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‘As leaders we don’t always need to have all the answers’

Women leaders can be at their most effective when they are being their authentic selves

The number of women in senior leadership roles in Ireland is increasing. In 2021, one in eight CEOs in large enterprises in Ireland was a woman and 30 per cent of senior executives were female. Mairead McCaul, the managing director and country lead for MSD (Merck Sharp & Dohme) pharmaceuticals is one of these.

She says MSD has a really strong women’s network centred around empowerment, building your network and growing your confidence in a supportive environment “to help each other be the best you can be”. She says that women leaders can only be at their most effective when they are being their “authentic selves”.

“The advice I give all women working in organisations is believe in yourselves, trust your judgment and seek out relevant sponsors, people who know you and understand how you can contribute to the future of the organisation. These are the people who will mention your name in a room when an opportunity comes up – even when you are not there to advocate for yourself,” says McCaul.

On a personal level, she says that as a working parent there were times when she had to learn to be kind to herself and silence her inner perfectionist. “I realise that as leaders we don’t always need to have all the answers, but we need to know how to bring people along with us to co-create solutions. We need to be braver, embrace ambiguity and be clearer about our aspirations and articulate them to the right people – holding them and ourselves accountable,” says McCaul.


Deborah Threadgold, the general manager for IBM in Ireland, describes her management style as collaborative and relationship-oriented. She says the traditional leadership styles of men and women can be quite different, with male leadership deemed to be assertive and authoritative while female leaders tend to be more collaborative. “This doesn’t mean that you have to stop being yourself to be a successful leader,” she says.

Threadgold believes that women don’t lack competence but that they can lack confidence. “You have to own your career. That doesn’t mean that you are on your own. Sometimes, other people see your capabilities more clearly than you do yourself and see opportunities that you might not pick up on,” says Threadgold.

She says that having a trustworthy mentor is a key to success. “Having an open and trusting relationship with your mentor is important, especially if you are having a wobbly moment and are concerned that you might compromise yourself by going into a certain role. Mentors can help you make decisions at times like these,” she says.

She is frank about her own circuitous route to the top of her profession. After school, she worked as a receptionist, studied marketing by night and worked for a non-for-profit pensions company before she joined IBM in her 20s, first as a consultant and later as a manager.

“In the early stages of my career, I was one of the few women at events, which can be quite intimidating and overwhelming. But it makes you stand out, so I decided to embrace that. But it also made me feel that I had to work hard to prove to myself that I deserved to be there,” she explains.

When asked what advice she would give young women keen to progress in their careers, she says simply: “Build your network and keep your learning current, because the world around is changing so dramatically. The glass ceiling has lifted somewhat and there are more role models for younger women now.”

Speaking up

Lorna Martyn, Ireland’s regional lead at technology investment company Fidelty Investments, says women need to speak up for themselves more – especially to their managers.

“There is no point in having an internal voice telling you what to do if you don’t amplify it externally. Organisational culture is a living, breathing thing and cultural changes will only happen when actions respond to stimuli,” she explains.

A technologist by profession, Martyn is responsible for all business operations and technology staff in Ireland for Fidelty Investments, one of the largest financial services firms in the world.

In what is still a male-dominated profession (only about 35 per cent of all technologists are female), Martyn says that early on in her career she was a very productive software engineer who didn’t speak up for herself.

“People called me ‘the code machine’ because I worked so hard, never left my desk and never made any complaints or comments. But my female manager sent me on an assertiveness-training course. She said to me, ‘Don’t assume work will get you noticed. It’s important to analyse what you do and when you need support.’”

Martyn says that she doesn’t believe in five-year plans. “Think about the next three months and commit to a few things with intent – a training class, adding someone to your network, meeting or talking to someone you admire about how they progressed in their career,” says Martyn, who also advises women to document their goals and ambitions, as this makes them more real.

Martyn says that sometimes women aren’t very good at advocating for other women. “Throughout the course of my career, most good advocates have been men. It’s imperative that we help other women to get to the top but you need men to advocate for you too,” she adds.

‘Amazing female entrepreneurs’

Claire Cronin, the US Ambassador to Ireland, says that remarkable women have inspired her throughout her career. “Recently, I led a delegation of Irish companies to the Select USA Investment Summit in Washington DC. This year, the delegation included a record number of Irish women-led businesses. It was an inspiring experience to spend time with these amazing female entrepreneurs and learn about their global ambitions.”

Cronin, who took office as the US Ambassador to Ireland in February 2022, says that the Empower Her partnership between the US Department of Commerce and European American Chambers of Commerce will advance women’s economic empowerment and gender equality. “As part of this initiative, I look forward to hosting the recent graduates of the American Chamber of Commerce Women in Global Organisations Leadership Programme in July,” she explains.

She adds that US President Biden’s Gender Policy Council aims to advance gender equality and equity in both domestic and foreign policy to instil a strategic, whole-of-government approach to gender equality and equity.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment