The toughest critics facing women working in the public eye are other women, according to former Tánaiste Mary Harney.
She was speaking at the third annual Women in Media conference on Saturday in Ballybunion in Co Kerry.
Harney is one of the most powerful women in the history of Irish politics. She has now spoken out about barriers and difficulties facing women in positions of power. Harney believes there is a tendency for women to be judged on their appearance, weight and dress, rather than their abilities and merit.
And that it is women in the media that are the most likely to be the harshest critics.
During her address to the conference she said: “You remember Orla Guerin and Bernie Malone? We now have what’s called the ‘Battle of Blackrock’ – Mary Hanafin and Kate Feeney. Mary Lou and Joan Burton are being pitted in articles I keep reading and I think some women journalists like to pit the woman against the other woman, or the story about Liz O’Donnell wears the same dress on the same day as Lucinda Creighton. I wonder would anybody ever have noticed if Dick Spring wore the same suit as Garett Fitzgerald? Your rival is very often not the other man in the constituency it’s the other woman.”
Harney’s comments may be shocking but she insisted that attitudes must be changed in order to address the ‘gender imbalance’ in Irish politics. Currently, the Dáil is made up of only 16% women. It poses the question of what is more important for a female politician trying to get noticed; the best policies or the best beauty products?
Harney also said that more needed to be done to help women in politics, regarding childcare and other family commitments such as caring for elderly relatives: “You won’t get good governance if you don’t have a critical mass of men and women making the decisions. I don’t believe I could have done my political job when I lived in Dublin if I had children, it would have been impossible.
“I never heard many men [in Leinster House] worry about the fact they didn’t see their children, but I constantly heard women feeling guilty about their children.”
Harney was Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) from 1997 to 2006. Her political career began back in the early 1980s and also included key roles as Minister for Health and Children and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
The Women in Media conference also featured contributions from other accomplished women from various professional fields such as journalism and broadcasting.
Olivia O’Leary recalled an unsavoury incident she was subjected to when working at the Irish Times newspaper and was 20 minutes late because she had been attending to her child who was unwell. She said: “The news editor said to me out loud in front of the whole news room, ‘you can’t expect us to suffer just because you had a child’.
“I was never lonelier as a journalist then the day that I had a child, because we still live in a world where women are left to bear that weight alone.”
The Women in Media conference started three years ago, to celebrate the achievements of women in the media. The main award is named after the late journalist Mary Cummins. The award has been won by current affairs broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan and the first female editor of the Irish Times newspaper Geraldine Kennedy.