International Women’s Day: Successful Northern Ireland women on how they smashed glass ceiling
To mark International Women’s Day today, some of Northern Ireland’s female trailblazers tell Leona O’Neill how they achieved success — and they offer their advice for young women trying to succeed.
Barbara McCann (61) is a UTV journalist. Barbara says that a belief in herself, instilled by her mum and dad, has carried her far in life.
"The best thing about being a woman is that we are very powerful and creative," says the Hillsborough woman. "We are an influential force now. It might not have been seen in the past like that, but I think we are capable of showing more compassion, we are strong and soft at the same time. We can do anything we put our minds to today.
"And I think a lot of younger women are coming up having that mindset and are finding it easier, realising that we can do anything. "I was very fortunate that my mother Margo and father Brendan made me believe that I could be anything I wanted to be." Barbara, who has more than 40 years' experience in the media industry, having worked in a wide variety of radio and TV roles throughout her career, says a career highlight for her was covering the Gulf War. "I reported from the Gulf War in 1991," she says.
"That was a highlight for me. I was there for three months, before, during and after the war. I headed out with my cameraman. We got into Kuwait before any of the British television journalists, including Kate Adie." On a personal level, Barbara says recovering from an air crash is another highlight in her life. "I overcame the physical and psychological effects of a helicopter crash 23 years ago," she says.
"Myself and a number of other journalists were on a press trip in Fermanagh. We took off for Derry and were about 1,500ft up when something got stuck in the rotor blade and we crashed. I broke my back and dislocated my kneecaps. "Being in that traumatic event and getting back on my feet again and becoming a staff member with UTV is definitely personal highlight." Barbara says she never believed there was a glass ceiling in her line of work. "I always knew that if I wanted to go for a job I would go for it," she says.
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"And I am where I want to be, and where I have always wanted to be. So for me I think it's all a myth. I know there are others who will have had personal experiences. But my experience is that I've got to where I want to be, and if I didn't get what I wanted I'd have gone another route." Barbara says that a belief in oneself will take you far in life. "Believe in yourself," she says. "Women can do anything they want. And if you face any obstacles on the way, go over, around or under them. Don't take no for an answer."
Eibhlin de Barra (49) is a director of Young at Art and the Belfast Children’s Festival
Eibhlin, who lives in Hollywood with her husband Simon and twin boys Noah and Conor (20), says that freedom is the best part of being a woman in 2019.
“In my career in particular, I don’t feel that I’ve ever been held up by being a woman,” she says. “I think that the best thing about being a woman in a liberal democracy like Ireland is all the opportunities that we have. I certainly have not experienced any gender pay gap. But I’m very aware that that is not everyone’s experience. But the best thing is that we have such personal freedom.”
Eibhlin says being able to travel the world is one of the highlights of her career so far.
“I would say my career highlight is the job I’m doing now,” she says. “I get to travel all across the world to see performances with a view to inviting them to the Belfast Children’s Festival. We have a show called Oorlog (War) by Theater Artemis at the MAC this Sunday which is amazing. To be able to bring that type of work to Belfast gives me such a thrill.”
And it’s her personal life, watching her two sons grow and thrive, which brings her immense pride.
“The highlight of my personal life has been just bringing up our two boys,” she says. “I think they are just fab, and really good craic and a credit to us. And they have turned into really, really lovely young men. They are both at university now and have secured themselves cracking placements for next year. So that is really exciting, watching them take off.”
And Eibhlin has this advice for other women.
“I would say to other women to go with their gut instincts and do what you love,” she says. “Don’t let people talk you out of it. Just go for it. What is the worst that can happen?”
Lady Mary Peters (79), 1972 Olympics pentathlon champion, fundraises to help young people achieve their sporting dreams through her Trust
Lady Mary says that men tend to listen more to women these days.
“The best thing about being a lady today is being respected and admired,” says the Dunmurry woman. “Men listen to women nowadays whereas they didn’t use to.”
She says that the highlight of her career so far has undoubtedly been her Olympic success.
“My career highlight was winning a gold medal at the Munich Olympics in 1972,” she says. “It changed my life forever because it gave me a purpose to build a running track for the people in Belfast. It gave me a platform as a woman to serve on many committees which would never have contemplated having a woman on them before. It also allowed me to do a lot of charity work.
“The highlight of my personal life would have to be surviving open heart surgery last October. I had a heart valve that needed replacing. They told me that if I did not have the operation I wouldn’t be here in a year’s time. But now I’ve got an extra 10 years, unless something else happens. So after a six-hour operation I have recovered totally and feel wonderful.”
And her advice to other women, striving for success in their particular fields, is to “be yourself”.
“I would advise women not to be too pushy,” she says. “Be yourself and work hard. Plan ahead. It’s like being an athlete, you have to train to be successful in business. Work with other people well and enjoy life.”
Cate Conway (42) co-hosts the Q Radio Breakfast Show with Stephen Clements
Dunmurry woman Cate says that, thankfully, many preconceived notions about how women should live their lives have been eradicated.
“I think attitudes to women have changed dramatically since I was growing up,” she says. “I felt there was an expectation that you would love education, get a job, get married and have kids in that order and that your career would end when you had children.
“I don’t know many people whose lives followed that path even though they might have felt pressure and maybe some guilt because it didn’t. That seems to have moved on, thank goodness. Society recognises all kinds of families now and employers are more tuned in to what they can do to support them. I’m not saying it’s perfect now — far from it — but I think we are facing the right direction.
“I think working life had changed for women dramatically thanks to the efforts of so many people over a long period of time. There are so many female-led companies doing amazing things and supporting women’s development and progress — but that needs to be across the board.”
Cate says one of her career highlights was switching on the Christmas lights at Belfast City Hall.
“I’ve had two careers,” she says. “I used to work in marketing at Belfast Met and then I started a new career in media when I was in my early 30s. I’ve had so many opportunities and amazing experiences in my current job but I think the most surreal one was when Stephen and I turned on the Christmas lights at Belfast City Hall last year. He’s like me — he changed career in his 30s and moved into radio. That evening was a really big deal for both of us as we’re both very grateful and a bit amazed that we get to do our dream job.”
Cate says that the day she became an aunt for the first time was her personal highlight.
“That day was life-changing for me,” she says. “I don’t have any kids and I was 35 before I had any nieces or nephews. It made me feel so different about life and the future.
“And the most amazing thing happened as a result of something we talked about on Q Breakfast. My new year resolution was to take it ‘up a notch’. This means that I was going to just do little things every day to boost my own confidence or do things a wee bit better. Small things like wearing the dress I’d usually keep for good, buying different colours of lipstick, walking instead of taking the stairs — that kind of thing.
“The Belfast Model School for Girls heard this and took it to heart. They introduced it into their school council and started to think of ways they could all take it ‘up a notch’. They paid each other compliments, baked brownies for their class, and put a little more effort into their tasks. I went to visit them and found an incredible group of young women who were looking after their own mental health and each other.
“So that would be my advice — take it up a notch. No matter what you are doing in work or life, do it a little bit better, don’t ever think ‘that’ll do’ and leave something half done — and that includes a compliment you could pay someone or a helping hand you could offer someone. It makes you feel better and you’ll do better.”
Aideen Kennedy (39) is a U105 journalist who previously worked for UTV News
Aideen says that women can be who they want to be in this modern era.
“One of the best things about being a woman today is choice,” she says.
“One of the people I really admire is Tara Lynn O’Neill. We were teenagers when we did the musical Grease together in Belfast’s Grand Opera House. And now she’s fulfilling her dreams appearing in the brilliant Derry Girls.
Aideen says that one poignant news story really stands out for her in her career.
“My career highlight was getting an exclusive with the family of one of the Disappeared,” she says. “They were so gracious.
“I wouldn’t say I was especially academic but I worked hard and got a first class degree and a scholarship to do newspaper journalism. That allowed me to fulfil my dream of becoming a reporter.
“A highlight in my personal life is of course my two children — my six-year-old daughter, Eva, and my 10-year-old son, Jacob. After my brother and sister passed away, Jacob said: ‘We are a very unlucky family but at least I have two angel bodyguards in Heaven.’ I thought that was a beautiful way to look at life.”
Aideen has this advice to the next generation of women navigating their chosen field.
“Chose your career carefully,” she says. “A job that might seem glamorous now may not be so glamorous 30 years on. However, if you love a job and it’s in your veins, make it work for you.”
Heather Monteverde (56) is head of services at Macmillan Cancer Support
Heather, a mother-of-three from Ballygowan, Co Down, says despite the many opportunities available to modern women, being in a senior position is still tough.
“When I look back at my mother’s generation — she was a nurse like I was, but she had to give up work when she got married,” Heather says. “So you’d like to think things have changed and stereotypes have been challenged. But there is still a culture of having it all — a perfect work life, home life, personal life. There are many more opportunities, but it still isn’t easy to be a woman working full time in a senior role.”
Heather says becoming Northern Ireland’s first ever cancer nurse specialist was a highlight of her career.
“I’m a nurse, and that is really the core of who I am,” she says. “I was the first cancer nurse specialist in Northern Ireland, starting in 1986. Since then the highlight for me has been my role with Macmillan — we have developed a plan and funding to ensure that everyone diagnosed with cancer has access to a cancer nurse specialist. I feel really privileged to have had a role in that.”
Family means the world to Heather — she and husband Peter have three daughters, Giuliana (28), Sara (25) and Katie (21).
“It’s no mean feat these days to have been married to the same person for 33 years,” she says. “Having three lovely daughters who have grown into strong independent women forging careers for themselves is fantastic.”
Heather has this advice for the next generation: “Younger women are more ambitious and less likely to take no for an answer. But I think they still find it tough. Believe in yourself, and enjoy your career. It’s not all about money, you get rewards in other ways.
“And I would also say treat others the way you’d want to be treated yourself. There is something in women supporting and looking out for each other.”