Orna Mulcahy: Girls can take a bit of Yes swagger into the exam hall today

Class of 2018 will need more than good results in a world that still favours men

Women don’t just have to ace exams to get on in life. They have to have buckets of grit, timely dollops of luck and skin like a rhinoceros to succeed. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Women don’t just have to ace exams to get on in life. They have to have buckets of grit, timely dollops of luck and skin like a rhinoceros to succeed. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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Leaving Cert parents, it’s been a hell of a long year but you’re nearly there. There’s not much more you can do now except keep the fish dinners and chocolate fingers coming and maybe stump up a few hundred more euro for the last of the maths and physics grinds.

Today’s the day when your child faces the one thing can’t do for them – sit a State exam. It’s traumatic stuff.

At the weekend, I met a neighbour tottering around the block with his dog. It was a gorgeous day but he looked pale and jittery. His daughter was at home in self-imposed solitary confinement and the house was under a kind of siege of silence, he said. She was being great, very focused. He and his wife were a bag of of nerves, in the face of what sounded like deadly calm competence.

I made some soothing sounds, but this summer our house is an exam-free zone and it’s amazing how one tunes out of the system. Guiding a child through the Leaving Cert is like childbirth – truly awful, exhausting and, once it’s over, totally forgettable.

My friend probably knows that his daughter will do better than well. She’s aiming for high points courses, she’s a hard worker and statistics are on her side.

It’s a well-established fact that girls outperform boys in the majority of Leaving Cert subjects. Last year, for instance, girls scored a higher proportion of top marks in 32 out of 38 subjects at higher level. The same was true a year earlier, and in fact the trend has been in evidence for years. Girls are killing the exam system.

This year, there’s a chance that girls could do better still. Call me fanciful, but I like to imagine Irish girls heading into the exams with a bit of a Yes swagger to them.

Fierce and fabulous

If any more evidence is needed that girls can do anything, then the Yes campaign provided it in spades. There was a whopping 94 per cent increase in women aged 18-24 voting in the referendum and seeing 18 year olds voting for the first time in their school uniforms was one of the most heartening sights of May 25th. And those teenage girls have some amazing role models to look up to now: namely the fierce, fabulous young women who canvassed their hearts out and carried the country to a better place. They killed the referendum.

Next, year, when I revisit Leaving Cert parent hell, I will be reminding my daughter, more often than she will want to hear it, that women can do pretty much anything they choose to do, and that she must not forget it. That she has all the power and potential of new Irish feminism inside her, and that the world will be her oyster.

However, my hair will probably come out in clumps as I worry about her future and I will have a quiet weep over the indignities that might lie in wait for her. Because, of course, women don’t just have to ace exams to get on in life. They have to have buckets of grit, timely dollops of luck and skin like a rhinoceros to succeed. Then, if they do find a career they love, unless it is their own business the closer they get to the top of that chosen field, the more likely that they will be overtaken by a man. Things are changing, of course, but the pace of change is slow, and particularly so in the corporate world. Last week, for instance, women executives in the UK were fuming over the excuses made by chairmen and chief executives of FTSE 350 companies as to why they did not have more, or in some cases any, females on their boards. The excuses were collected by the Hampton-Alexander review body set up by the UK government to monitor female boardroom representation.

Deeply patronising

The excuses ranged from the deeply patronising and downright insulting: “There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board – the issues covered are extremely complex”; to the frankly out of touch: “Most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board”; to the petty and pathetic: “All the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up.”

“Shareholders just aren’t interested in the make-up of the board, so why should we be?” was another excuse, to which the FT responded with an oped piece suggesting that shareholders should insist on more women being placed on boards.

Then there was the petulant chairman who said “We have one woman already on the board, so we are done – it is someone else’s turn.” You see, that’s the kind of person I’m afraid of my daughter having to encounter in life.

When it comes to gender balance in the boardroom, Ireland is not so different to the UK. In a 2017 analysis of the boards of 31 Irish publicly quoted companies, The Irish Times found that women accounted for just under 16 per cent of the board seats. Out of a total of 295 seats studied, women hold 47. There were six all-male boards, and a further nine companies had only one woman on the board.

Those figures need to change – a lot: female representation in the Dáil needs to grow; more women need to be appointed to top positions across the land. I hope that the girls of the Class of 2018 will find it a little easier to get on and that many more Yes moments will come their way.

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