In 2016, Trinity Student Managed Fund (Trinity SMF) hosted their first conference on women in leadership. since then, there has been a shift in the conversation on women, and increasingly there has been a focus on encouraging and inspiring women to bridge the divide between men and women in the workplace.
Yesterday evening saw Trinity SMF run their third women in leadership conference in Regent House on the topic breaking boundaries. The opulent setting was striking as the audience piled into Regent House. As you walked into the beautiful room filled with students and business people alike, with soft music from a piano playing, it was difficult not to be impressed. The event on its surface was a corporate show but the speakers showed a willingness and effort to not just inform, but inspire the audience.
Moderated by Gavin McLoughlin, the Business News Editor at the Irish Independent, the first speaker was Julie Sinnamon, CEO of Enterprise Ireland. Sinnamon spoke of being the seventh of thirteen children and who grew up in a “family business environment”. For young people starting in business, she advised finding not just a mentor but a sponsor – someone who could ameliorate your presence in corporate circles. She spoke of her experience as CEO of Enterprise Ireland and how she has noticed a difference in women becoming more confident in recent years, which she seemed to credit to increasing representation, describing the damaging ideology of “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”.
Caroline Dowling, President of Flextronics, followed Sinnamon, beginning by telling the audience about a key event in her life when, at age fifteen, she dropped out of school as she was pregnant. After working as a cleaner and watching her friends graduate, she decided to go back to school. The experience was daunting as she walked in on her first day the students “thought I was the teacher”. Dowling’s impact could be found in her description of herself of not just as a business person but as a mother, sister and grandmother. She was unafraid to illustrate the duality of life and contradicted any idea that women cannot be successful and have a home-life.
Mick McSweeney, a former senior executive at Bank of Ireland, took the place of Anthony G. Watson and quickly had the audience laughing. He acknowledged the impressive women on the panel before using the topic of breaking boundaries to describe his own personal boundaries. Growing up in Watergate in Cork, his first boundary to break was getting to college. He admitted he spent a month at UCC before being hired by a bank. He said “breaking boundaries is genderless”, and spoke more on diversity in the workplace. Diverse companies “are outperforming by a significant amount” companies who are behind on diversity. He highlighted the issue of childcare, which the panel wholeheartedly agreed with. Dowling was quick to critique the government in this area, citing low salaries, pressures of the difficult financial climate, and expensive childcare as a barrier for women.
The final speaker was Lauren Simmons, who at age 24 is the “second African-American woman to be on the trading floor in 225 years” and is currently the only trader on the New York stock exchange who is a woman. Simmons appeared overwhelmed by the room but soon began speaking of her mother as an inspiration. While raising Simmons and her twin brother, who has cerebral palsy, she worked “in a high-level position”. Balancing home-life, an ill child and work, her superior said one day “are you really going to put your kids before your job?” The reply: “She quit on the spot.” Her advice to not just women but all young people starting out was to be fearless.
Before the event finished, there was a question and answer session which saw the discussion of quotas. Sinnamon was against them, saying progress without them has already been made, stating that: “This is not about being nice to women, it is just good business sense.” Dowling spoke of working “one and a half times harder…to overcome that unconscious bias” and when answering on how to socialise in a corporate setting when it can be through golf and rugby, Dowling was unhappy to give the answer “you’ve got to suck it up” and go these events. Simmons chimed in saying at these events, especially if drinking is involved, one should set clear boundaries with male colleagues.
The conference marked positive changes in the workforce for equality and set out advice for not just women, but young people entering the financial work force. Marie-Louise O’Callaghan, the first female CEO of Trinity SMF, thanked Dina Abu-Rahmeh, Head of Women in Business at Trinity SMF, for organising this conference before inviting the audience to the Weston Hotel.