THE way things were 30 plus years ago when I first attended The Cork Chamber Annual Dinner and the way they are now in terms of a woman’s place in the business world, is such a contrast.
Picture 800 plus men and two women in the hallowed hall that is City Hall, Cork, seated at trestle tables like schoolchildren, in a testosterone-fuelled noisy atmosphere that was both intimidating and exciting.
I was there in my own right as a business woman but also as President of Network (the organisation for women in business) and the only other lady in attendance was Francoise Letellier, the French Consul in Cork.
I forget who the speaker was.
In those days there were few women in management or in business in Cork, and even fewer willing or encouraged to join the business world.
Having had to give up my job in the bank in the early years, because I was getting married (imagine that!), I got hitched to my sailor and went off to sea for a few years.
A million lives later I founded Hopkins Communications – now 25 years in business. Young, ambitious, and bursting with energy, I really didn’t give a damn what people thought.
I wasn’t a native Corkonian, so I had no pedigree that could be thrashed and was happy to make it ‘on my own’ – always with the fear of failure egging me on.
The Cork Chamber Annual Dinner was the event of the year for business people then and it still is now – umpteen years later. I attended every year, in my element and, as time passed, other women began to cross the Rubicon, daring to square up to the men of Cork and mostly loving the process, I’m sure.
It was your one chance to schmooze with them and with all the other ‘hot shots’ who otherwise wouldn’t give a small business owner a glance. Ministers and moguls mixed easily with minions and eager beavers and most were gracious.
However, I can’t say that being a woman in business 35 years ago and since has been easy.
For instance, I was berated by other women and men for pushing my way into a male domain, questioned on my reasons for leaving my children to perceived ‘strangers’ while I worked, excluded from the school car pool and called a ball-breaker. Did it upset me? Yes, at the time. But you get over yourself. Going to The Dinner was a dicey one: if you went on your own you were making a statement. If you went with a male client you were having an affair with him. If you went with another woman you were probably a lesbian, and if you went with your husband you weren’t brave enough to go on your own! You couldn’t win with some judgemental people.
It was that simple but laughable. And that’s what you did – laugh, and laugh a lot. Because the chamber dinner is the most enjoyable event of the year and thank God ‘things’ have changed dramatically,
The chamber has been good to me and many other women, helping us build successful enterprises.
I ended up on the board of the organisation, chaired the Dinner Task Force for a few years and it benefitted my business no end.
Now women such as the Chamber’s dynamic joint presidents, Gillian Keating and Paula Cogan, a solicitor and hotelier respectively, are volunteer champions of the organisation and will doubtless pull off this event attended by almost 1,000 (600 men and 400 women,) with considerable aplomb.
How times have changed: From two women in attendance to 400.
Powerful women to watch out for tonight include Ann Doherty, the new head of Cork City Council, Jean Van Sinderen-Law of UCC, Anne O’Leary of Vodafone, Claire Nash of Cork Business Association, Marian O’Gorman of the Kilkenny Group, Anna Fitzgerald from Mater Private Cork, Kathleen Barry of Barry & Fitzwilliam, Audrey Burke-McCarthy of The Marketing Institute, Minister Kathleen Lynch and MEP Deirdre Clune. I could go on and on....
We’ll dine on the best Cork produce.
I’ll be there with my next generation (Mark, Judy and Niamh) like an old bird of paradise hogging the display court in the middle of City Hall. Goddammit I’ve worked hard for it!
Mary Hopkins is Chairman of Hopkins Communications. www.hopkinscommunications.ie.