can I hope for him? Then you realise how much work it is to get the child through the normal milestones. I’m his advocate so I can’t indulge myself.

“But I have my own level of anxiety. How will he manage in his 20s, or when my husband and I are old? Is he going to be a vulnerable character? So we set up networks within our own family to plan for that in some way. That’s the pressure.”

In Ireland, the worry is getting into the system to get the diagnosis, she says. “Early intervention is key but the hardest part is the stress around diagnosis. You never think it’s going to happen to you. I work in the HSE and I know that compared to the difficulties experienced by some parents, it’s been very minor for us. It’s very confusing to know what is the best route in. Once you’ve done that, you can get an assessment but that doesn’t mean you will get a service.” A year on, her son’s diagnosis “is not such a big deal”, she says. “That’s not what he is. He’s just a child who has that.”

She notes that it is still assumed the woman will put her career aside for the child. “ It’s still unusual for a man to go part-time for a few years. If employers are more flexible about people working remotely, why can’t men move their schedules around? Shouldn’t that burden be shared more often?”

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