Office Mum stories – Julie O’Neill

I was just 22 when Claire was born… We had no family in Dublin and crèche facilities were non-existent. I found a nice local woman with kids of her own to mind Claire and I had to return to work full-time the day she was six weeks old. That was very tough”

Office Mum interview: Julie O'NeillThis week I meet Julie O’Neill, a strategic management consultant at and non-executive director of, among others, Ryanair and Permanent tsb. She served as Secretary General of the Department of Transport, Ireland from 2002 to 2009 and, in a career that spanned 37 years in the Irish public service, worked 8 Government Departments. Julie also writes a blog about connecting her family in Ireland, China and Australia through a love of food (see end of interview for full bio)

Thank you Julie for taking part in this interview series for Office Mum – could you tell me about your career?

I was the eldest of a family of four and the only girl. I was 16 when I did my Leaving Cert in Wexford in 1972 and there wasn’t much money around for further education so I joined the civil service as a “Junior Ex” – Executive Officer. I had no intention of staying in the civil service but it was an excuse to experience living in Dublin and a way of saving for university. I left 37 years later! Despite joining a civil service where the marriage bar was still in place and men were paid more than women I got fantastic opportunities during my civil service career. I caught the wave of change that began with Ireland joining the European Union that did so much for equality. I worked in 8 different Government Departments including as a leadership training and development officer in the Department of Public Service, and as Press Officer and Head of Information in the Department of Social Welfare. I studied for a B Comm at night in UCD and, as a trainee Policy Analyst with the Department of Finance, I spent a year as a full time student at Trinity to do a Masters Degree. In 1993 I was appointed as head of the Office of the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and in 2000, after a few years in the Department of Tourism, Sport & Recreation, I became Secretary General of the Department of Marine and Natural Resources. My last civil service post was as Secretary General of the Department of Transport from 2002 and 2009. When I retired in 2009 I thought my career was effectively over. I started a small consultancy practice and gradually began to pick up new opportunities. Right now I am a Director on the boards of Ryanair, Permanent tsb, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and the Irish Museum of Modern Art. I chair the Audit Committee at Trinity College and the China Group at the Institute of International and European Affairs. In my spare time I write a blog on links with my family in China and Australia – I love my “encore” career and I think a portfolio career really suits women with our flexibility and capacity for multi-tasking.

And could you tell me about your family?

I met Derry on the night I signed up for the B Comm. He was in my class. We married during our final year (1978) and I became pregnant immediately with my daughter Claire who now lives in Sydney with her Welsh husband Mike. Shane was born in 1981 and lives in Beijing with his Chinese wife Shan and our little grandson Dermot. The “shananigans” in the title of my blog comes from their names.

Did you work full-time when your children were young?

Yes. The marriage bar ended in 1974 in the civil service and I was one of the first to continue working after my child was born. Maternity leave had been introduced but was a maximum of 12 weeks and you were required to take 4 before the birth. There was no option for job-sharing or career breaks. I was just 22 when Claire was born two weeks overdue. We had taken on a mortgage so giving up work wasn’t an immediate option. We had no family in Dublin and crèche facilities were non-existent. I found a nice local woman with kids of her own to mind Claire and I had to return to work full-time the day she was six weeks old. That was very tough. When Shane came along just over two years later I took an extra four weeks without pay. Apart from those 16 weeks I worked full time for 37 years.

Did you have the flexibility to work from home when your children were small? 

None at all. When Shane was 3 I was studying for an MSc at Trinity which meant I had a year out of the normal office routine. I thought that might give me more flexibility but the pressure of lectures, exams and the requirement to write a thesis meant it was one of the toughest years of my life.

Did you have to travel for work?

Yes. During their earliest years I was working in the Civil Service Training Centre. That meant travelling from time to time to attend or to give training courses. When Claire was seven months old I had to go to London for two weeks to attend a training course. That was my first time leaving her for any length of time and I found it very difficult. Later I had to deliver leadership training courses in Ireland which meant being away from home 3 or 4 nights every six weeks.

What kind of childcare did you use, and did that childcare solution work well for you over the years?

At first a local woman minded Claire and Shane in her home down the road from us in Templeogue. When they were a little older, they attended one of the first crèches to open in Harold’s Cross. When Shane was two, and Claire just about to start school, a new child care facility opened in Shankill called Avondale which combined day care with a pre-school and junior school. We fell in love with the place which was set in a gorgeous old house with beautiful grounds. Claire and Shane loved it. Initially we used to drive from Templeogue to Shankill each week day. Then in 1985 we moved house to Shankill to be closer. As luck would have it the plans for the M50 were announced almost as soon as we settled in. Avondale was in its path and had to be re-located to a place that we could not access easily. We had a difficult period of stop-start child-minding arrangements in our home for about a year. There was more than one point when I thought I would have to resign from work the next day because we just couldn’t find a suitable child minder. Then we found Tina, a local woman who would come in to be there when Claire and Shane got home from school and during school holidays. She has been with us ever since and is now like part of the family.

Did it become easier or more difficult when your children started school?

Tough question. In many ways the hardest time was when we had the deadline of the latest time you could collect them from the crèche or Avondale or a set time that you could drop them off in the morning. I spent many a time in a cold sweat on the N11 knowing I would be the last person to arrive as the staff locked up Avondale for the night. And then there was the challenge of getting time off for parent teacher meetings and sports days and the guilt of missing Claire’s first ballet display which I lived with for years (she had long forgotten). I was lucky that Derry could usually collect them on time.

On a practical level, what did you find most difficult about balancing work and home?

In those days I used collect a series of magazines called Superwife and I think Superwoman is what I tried to be. I was the 80s equivalent of I used to batch cook dinners every weekend, bake my own granary baps, scones and flapjacks for school lunches and try to be home to supervise the homework and read a goodnight story on as many nights as possible. The word I would use to describe those days was “relentless” and never having enough time was the biggest pressure. Once our child-minding arrangements settled down it became a bit more manageable and we made the most of family outings and camping holidays in France.

And psychologically, did you find it challenging or stressful to work outside the home when your children were small – did you suffer from working-mother guilt?

Of course I did. I don’t think there is any mother that doesn’t feel guilt at some stage no matter what choice they make. Most of my guilt was about not being around when they came in from school in the evening, for the long summer holidays or the very rare time when they were sick. Most of the challenges were about getting to attend events like the school play that were not designed with working mothers in mind. Then there is the guilt you could feel from time to time about not giving your all to your job. It felt like being caught between two worlds and not being really a full member of either. All that being said, I loved my job and always managed to stay very close to my children. It’s amazing what they (and we) survive to emerge as happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults.

I have a theory that if women can find a way to get through the early years (when children are young); maintaining and progressing a fulfilling career becomes more doable. But sadly lack of employer flexibility means that many women end up stepping back or giving up. Would you agree, or is it perhaps not that simple?

The irony is that it was the very lack of flexibility in those early years that kept me in my job full time. It was an all or nothing choice for me. I continued working and progressed rapidly in my career as a result. In general I agree with the point that you are making but it’s not that simple. The civil service was among the first employers to introduce flexible working arrangements – job-sharing, career breaks, parental leave. That has helped women take time out when children are young but in many cases has also slowed their career progression. Right across the business world employers, public and private, haven’t paid enough attention to the other side of the equation – the resentment that can build among co-workers for instance when women take maternity leave and their post goes unfilled for many months, the way in which we put a lot of emphasis on “face-time”, judging people by the length of time they are present in the office and expecting them to be available to stay late for meetings at the drop of a hat. We haven’t fully exploited the potential for technology as a game-changer which could allow women to stay in touch with their job outside the home during periods of child-minding and to deliver productivity without being there in person. I think we need to recognise that as women our biology is part of who we are. Whether we have children or not, by choice or not, our nurturing side is never too far below the surface and I meet many women who took time out in their career to look after an elderly parent for instance. I’m with Sheryl Sandberg of “Lean In” and Facebook fame on viewing our career as a jungle gym not a ladder. We don’t all tend to move “up” our career in straight lines. We may take breaks at times and we need to value all the experiences we have throughout our lives. There is no reason a woman’s career can’t continue into her 70s or beyond and be fulfilling in all sorts of unexpected ways. I find many women are at their most creative and productive post menopause when their children are reared. I hate when I hear young women talking about their careers having plateaued in their mid-30s!

Would you change anything in your own career if you could?

Honestly – no. I loved my jobs and wouldn’t change any of them. Of course I would have loved more time at home with Claire and Shane when they were young and was very envious of my neighbour’s summer outings to Brittas Bay and the like. But there is no point trying to roll back that clock now. I just appreciate my time and connection with their adult selves all the more.

Do you think there’s an optimal solution out there – a perfect balance that enables a mother to have a fulfilling career while being there for her children?

There is no optimal solution. Every woman, every couple has to find their own way through those difficult years. In China for instance it is very common for the wife’s mother to come and live with the couple for a period of a few years so that she can return to work. That stay at home granny role would not work for me but I admire the commitment to family. I do think the role of men or same sex life partners is very important. In my experience most successful women with children have partners that are supportive, do their share of the housework and child-minding and are comfortable in their own skin. I know several women now where the husband has taken time out to be the home-maker. This raises deeper issues about how men are valued by society and their self-respect. I think it is great to see more and more men making these choices for periods of their career.

Do you think there’s a glass ceiling for women, or is it a perception based on the fact that mothers often look for flexibility or part-time hours which in turn limits their opportunities?

A glass ceiling is only there if you allow yourself to perceive it. I always just ignored it! In my experience women out-perform men when they go for promotional interviews but fewer women go forward. I think there are two issues at play here. One is a self-selection where women decide not to go forward because they are planning a family, don’t want the extra time pressures etc. The other is that, in general, women don’t compete until they are 110% ready for a job while men will go forward when they are 80% ready.  There is also some unconscious bias towards women – a fear that they will seek flexible hours that will limit their availability. We need more open conversations about all these issues and to search for practical ways of keeping women linked in to their careers.

What do you see as the greatest difference between the experience women had when your children were small, and the situation for mothers today?

Two things… The first is greater flexibility, longer periods off work and better (though far from perfect) child minding facilities. I am so envious of women today who have 6 months maternity leave or more. The second is that women are having their families older – I was 22 when Claire was born and at a relatively early stage of my career. Now more working women are having their children in their 30s when they are in mid-career and perhaps in more stressful and demanding jobs. I suspect this can make it more tempting to give up for a period and that’s fine. Just remember you can always get back in.

Do you have any advice for mothers who are torn – who want to maintain careers but want to have time with their children?

The first is to be aware of the resilience of children. There is no ideal way to raise them and the most important thing is for them to know how much they are loved and to build a relationship with them that’s not just about “face time”. Taking time out with each one of them at every stage of their lives is really important. Mine are mid-30s now and I still do. The second is to take a long-term perspective on your career. Don’t be panicked by gaps and pauses. Build a portfolio of interests you love and enjoy whether you are a stay-at-home Mum, working part-time or full-time. If I had known what a long, varied and interesting career was ahead of me I would have been amazed and I wouldn’t have fretted about the small work-related stuff when the children were young. (Actually I didn’t spend much time fretting. I was just too busy.) When I left the civil service 5 years ago I didn’t know how to define myself and I had lost my sense of community. I felt for the first time what most young mothers do when they leave their job. I turned to Twitter for company and found a new network of friends and that led in turn to starting the blog which has opened up a host of opportunities for me, some of them work related. What I’ve learned is that if you’re open to new experiences they can lead to all sorts of unexpected outcomes. Make whatever choice feels right for you about the length of time you choose to work outside the home when your children are young, love them to the moon and back and respect the choice of every other woman. Sometimes we women are far too judgemental of each other. I think it was Madeline Albright who said there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.

Any other comments?

My motto in life, whatever I take on, is to “go for it”, step outside my comfort zone and scare myself (but not too much!). I also believe in dreaming dreams, sticking the “where I’d like to be in my life in 5 years time” on a piece of paper and putting it away and forgetting about it. The power of visualisation is underestimated. Recently I found the list I wrote to myself on the day I left the civil service 5 years ago this month. I wanted “a portfolio of meaningful projects” and I had listed the areas that I wanted to be involved in. Guess what. The dream worked and threw up a few unexpected twists and turns along the way. Whatever you do in life, relish it.

Julie, there is such an incredible amount of wisdom and experience in your words here – thank you for sharing. I can’t imagine how tough it must have been to go back to work when your daughter was just six weeks old – I could barely dress myself at that stage with my eldest. I also found it bitter-sweet to see that although we now have much longer maternity leave, there are so many other elements that haven’t changed at all. You mention that there was no option for job-share or career-breaks back then in the civil service; it’s fantastic that those options are there now, but in many private sector jobs (my own included) these options don’t exist at all, and people are giving up work because they can’t manage full-time. I was also very struck by what you said about the irony of lack of flexibility being what enabled you to progress, and about how resilient children are. I think mothers today worry very much about what we might be doing to our kids by working full-time, so it’s reassuring to hear from someone who has been there, done that, and can attest to a happy outcome. And I completely agree with what you said about the glass ceiling – it really is a combination of women seeking flexibility, or being perceived as being less committed. And yes, many of us are not great at putting ourselves forward if we’re not absolutely certain we’re in scope for a role – men just go for it! I know already that this is an interview I will come back to read over and over, especially when I’m doubting myself and my decisions. Thank you for taking the time to pass on the benefit of your experience to Office Mum readers – you are an inspiration!  

Julie O’Neill is a strategic management consultant at Join the Dots. She is a non-executive director of Ryanair, Permanent tsb, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. She also chairs the Audit Committee at Trinity College and the China Group at the Institute of International and European Affairs. She served as Secretary General of the Department of Transport, Ireland from 2002 to 2009 and, in a career that spanned 37 years in the Irish public service, worked in strategic policy development and implementation in 8 Government Departments. Julie also writes a blog about connecting her family in Ireland, China and Australia through a love of food.

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2 thoughts on “Office Mum stories – Julie O’Neill”

  1. What a comprehensive overview of your working life. It is women like you who have ensured that there continues to be a valued place for women in the workplace today.
    What I thought was interesting was your view that gaps are okay. I totally agree, taking time out for many women nowadays should not mean there is no chance of a reasonable career in the future.
    Congratulations on all you have achieved in your working life.
    tric recently posted…I’m home again, almost!My Profile

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