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There have to be far more women at board-level in the corporate world.

Always keep learning

Mary Coughlan, Former Deputy Prime Minister and member of Parliament, Republic of Ireland

Gavin Allen: It has taken some time, but, have women ever had it so good?

Mary Coughlan: I think things have changed dramatically, and legislation has helped – greater opportunities within education, for example. But there are still challenges, and those can become profound when you have a difference between what people would like to achieve, what their capabilities are, and whether opportunities will be afforded to them. And all of that is mixed with the challenges that have existed since time immemorial: trying to have a partner, have a family, all those things, and how that all integrates into achieving what people rightly deserve to achieve.

Gavin Allen: So overall, do you have a kind of glass-half-empty, or glass-half-full viewpoint?

Mary Coughlan: I'm a glass-half-full person. I believe in being very progressive and positive, and looking back at what has been afforded to both men and women in this country, particularly when it comes to younger women getting involved in all types of leadership roles, in all types of capacities.

Gavin Allen: You were a member of the Irish Parliament for 24 years, and you are a former Tánaiste, or Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland, so you’re a prominent woman leader. Did you feel a responsibility to be a role model for girls and women?

Mary Coughlan: I always tried to encourage more women to go into political life. In the main, women are very community-orientated. They're non-confrontational, they try to bring people together. So that is actually the baseline where a lot of women get elected. But they never seem to think they can take the next step.

We introduced quotas within the political parties, so you had to have a certain number of women who would be putting their name forward for election. I was elected not because I was a woman, but because I had the capacity to do the job.

When I was Minister for Education, I was hugely enthusiastic about getting more women involved in STEM, in science, mathematics, and technology. They have the capacity, so we were trying to see where the opportunities were to get them more involved.

Gavin Allen: I am always slightly baffled as to why women are so underrepresented. They're not underrepresented so significantly in other fields, it seems.

Mary Coughlan: You know, entrepreneurship is something I am very enthusiastic about, and you will see that a lot of women entrepreneurs are in the agri-food sector, or the beauty sector, something they feel very comfortable with. But we want women to be entrepreneurs in high-tech, in bio-pharma.

There’s this perception that it’s difficult. But it's just as difficult for a boy as it is for a girl. It's how you apply yourself.

Gavin Allen: So how much is it the responsibility of the girl or the woman to seize opportunities, and how much is it the responsibility of policy makers, and maybe businesses, like Huawei?

Mary Coughlan: Companies know they need more women. There have to be far more women at board-level in the corporate world, because there is a balance that can be brought to a board table, to an organization, by having both men and women express an opinion. That makes for better decision-making.

But, you know, life isn't easy, and it never will be. Young people have to have the capacity to be able to take those hard knocks.

Resilience comes from your home, your school, your friends. You have to have that capacity to say, "Look, it didn't work out, I'm going to start all over again.” If you don't do that, then you're going to find it very difficult, it doesn't matter what you do in life.

Gavin Allen: Are too many businesses paying lip service to gender equality, and therefore does there need to be a bit more stick, rather than carrot, for businesses?

Mary Coughlan: It's difficult to know, because at the same time, a lot of companies are scratching their heads thinking, "Who is out there that would bring something to my company, my organization, my board?" And, they can't find that someone. So it's up to women as well to put themselves forward and make themselves available.

Gavin Allen: You rose to be the deputy prime minister in Ireland. Politics is a pretty bruising profession. How did you build your own resilience?

Mary Coughlan: I served a number of years as a backbencher before I was appointed as a minister. That gave me experience, and the capacity to build relationships within my own political party. Competition is keen, and if you want to go up the ladder, you have to get involved in legislation at a national level. So I had that grounding for a considerable number of years. I also had a group of people who supported me in my political career – as many men as women. That allowed me to go ahead and work hard within every department whee I was given the opportunity to participate.

Gavin Allen: Did you feel treated differently as a female leader?

Mary Coughlan: One of the things I was asked after I'd lost my seat was, “Did women journalists treat me differently to others?” And there was a very interesting article by Alison O'Connor, who quite rightly said what I couldn't say, which was yes. And that's a pity, because women should be supporting women. I'm not saying that they shouldn’t criticize. But some of the vitriol was awful. And it’s worse now. That will be a disincentive to people, both men and women, to go into political life. For that matter, it may be a disincentive to people who want to move up and be leaders, be entrepreneurs, or whatever.

Gavin Allen: You think it's toxic for leadership everywhere?

Mary Coughlan: I think it's quite toxic. We need to come back to a level where there is a balance and where there is respect for everyone and respect for people's views, whether you like them or not.

And this conjuring up of, I suppose, what they call fake news now, that has to stop, or we're going to create anarchy. We’ve seen it in the biggest democracy in the world, the United States. We see now what's happening in Brazil. It's awful. 

Gavin Allen: We talked about toxicity. In terms of helping women in the future, is it more important to spotlight the successes that women achieve, or the obstacles they've had to overcome? Is it the grit or the glory that we should hone in on?

Mary Coughlan: You can over-glorify things. When you see over-glorification, for example, on Instagram, that gives a wrong impression about life. It creates this aura which is unrealistic to 99.9% of the people of the world.

What do people want in life? They want to be happy. They would like a job. They would like to be healthy. They'd like to be afforded the opportunity to live as well as they can. In my view, education is the key to all of this.

Gavin Allen: This is a generalization, but why do women collectively tend to lack confidence?

Mary Coughlan: They become unsure about their own ability. And in order to address that, you educate, you support them in different ways.

I think public speaking is an area where a lot of women find they're uncomfortable. Just the very simple things that you need to do in public speaking: how you dress, how you speak, how you think. Breathing exercises, practicing in the mirror, reading off a cue card – all those things are very important. And that will give women the ability to speak. It's just supporting and encouraging them. Encouragement is very important. In an education system it is afforded through drama, through sport. People don't realize it, but that's actually what they're learning.

Gavin Allen: I've got a vested interest in this. I've got an 18-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old daughter. But if you were talking to a young woman now, what is your message to people who have self-doubt, who think, "I don't think I'll go into tech, it sounds a bit male.” Or, “I'm not sure I see myself as a leader." What would you say to them to make them believe in themselves?

Mary Coughlan: Well, I suppose when it comes to deciding where you want to go in life, what you decide at 18 is not necessarily what you're going to be doing when you're 50. So my view and my advice is, you take a broad perspective. So if you want to go to university, take a broad degree, take something that can then be used as a building block to doing something else. Like there are anthropologists working in tech. Now where's the correlation? Well, it has to do with their capacity to think, and that is a skill in itself.

Gavin Allen: So, keep learning.

Mary Coughlan: Yes. Take a degree that's fairly broad, and then you'll be afforded the opportunity to see what you want to do. And when you're 19 and 20, and you have an opportunity to go to university or a college of technology, that experience is a stepping stone to the rest of your life. That is where you might meet your colleagues. That is where you get people who come together to be entrepreneurs. Look at all of the massive companies that have been created over the years in tech. A lot of the founders were at college together. Now they are multi-billionaires.

So, you know, it's about creating an opportunity for conversations to take place. The college experience is so important because that's where ideas come from, that's where conversations come from, and that's where politics comes from.

Gavin Allen: So, keep learning and have fun.

Mary Coughlan: Exactly. I should have taken that advice myself!

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