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In times of difficulty there will always be those whose first instinct is to spring into action. This rings true amid the COVID-19 pandemic, calling to mind Nuala O Faolain’s advice; “Do the active thing. There’s more of the human in that.” We have seen women across the Skillnet Ireland ecosystem do just that, actively supporting businesses and individuals by rising to the challenges of the day.

Reflecting on what International Women’s Day means in today’s world, we spoke to some of our Skillnet Business Network Managers and partners; Sustainable Finance Skillnet Steering Group Chairperson and AIB’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Yvonne Holmes, Shannon Chamber Skillnet Promoter and CEO of Shannon Chamber, Helen Downes, Restaurant & Hospitality Skillnet Network Manager, Niamh O’Malley and Space Industry Skillnet Network Manager, Catherine Lenehan, to learn about their challenges, achievements, female leadership in the workplace and advice for women on further developing their careers.

Choosing to challenge

Ireland has made significant strides in addressing the challenges faced by women in the workplace, rising on the OECD gender index from #18 to #14 in 2019 – a greater rise than any other country. However, COVID-19 has seen progress stalled as the pandemic disproportionately affects women. The industries most impacted have a majority-female workforce, and the distribution of unpaid caring and domestic work has widened. PWC’s Strategy& Women In Work Index 2021 estimates the pandemic has set OECD progress back by as much as 4 years, and the progress on gender parity will need to double its previous rates to recover by 2030.

With the pandemic presenting a disruption of ‘normal’ working practices, could there by an opportunity to regain this positive momentum, to reset the working world, to empower women and to create more opportunity?

Rising to the communications challenge

2020 brought unparalleled change for businesses and individuals. One of the most significant is shared by both – the lack of face-to-face contact. This manifested in the personal sphere in terms of managing the shift to remote working, as well as the professional sphere, managing the redesign of training programmes to online models. Catherine from Space Industry Skillnet describes the mindset required to make these shifts in their programme offerings; “To help us overcome these challenges we engaged with trainers early to refocus their efforts to deliver through remote/virtual methods, while maintaining the quality, flexibility and effectiveness of the training.” Catherine’s swift and direct contact with her colleagues was key in ensuring that they continued to deliver a high level of support to businesses within the space sector.

Similarly, Niamh from Restaurant & Hospitality Skillnet found communication to be vital in supporting newly remote staff. Niamh scheduled short phone calls each day between colleagues to ensure that there was still ‘social chat’ built into the working day. This was one small way to counteract the intensity of working from home, where it is difficult to maintain the social connection usually experienced in the workplace. Both showcase the importance of robust communication in addressing the challenges posed by working in the era of COVID-19.

Female progression in the workplace

There are many ways in which women across Skilllnet Business Networks are rising to the challenges of the contemporary workplace.

Catherine points out that while there is room for growth in terms of representation of women in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, there is an acknowledgement of the value that women bring to the sector. Niamh describes the unique attributes that women bring to teams she has witnessed in the restaurant and hospitality industry, “some of these traits include interpersonal skills, patience, leadership, management styles, team players and good communicators (and many more!). These traits are crucial within this sector and contribute to the success of any business.” It is positive to see these attributes being celebrated, and the promotion of the value that women have to offer in business.

In terms of representation, Niamh also points out that the restaurant and hospitality sector employs women in a variety of roles, represented across all departments. Helen of Shannon Chamber Skillnet observes that she has seen an increase in the number of women moving into senior and leadership positions in business. This narrowing of the progression gap must be maintained as we face the challenges of today’s changing workplace.

Lifelong learning and development

The supports in place for women through Skillnet Business Networks are robust and numerous. We can continue to build upon these to ensure the promotion of diverse, inclusive workplaces. Helen uses the experiences of her three daughters, all at various stages within the higher education/early graduate sphere to advocate for targeted and early interventions in career development: “An intervention at the earliest possible juncture of their starting to work would be beneficial; this is where Skillnet Ireland can play a fundamental role. These career development and upskilling opportunities will expose them to areas not covered in their degrees, but which are necessary for them to assimilate into the culture of the organisation they join would be most beneficial.”

It is important to acknowledge the specific challenges that mothers and women with caring responsibilities face. This can be partially combatted by an acknowledgement of these challenges and subsequent targeting and design of Skillnet Ireland programmes. Flexibility of access and scheduling for example, is one way of ensuring ease of access for women to upskilling schemes.

Developing women’s careers in 2021

Recent times have certainly shown that we all have the ability to innovate and turn challenges into opportunities.  Overcoming the challenges of today’s world requires the confidence to step forward and learn new skills, build and maintain relationships with others, and the ability to be both the mentor and the mentee.

When it comes to women developing their career in today’s world, Sustainable Finance Skillnet Steering Group Chairperson Yvonne Holmes (AIB) advice is centred on five Bs – Believe, Balance, Behaviours, Boost and Back. Yvonne is the Chief Sustainability Officer in AIB. Yvonne’s previous roles include Head of Analytics and Head of Consumer Strategy, and she has led a number of key transformation programmes across AIB Group.

Believe in yourself and don’t hold yourself back.  Be brave and take a chance when a new opportunity presents itself.  Seek out your own opportunities and don’t be afraid to move laterally and gain new experience and skills.

Balance – Get your balance right.  Understand your stressors and try to identify ways to alleviate, whether that is at home or at work.  That may be needing additional help with childcare, help with keeping the house tidy, or at work sourcing different skills on your team.

Behaviours – A positive attitude is powerful. Understand the impact you have on the people around you and always be respectful – the people you meet on the way up might be the same people you meet on the way down.

Boost and give others affirmation, but also give constructive feedback.  You are not doing any favours if you don’t help your team understand areas for improvement even if you find it an awkward conversation to have.

Back and help others – we have all got help along the way.  Reach out to others and make a difference in helping them to navigate their career or prompt them to consider new opportunities.

Moving forward

The insights from Helen, Niamh, Catherine and Yvonne showcase the achievements of women across Skillnet Business Networks and how we can all further develop our careers in today’s world. Their contributions display not only the extent of these achievements but also a culture of ‘lowering the ladder’ to allow for these successes to be replicated and exceeded by the other women working with Skillnet Ireland. As we reflect on this year’s International Women’s Day Choose to Challenge theme, this is an attitude we can all embrace everyday moving forward.

Learn more about the range of supports offered by Skillnet Ireland Business Networks today.

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