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Why the GAA has some distance to travel if it is to achieve the 40 per cent gender balance in its leadership within two years

A general view of Croke Park. Photo by: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

A general view of Croke Park. Photo by: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Sean McGoldrick

Sports Minister Jack Chambers has fired the starting pistol in what will prove a problematic journey for the country’s leading sports organisation in the next two years.

Essentially, Sport Ireland and the Minister want women to make up 40 per cent of the leadership of sporting organisations by the end of 2023.

He warned that organisations may face gender quotas in the years ahead if that target is missed and suggested in a radio interview that government funding will be cut unless the issue is addressed.

The story didn’t last too long in the news cycle, but it has serious ramifications for the GAA.

One could take the pragmatic view. After all, governments set targets all the time, think climate change or medical waiting lists. They are never met, and nobody bats an eyelid.

This might prove the exception. The Olympic Federation of Ireland, Swim Ireland and the GPA are among the organisations which have already exceeded the 40 per cent target. Others are making progress.

Let’s be frank here, the big three, the GAA, the FAI and the IRFU have so much ground to make up it is difficult to see how they could achieve the 40 per cent target within two years.

The scarcity of female delegates at any GAA Congress is particularly noticeable. In my 40 years-plus reporting on the GAA I have yet to see a female sit at the top table during the GAA’s annual meeting.

We have yet to have a female provincial chairperson, a female GAA trustee or a female GAA Presidential candidate. The GAA glass ceilings has proven particularly difficult to smash through.

Donegal’s Noreen Doherty was the first women to be elected secretary of a county board in 1992. She later served on the Central Council.

But her breakthrough didn’t set a trend - although one of her successors was also a female: Crona Regan was just 22 when she was elected to the post in 2006.

There have been other female county GAA secretaries like Margaret Doyle – who was 27 years in the post in Wexford - and Kildare’s Kathleen O’Neill and Christine Murray.

Female County Board chairpersons are a rarer breed.

Eileen Jennings was elected chair of the European County Board in 2006, while Roisin Jordan served as Tyrone chairperson in the last decade.

At the moment the most high-profile female volunteer in the GAA is Cork secondary school principal Tracey Kennedy, who was elected the first-ever female chairperson of Cork County Board in 2017. She is now Cork’s Central Council delegate and has been a regular contributor to debates on the floor of Congress.

In her final address as chairperson to the Cork Convention she said the GAA as an association, leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to gender balance.

Later in an interview, she said the GAA needs to look at ways of encouraging more women to take on leadership roles in the association.

“Women are often slower to put themselves forward than men are and may need to be convinced that they have the skills for a particular role, and they are still the primary caregivers in many families.

“Women feel that they have to meet all the criteria at job applications whereas men will apply if they only meet one or two. The only people who are surprised by the fantastic performance of women, are men,” she told the Irish Times.

One of her projects during her Cork term was carrying out an audit on the number of women involved in GAA clubs in the county and it revealed that more than 50 held officer positions among the county’s 259 clubs (the largest amount in Ireland by a mile).

But the GAA has some distance to travel if it is to achieve the 40 per cent gender balance in its leadership within two years.

Ultimately the solution could lie in the proposal to bring the two female branches of the GAA family - the camogie association and the ladies GAA football association - under the same organisational umbrella as the GAA.

The Association has a packed agenda at the moment. They may be tempted to put the gender issue at the bottom of their ‘must do’ list. That would be a very costly mistake in every sense.

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