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Covid-19 has been a war on women


by Dearbhail McDonald
30th Jun 2021

From health care to personal care, restaurants and retail, to lower paid and lower status jobs exposing them to high risks – women have borne the brunt of the largest global recession since the 1930s.

Shouldering the burdens of care in the healthcare system as well as the home, women have been largely absent from the leadership and the decision-making bodies affecting all of our lives. For too many, there was also the shadow pandemic of child abuse and domestic violence to contend with.

 As we emerge from this crisis, Dearbhail McDonald looks at what we have learnt from one of the deadliest global pandemics in modern history. 

Has Covid-19 unleashed the most severe setback to women’s liberation in a lifetime? Or has it finally heralded the changes to the way we work and live that are so desperately needed? What are the challenges that business leaders see ahead, and what plans do they have to support women in the workplace?  

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It was in those quiet days after Christmas, 2019, just before the dawn of the new year, when Doctor Niamh Lynch went into prepper mode.

Lynch, a consultant paediatrician at Bon Secours Hospital in Cork, had been doom scrolling on social media, anxious to find out about more about an emerging, unidentifiable pneumonia causing widespread illness and deaths in Wuhan, China.

It was a mysterious contagious disease that we now know only too well as Covid-19, which has claimed almost four million lives around the world, resulting in more than 600,000 deaths in the United States alone.

Within weeks, Lynch had ordered surgical masks, goggles, sanitiser, gloves and even an advanced suture kit, the latter in case she needed to stitch a family member or neighbour back together.

She topped up on antibiotics, retrieved prescription steroids from her cupboards and made sure she had enough medication for Kailash, her beloved, 18-year old Nepali street dog.

She stopped short of buying a generator, but admits to actively searching for one online.

Within weeks, Lynch had ordered surgical masks, goggles, sanitiser, gloves and even an advanced suture kit

The highly decorated consultant, winner of The James M O’Donovan Medical Prize, The Pearson Medal for Surgery and The John Kelly Prize for Clinical Surgery, laughs a little about her survivalist stockpiling spree now.

Doctor Niamh Lynch, a consultant paediatrician at Bon Secours Hospital in Cork
Doctor Niamh Lynch, a consultant paediatrician at Bon Secours Hospital in Cork

But Lynch was more attuned than most to the emerging threat of the novel coronavirus as she had witnessed a major public health crisis first hand.

A disaster planning course was the Cupid’s bow and arrow that brought the now married mum of two and her humanitarian/disaster specialist husband, the UCC law lecturer Dr. Doug Cubie, together. The couple were both volunteering in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2003, when the SARS epidemic took hold. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a viral respiratory disease caused by a SARS-associated coronavirus, claimed 774 lives, mostly in the Far East.

A terrifying foreshock, which killed one in ten of those who were infected before it was successfully contained, SARS served as a cautionary, if largely ignored prequel, by the West at least, of what was to come.

For Lynch, as for many healthcare workers, fear and anxiety stalked the early days of the pandemic, when then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned on St Patrick’s Day 2020 – ahead of Ireland’s first wave – that “never will so many ask so much of so few”.

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“I’ve never seen or felt anything like it in my lifetime” Dr Ilona Duffy. Photo: Getty

It was a fear that was realised for many on the frontline, including Dr Ilona Duffy, a Monaghan GP, who caught Covid-19 in the first wave of the pandemic.

The medical director of the out-of-hours service in the border region, she set up an end-of-life care service for elderly people dying in great numbers in nursing homes at that time.

“I’ve never seen or felt anything like it in my lifetime,” says Duffy, whose now 86-year-old father, Dr Eamonn Duffy, insisted on attending their Swan Park surgery every day to field calls from distressed families and attend to patients as best he could during those initial, terrifying weeks. “As GPs, we were also on the frontline,” says Duffy, who said that it meant the world to families that she could look after dying parents whom they could not visit at that time.

“We were able to give many of our patients, whose life histories we know so well, our neighbours and friends, a better death.”

Duffy’s biggest fear was placing her own family at risk, a fear which was realised when her husband and two of her children caught Covid-19, despite Duffy taking all precautions with PPE equipment and other measures.

“The cost to me, as a woman, has been severe, yet it seemed all of the major policy decisions were made by men,” she observes, ruefully.

As Ireland surged, some say sleepwalked, into its deadliest third wave last January (the 45 days period from 1st January to 15th February 2021 saw 40 per cent of all deaths and over 50pc of COVID-19 cases in the country) Niamh Lynch blew a proverbial fuse.

What lit the first spark for Lynch was the dismissal of a female colleague who had researched the link between menopause and Long Covid. Long Covid is a term to describe the effects of Covid-19 that continue for weeks or months beyond the initial illness and whose serious effects are now being recognised.

Lynch, who witnessed daily the effects of the response to the virus, the impacts on colleagues, and the impacts on patients whose mental health was adversely affected by lockdowns and being unable to visit loved ones in nursing homes, was furious on her colleague’s and on women’s behalf. But her rage was, in truth, more of a slow burning fuse.

It lay in the inescapable fact that women were bearing a disproportionate burden of the pandemic. It lay in the nightly vista of men in power beamed into our TV sets with the only women present doing sign language behind them.

It lay in what V has coined as an outbreak of “disaster patriarchy”. V, (formerly Eve Ensler) is the activist, feminist and playwright best known for her iconic play, The Vagina Monologues. She argues that Covid-19 has unleashed the most severe setback to women’s liberation in her lifetime. Many agree.

“The cost to me, as a woman, has been severe, yet it seemed all of the major policy decisions were made by men”

“The dialogue was predominantly male,” says Lynch. “It was a male led response. Women are half the population, we’re not a specialist interest group. There needed to be some sort of female voice at the table, even if we had to make the table ourselves.”

And that’s how Covid Women’s Voices (CWV), a coalition of female healthcare workers, teachers, academics, psychiatrists, lawyers and many others, was born.

Within days of starting a WhatsApp group to vent her frustration at the lack of women in key decision-making processes during the pandemic, Lynch was overwhelmed by women from all sectors and all across the country sharing similar concerns.

A “mnáfesto” was quickly created. Soon, a ground-breaking letter to the country’s media, was penned. The letter called for the provision of free childcare for healthcare workers during Level 5 restrictions, in-person schooling for a select group of essential workers, as well as “special protections’’ for care workers living in direct provision,

Thereafter, the women took to the airwaves in their droves, with some of CWV’s members becoming household names. Motivated by anger, an eclectic Irish female fightback began.

“There needed to be some sort of female voice at the table, even if we had to make the table ourselves.”

Women on the frontline

If the battle against Covid-19 is akin to a war, the proposition that women are on the frontline is beyond dispute. From health care to personal care, restaurants and retail, and low paid jobs exposing them to high risks, women have borne the socio-economic brunt of the Covid crisis.

Around the world, more than 80 per cent of healthcare workers are female. Meanwhile the majority of care workers, those looking after the elderly and people with a disability, are also female, often holding precarious, part time roles in nursing homes and elsewhere.

The emotional toll of the pandemic will have long lasting impacts for those who served on the frontline. One of the most senior executives in Irish healthcare, Mary Day, is worried that we will suffer an exodus of some of our most experienced nurses and doctors in the wake of the pandemic.

blank Mary Day

Day is the Chief Executive of St James’s Hospital, Dublin, Ireland’s largest acute academic teaching hospital. When the pandemic reached Ireland, Day was serving as Chief Executive of the Ireland East Hospital group, the largest and most complex of Ireland’s hospital groups, comprising 11 hospitals. The former nurse interviewed for the role of St James’s CEO on the weekend Ireland had its first case. She took up her role in June 2020, just as RTE’s Investigates team wrapped up 30 days of filming the Covid battle inside St James.

With the full co-operation of staff, patients and families, RTÉ had up to four camera operators filming in the hospital for up to 12 hours a day.

“It was a very honest portrayal of the frontline battle,” says Day who says that working in a continuous emergency situation can only take its toll on staff and on the health system.

“The best of us can only do that for a period of time,” she says, adding that the pandemic shone a light on the endemic weaknesses of our health infrastructure.

“It was a very honest portrayal of the frontline battle”

At the height of Ireland’s third wave last January, St James’s was overcome, with Day and her executive team managing high numbers of deaths, an emergency exacerbated by severe staff absences – at one stage its Covid ward’s staffing levels were down by 40 per cent.

With nurses and doctors managing their own battles with Long Covid, exhaustion and post-traumatic stress, Day worries about how to support the women and men on the frontline who lived through Covid.

“We will probably lose a percentage of our workforce,” she predicts, adding that very experienced nursing staff and consultants may not return once the crisis subsides.

“It was tough. And the impact for our workforce was really around childcare, especially when the schools closed. There was an added guilt as well, when our female population couldn’t take that time off, there was so much heightened worry and anxiety, which raises questions about how we support the female population, how do we support caring?”.

The Covid-19 pandemic has, of course, had serious negative effects on both women and men, the latter of whom are more likely to contract severe forms of COVID-19 and die from the infection.

"When our female population couldn’t take that time off, there was so much heightened worry and anxiety"

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In 2020 alone, women globally lost more than 64 million jobs, which equals 5 per cent of the total jobs held by women. Photo: Getty

However, many global organisations including McKinsey, the European Commission, Forbes and the World Bank have highlighted how women are disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic globally. For its part, the United Nations has warned that, overall, Covid-19 is likely to set gender equality back by decades.

It’s easy to see why. Women’s employment was disproportionately impacted because of ‘close contact’ restrictions on service jobs and the knock on effect of closures of schools and childcare facilities.

The economic impact is stark. In 2020 alone, women globally lost more than 64 million jobs, which equals 5 per cent of the total jobs held by women, according to Oxfam International.

By comparison, 3.9 per cent of men’s jobs were lost last year. This loss of jobs due to the Covid-19 crisis cost women around the world at least $800 billion in earnings.

Burnout was also another major factor. In a McKinsey and Lean In survey of North American female employees, one in four women said they were thinking about reducing or leaving paid work due to the pandemic, citing company inflexibility, caring responsibilities and stress.

The United Nations has warned that, overall, Covid-19 is likely to set gender equality back by decades.

Closer to home, women were also struggling. Last March, Ibec, Ireland’s largest lobby & business representative group, published a research paper on the impact of Covid on women in business. The survey confirmed that Covid-19 has accentuated long-standing gender imbalances, threatening hard-won markers of gender equity.

Twenty per cent of companies surveyed noted a change in the position of women in the past year, with employers specifically mentioning increased pressure on female workers and increased childcare responsibilities due to home-schooling.

Covid-19 has accentuated long-standing gender imbalances, threatening hard-won markers of gender equity.

The research found that women had more early starts, late finishes and time off requests to look after children and elderly family members.

“Traditional roles did appear to be defaulted to during the pandemic,” says Dr Kara McGann, head of social policy with Ibec. “We saw so many reverting to outdated gender norms, with senior women talking to me about feeling like a 1950s housewife again. How can we be here again, with all the work we have done to progress equality?

McGann argues that men have to be involved in the discussion around the care burden, otherwise gender equality will remain a women’s issue rather than what it is, namely a societal one.

Dr Kara McGann, head of social policy with Ibec
Dr Kara McGann, head of social policy with Ibec

“Senior women [were] talking to me about feeling like a 1950s housewife again"

The lack of women’s voices also concerned McGann, who says that the post-pandemic economic recovery must be viewed through a gender lens.

The lack of women in decision-making is stark. Last month (June), the Council of the European Union highlighted the socio-economic impact of Covid-19 on gender equality, pledging to strengthen measures to increase the role and numbers of women in decision-making, including in the context of processes shaping the response to Covid-19.

It noted that only 3.5 per cent of 115 identified Covid-19 decision-making and expert task forces worldwide have gender parity in their membership, while in 85.2 per cent of cases, the majority of members are men.

Ireland is also a gender laggard. Four-out-of-10 of the Government’s Cabinet committees do not include any women. There are no women at all on the Cabinet Covid-19 Committee, the Cabinet Health Committee, the Committee on Europe or Government Coordination, a shortage exacerbated by Ireland’s low representation of women in parliament.

Four-out-of-10 of the Government's Cabinet committees do not include any women.

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There are no women at all on the Cabinet Covid-19 Committee, the Cabinet Health Committee, the Committee on Europe or Government Coordination. Photo: Getty

“You do have to wonder, would there have been a different response if there had been more women at the table,” asks McGann. “What priorities would have been different if we had a greater diversity of voices and cultures around those tables?’

It’s that precise question that sends Harvard Fellow, Dr Gabrielle Colleran – one of Lynch’s early CWV recruits – into orbit.

“You do have to wonder, would there have been a different response if there had been more women at the table,”

The head of department in radiology in the National Maternity Hospital and a Consultant Paediatric Radiologist in CHI at Temple Street, Colleran is also Vice President of the Irish Hospitals Consultants Association amongst many of her leadership accolades.

Gabrielle Colleran, Head of Department in Radiology in the National Maternity Hospital and a Consultant Paediatric Radiologist in CHI at Temple Street

The married mum of two, whose husband is also a consultant, says it was clear very early on that women were shouldering the burdens of care in the healthcare system and the home, but had no representation when decisions that impacted women and children most were being made.

“Our message resonated with so many women who were at home, bearing the brunt of home-schooling, getting no respite and then turning on the TV and seeing only men.”

Colleran highlights the failure to provide back-up childcare for essential workers during the second and third waves as an example of a failure by the Cabinet and others to consider the impact of school closures on women in healthcare, many of whom had to take leave to look after children, adversely affecting staffing levels. She also highlighted the major stress posed by a failure to ensure that many parents, especially those on lower incomes, to buy properly fitting shoes for their children when everything from alcohol to candles could be bought in person.

“Those kinds of decisions would have been better informed had we more women at the table,” says Colleran, adding that Covid-19 has exacerbated not only gender but income inequalities, especially for vulnerable cohorts such as the Traveller community or those in Direct Provision.

“I’m conscious that I am a very highly educated middle class woman,” says Colleran. “People who are middle class can buy shoes online, but we can’t assume that everyone has a credit card or has access to smartphones.”

“Our message resonated with so many women who were at home, bearing the brunt of home-schooling, getting no respite and then turning on the TV and seeing only men.”

Paternalism in decision making led to policy choices that led to older people, especially those in nursing homes, being denied access to their loved ones for an undue period of time, according to social worker, Sinead McGarry. McGarry, an elder abuse expert who is a member of the Irish Association on Social Workers, has been a prominent advocate for a “wide ranging inquiry” into Covid-19 nursing home deaths.

“Women are over represented in terms of staff in nursing homes, with many lower paid roles occupied by visa-dependent migrant women who are afraid to speak out,” says McGarry.

Women (who live longer) also outnumber men as residents of nursing homes. Indeed, a staggering two-thirds of all nursing home residents aged 65 and older, and three quarters of those 85 years and older, are women, according to the most recent data from the Central Statistics Office. “The voices of women living in nursing homes have also been silenced and we need to hear about their lived experience,” says McGarry, adding that elder abuse is inherently gendered.

 

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A staggering two-thirds of all nursing home residents aged 65 and older, and three quarters of those 85 years and older, are women. Photo: Getty

There is no doubt that gender, racial, and economic inequities, that already existed before Covid-19, are becoming magnified as we weather the twin health and economic crises.

The crisis, widely regarded as a “she-cession” because of its disproportionate impact on women, was also accompanied by a shadow pandemic of child abuse and domestic violence.

Worldwide, the United Nations estimates there was a 20 per cent increase in domestic violence incidents across its 193 member states during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns. In Ireland, incidences of domestic violence reported to Women’s Aid rose by 40 per cent.

Sarah Benson, CEO of Women’s Aid, recalls the sense of foreboding as images of army trucks in Bergamo, Italy, were deployed as the city’s morgues and funeral parlours became overwhelmed. The foreboding came to a frightening pass: Women’s Aid experienced a staggering 40 per cent increase in women contacting its services last year, compared to 2019. 

Women said they had been raped, beaten and choked by abusive partners. Sarah Benson, CEO, Women’s Aid

Women said they had been raped, beaten and choked by abusive partners. 709 women said they were threatened with murder, 148 were abused while pregnant, 28 suffered miscarriage because of the abuse, and 340 said they had been raped. 

Benson says that as increased reports of domestic abuse surged alongside the virus, the Irish community and agencies including Gardaí, rallied to protect at-risk women and children, with new innovations such as An Garda Siochana’s Operation Faoiseamh.

It was a level of creativity, ingenuity and collaboration – that also gave birth to the Department of Justice’s stunning Still Here: Combatting Domestic Violence During Covid-19 campaign – that arguably saved lives.

“Everyone worked their socks off,” says Benson, who says that organisations such as Women’s Aid are indebted to the media, many of whom waived advertising fees to help get key messages to abuse victims that they could travel and avail of services.

“I also feel that the public, locked down, had  an emotional connection towards, and empathy for, those experiencing abuse and being controlled in their homes.”

Women’s Aid experienced a staggering 40pc increase in women contacting its services last year, compared to 2019. 

Communication and the future of women in business

Communication was a key element during the pandemic. Dee Forbes, Director General of RTÉ, was finalising her contingency plans in February and early March of 2020 and was about to press go on a pilot to engage its staff of more than 1,800 to work remotely.

“Then, it just hit like a tsunami,” says Forbes. “We went from planning to execution overnight”. RTÉ had itself some high profile Covid cases in the first iteration of the pandemic, with top stars such as Claire Byrne and Ryan Tubridy succumbing to the illness.

“Looking back at it now, what got us through it was a real sense of purpose,” says Forbes, who, like many of us, “took to the sea” during the pandemic to help manage the toll.

“It was that sense of purpose, being an essential service, that got everyone through. That camaraderie, the collaboration, just putting your shoulder to the wheel, that absolutely came to the fore. Nobody missed a beat”.

As well as protecting the core news programmes, dictated as they were by one news agenda, Forbes said that very early on RTÉ realised that the national broadcaster had other critical roles to play. RTÉ won plaudits for innovations such as its hugely successful Home School Hub and its decision to air daily Mass and minority faith messages during the Covid-19 emergency, a move that generated hundreds of letters to Forbes personally from older people who could not attend Church services.  

blank “The last thing we need to end up with, and I’m exaggerating this prospect somewhat, is that the future workforce in the office becomes populated by men and the women are the workforce at home.” Dee Forbes, RTÉ Director General

Engaging artists and creating cultural moments such as the Shine Your Light event – a moving act of national solidarity on the eve of last year’s winter solstice – were another priority for the former resident & Managing Director of Discovery Networks Northern Europe, the first woman to be appointed as Director General of RTÉ.

“It was all about our audience,” says Forbes, who believes the pandemic afforded RTÉ to renew its relationship with its audiences, who donated nearly €20 million to charities featured on the Late Late Show alone since the pandemic began.

“That sense of turning to a national broadcaster at a time of crisis, the importance of trusted news, I think that is one of the main things to come out of all of this.”

What RTÉ will not be doing, is returning to normal. Necessity and technology have ensured as much. “The hybrid notion is what we are working on,” says Forbes. “We are living through a live social experiment and we are learning every day. Had you told me a year and a half ago that our staff would be 90pc off-site, I would have said it was impossible”.

“That sense of turning to a national broadcaster at a time of crisis, the importance of trusted news, I think that is one of the main things to come out of all of this.”

Forbes, who has a 48-52 female-to-male ratio amongst her staff, is worried about how large scale organisations like RTÉ can make this new working world work fairly for all.

“The last thing we need to end up with, and I’m exaggerating this prospect somewhat, is that the future workforce in the office becomes populated by men and the women are the workforce at home.”

The European Council, which consists of one government minister from every member state agrees there is a risk that telework could become an alternative to office-based work for women only, increasing the amount of unpaid work performed by women, in turn reinforcing stereotypical gender roles. 

“The last thing we need to end up with, is that the future workforce in the office becomes populated by men and the women are the workforce at home.”

It is a fear shared by Feargal O’Rourke, the managing partner of PwC in Ireland, who are powering IMAGE’s new Business Club.

“We have to make sure that the barriers for women that we have successfully dismantled over the past number of years do not rise again.” Feargal O’Rourke, managing partner of PwC in Ireland

“One of the negatives is that Covid has potentially set back the cause of women in the workforce, not irretrievably, but a setback nonetheless,” says O’Rourke who last month (May, 2021) PwC told its 3,100 staff to work in their offices or at client sites for two to three days a week on average as in the new, post-pandemic hybrid working model it is trying to devise. “We have to make sure that the barriers for women that we have successfully dismantled over the past number of years do not rise again.

 “I worry about the unequal burden of care that may have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” says O’Rourke who adds that housing and childcare are two major issues that need to be tackled as we emerge from the crisis. “That inequality needs to be rebalanced, not just in respect of childcare, but parental care or whatever the need is.”

PwC prides itself on having the highest number of female partners (at 32 per cent) in any professional services in Ireland – partner admissions in the last 5 years, come in at 44 per cent female partners. But O’Rourke, whose mother is the trailblazing former Fianna Fail Minister, Mary O’Rourke, worries about the lack of women around the tables when key decisions were made. “I often think of Gary McGann (the heavyweight corporate executive) who once said that a fisherman wouldn’t fish in just one half of the lake,” says O’Rourke. 

“We have to make sure that the barriers for women that we have successfully dismantled over the past number of years do not rise again.”

“That’s a powerful metaphor for women in the workforce and in our society.”

As well as ensuring that women are visible, O’Rourke also worries about the younger generation, who need in-person engagement with colleagues and clients to further their careers. “It’s an issue that we need to crack,” he says, adding that PwC will host the “mother and father of barbecues” for its staff and new intakes he affectionately calls “the youngies”, once the restrictions allow.  

“If we’re not careful, in three or four years’ time we will be producing accountants, lawyers and advisors who are book smart but not streetwise.”

An eternal optimist, O’Rourke believes that the pandemic has introduced a greater humanity into business and that we must legislate for the 99pc of people who would not abuse the privilege of working from home. 

 “I worry about the unequal burden of care that may have been exacerbated by the pandemic”

Rena Maycock, the entrepreneur for whom Covid was “a blessing” for both her businesses, couldn’t agree more. The married mother of two is the CEO and founder of Cilter Technologies, the child protection software start-up which found itself at the centre of an early stage funding bonanza after a surge in online child abuse and bullying during lockdowns.

“Covid has humanised the world of business” Rena Maycock

Maycock is also the co-founder, along with her husband Feargal Harrington, of Intro Matchmaking which is about to embark on a series of national and international franchise deals – social distancing has provided a boost for online dating, it seems. 

Maycock believes that Covid has been a great equaliser for men and women in the workforce. While acknowledging that women can and do carry the additional burden of home-schooling and the emotional burdens of family life, she is not convinced that women’s’ progress has been rolled back as much as others fear. 

“Covid has changed the world of business for the better, it has made people more accessible,” says Maycock who has swapped a punishing schedule of international flights to meet investors and customers, bringing the world to her Dublin home office instead.

“Men are much more willing to talk about their home life, they don’t hide it like a dirty secret,” says Maycock, who was also recently appointed to Commission for Tax and Welfare, the body tasked by government to independently consider how best the taxation and welfare systems can support economic activity and promote increased employment and prosperity in Ireland.

“Covid has changed the world of business for the better, it has made people more accessible,”

“Covid has humanised the world of business,’” says Maycock, who admits that her first attempt at home-schooling their four and six year old children was an absolute nightmare. 

“Men are just as likely to be interrupted by a request for a rice cake during an important Zoom meeting as we are. If anything, the pandemic has brought men more into the family realm and family more into the business realm”. 

Maycock believes that the pandemic has also laid to rest the fear amongst employers that productivity would tank if remote and flexible working requests were acceded to. 

But she worries that a recent decision by Facebook – the tech giant said some employees could work full-time from abroad from next year – has thrown a cat among the pigeons and could for indigenous employers and the tech sector where employee retention is a major issue.

For Oonagh O’Hagan, the founder and Managing Director of the Meagher’s Pharmacy Group, and a finalist in this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award, the working-from-home productivity myth has been well and truly put to bed by the pandemic.

“I’ve realised for myself and my staff that we need to meet people where they are.” Oonagh O’Hagan, founder and Managing Director of the Meagher’s Pharmacy Group

“The opposite is the case,” says O’Hagan, who opened Meagher’s online store in 2014 and who says that productivity, collaboration and innovation have all surged in the last fifteen months.

The decision to pivot to digital proved critical when the pandemic hit, not just to negate some of the negative impact on in-store sales, but also because it reduced risks for vulnerable customers and staff alike when the highest restriction levels were in place.

O’Hagan, a fierce proponent of technology as an enabler to enhance the patient journey, initiated a 24/7 online operation to meet nerves and demand, especially when the Government gave the green light for digital prescriptions.

The Medicinal Products (Prescription and Control of Supply) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 now allows for the electronic transfer of prescriptions to a pharmacy via an approved electronic system, allowing businesses like Meagher’s to deliver to people’s doors.

That’s not to say the early days weren’t wild. “We were winging it,” laughs O’Hagan. “All we did was try and do the next right thing.”

That goes for work as well as for home, for the married mother of two. “It is impossible to do everything,” says O’Hagan. “We all try to do it, but I’ve realised for myself and my staff that we need to meet people where they are. You need to figure out what they need, whether it’s kids, parents, charity work or something else that matters to them. Blended work is the way forward, and as long as we keep an open mindset, everything is on the table.”

O’Hagan, whose firm (and founder) have won numerous awards, has been ruthlessly honest about the threats to her business following the 2008 financial crisis which brought the IMF-led Troika to Ireland’s shores. But she is optimistic that with empathy and solidarity, the economy and society can pull through.

“This [the pandemic] feels very different because the phenomenon was thrown at everyone,” she says. “In some sense, we wondered, back then, if we were somehow partly to blame. But the whole world was thrown into turmoil with Covid, and I found a huge comfort in that.”

"Blended work is the way forward, and as long as we keep an open mindset, everything is on the table.”

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Hotelier Samantha Leslie, trustee of the iconic Castle Leslie Estate, also feels that Covid-19 had a different quality to it than previous crises. 

“Unlike the last time the world was thrown upside down, there really was a sense that everyone was in it together,” says the breast cancer survivor who suspects she may have been an early victim of Covid-19, after she was forced to rest for a month on her return from a business trip in Italy in February 2020, weeks before Ireland was placed into its first lockdown.

“Hopefully, one of the things that Covid has made us realise is just how important community, looking after our planet and being kind to others really are,” says Leslie, who has been engaged in intensive, remote research with global experts (whilst reducing her carbon footprint) on preserving the environment and biodiversity of Castle Leslie’s historic landscape. It has been a period of incubation, innovation and reflection. The trick, says Leslie, is to remember that the world will right itself again. “Everything has a gift somewhere,” she says wisely. “It might be very hidden, but there is a gift.”

“Hopefully, one of the things that Covid has made us realise is just how important community, looking after our planet and being kind to others really are,”

For Mary Day, the pandemic has brought challenges, but has also brought out the best in Ireland’s “stellar” front liners and unleashed a wave of innovation, creativity, agility and resilience. “A real positive to take from this experience is the way in which the academic and clinical communities came together,” says Day, who is driving the designation of St James’s as an Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) to deliver, in partnership with Trinity College Dublin, a “bench to bedside” service that will harness all of the progress made during Covid. 

“It has been phenomenal, when you think about it. In March 2020, we had a novel disease that nobody knew anything about. By December, we had a vaccine. That is amazing.”

For Niamh Lynch, the pandemic has brought its own graces, not least the mobilisation of a group of women holding power to account on the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on women. Covid Women’s Voices have appeared before the Irish Women’s Parliamentary Caucus and have Taoiseach Micheál Martin in their sights. 

“I didn’t expect it to become what it became,” says Lynch. “But if we cherish and acknowledge women, we’ll be better prepared for the next disaster. Then, women won’t just be a supporting act, those podiums will bear our names.”


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