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Work, life and lessons learned by women leaders

UTV Voices is our new digital series giving a platform to those with a story to tell. Credit: UTV

To mark International Women’s Day, we look at how some women in top leadership roles in Northern Ireland got to where they are and what they learned along the way.

Our new digital series Voices gives a platform to those with a story to tell, launching with three women in prominent positions within either the public or private sector.

They each followed very different paths and share their experiences of or views on a range of issues, including workplace equality, mental health, and what it takes to make a good leader – offering up advice and life hacks, from the serious to the more light-hearted, to both young women and men.

Jill Minne is one of the most senior women in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, serving as Strategic Head of Human Resources.

  • VIDEO: UTV VOICES - Part 1

It isn’t the career she imagined, having long held what she called a “romantic notion” of working in the arts.

“I probably didn’t even know what HR was,” she laughs, speaking about her younger self.

Nevertheless, Jill has earned herself one of the top jobs in the Civil Service – an organisation which finds itself working to address a legacy issue of under-representing women at the top.

“We have made real, real in-roads there,” she says.

“We’re very passionate about believing that the public sector should be representative of the society that it serves.

“If the public is to have faith in us, we have to look like what society looks like.”

Those traits that would be seen as powerful in men are not always seen as good qualities in women.

– Jill Minne

During her career, Jill says she has found help along the way from both men and women and dismisses any suggestion that so-called “Queen Bee Syndrome” is anything more than a myth.

“This really exercises me,” she says, holding firm to a view that women are judged differently than men when it comes to their style of leadership – getting accused unfairly of “sharp elbows”.

That seems to be a view broadly shared by Tina McKenzie, who is chair of the Federation of Small Businesses NI, CEO of Grafton Recruitment Group, and a former politician with NI21.

“When I’m assertive, they call me aggressive,” she notes, with a wry shrug.

“When I’m speaking out, they say you’re being loud.

“When you’re being authoritative, they say you’re being controlling. When you’re being the leader, they say you’re being Queen Bee.”

Tina believes that is all a “hang-over” from discrimination in society at a time when it was more unusual to find women in positions of power.

I’m not easily intimidated because I just think, you know what, I’m as good as you and we’re all the same.

– Tina McKenzie

And for women who have reached those higher-ranking positions, she adds that it is important to call out issues of inequality when they arise.

“The more senior you get, the challenges become different,” she notes.

“So making sure you challenge and call out where your pay is different, where your share options are different – why? Why is that?”

Life itself can also provide plenty of stumbling blocks along the way and, for Tina, the loss of her big sister when she was in her 30s was a devastating blow.

“She was a big sister that really looked after me and inspired me and encouraged me through all my failures,” she said.

“She was just a wonderful person and it’s funny because I think the people we lose tend to be the best people and I don’t know why that’s the case ...”

  • VIDEO: UTV VOICES - Part 2

Dr Joanne Stuart OBE, a director of Catalyst Inc and former chair of the Institute of Directors NI, has also had to overcome hurdles in her career.

Having worked in very male-dominated environments in the steel, automotive and technology industries, she recalls how she was once the only female senior manager in a particular company and how workplace equality wasn’t what it should have been.

“I was the only senior manager who didn’t drive a Mercedes – which was the franchise that we had – I had a Peugeot 205,” she said.

“And if the receptionist wasn’t in, it was always me that had to provide the cover …”

I was invited to meetings because I was a woman and they needed a woman. But I thought, well, that’s an opportunity - because next time you’ll want me because of what I’m contributing, not just because I’m a woman.

– Joanne Stewart

However, she feels significant progress has been made and women are much more visible now in every sector in Northern Ireland and at senior levels.

“Actually, now I go to meetings and there’s a token man there!” she added.

But it was when her career was thriving that Joanne actually experienced a breakdown that resulted in stepping away from work for three months.

Speaking about how she “pushed through a few things that should have been alarm signs”, she feels it is hugely important to look after your mental health.

“Be kind to yourself,” she advises.

“As you go through your career journey, there’s many bumps on the road, things won’t quite work out, things will fail, but it’s about learning from that and that builds you as an individual.

“It’s really important that you don’t put yourself down.”

  • VIDEO: UTV VOICES - Part 3

The theme for this year’s International Women's Day is #BalanceForBetter.

And yes, there is also an International Men’s Day – Tuesday 19 November.