Celebrating Women's Day: Inspiration from Leading Social Innovators

Clockwise from left: Ashoka Fellows Mairead Healy, Mary Nally and Caroline Casey

Clockwise from left: Ashoka Fellows Mairead Healy, Mary Nally and Caroline Casey

International Women’s Day is upon us!  Events are held worldwide on this day to highlight the importance of women and their influence on the modern world.  At various events women recognised for excellence will speak about equal opportunity and the potential each woman has to make her voice heard.  

Ashoka has a long history of supporting social entrepreneurs (‘Ashoka Fellows’) who are breaking down barriers. Ashoka Fellows build strong organizations and networks that tackle global challenges like education, disability access, and elderly inclusion.  Mairead Healy (founder of Future Voices), Caroline Casey (Inclusion Advocate, TED talk speaker and founder of The Ability Awards), and Mary Nally (founder of Third Age and Fáilte Isteach) are all leaders positively transforming society, encouraging every individual, no matter the circumstance, to reach his or her full potential as changemakers. These remarkable women blend innovation, humour and intelligence, and share their experiences with honesty.  We chatted with these Ashoka Fellows about female solidarity, dealing with criticism, and the lessons amassed on their journey to success.

Do women need to work harder to receive the same recognition in the workplace?  The answer to that universal question is dependent on several factors.  Caroline Casey experienced that her gender was less significant that perhaps that of other women doing this work. Because of her vision impairment, she worked harder to overcompensate and make everything look easy, her gender taking a backseat to her disability.  That identity was what people tended to focus on.

Mairead Healy and Mary Nally had different experiences. In previous political positions before setting up Future Voices, Mairead spoke of instances when she knew if she put forward an idea it would not be taken as seriously as a male colleague’s contribution. “I knew male coworkers in similar positions received preferential salary. I recognized that this may be because I did not have the confidence to negotiate a higher salary for myself.” Now a leader in the social sector, Mairead sees more leadership roles for women, as more women gravitate to this field and its supportive atmosphere.  Mary recounted starting her organization, Third Age, 28 years ago.  She agreed women needed to be very ambitious to get ahead. “It was very much a man’s world. Looking at the politicians and ministry positions held at that time you can see that.  The tide has since changed but there is still room for improvement.”

Caroline discovered when she was beginning to establish herself professionally that her gender became more relevant doing media work. “The media element made me much more conscious of my femininity and its importance.  People would remark on how much I moved my hands!  I was worried about what people were going to think of me.”  As a society we often stress how people look physically.  Caroline remarked women have a tougher time when it comes to criticism and it is important to support and relate to each other through this.

Solidarity was a big part of each woman’s professional journey.  For all three, having a mentor and being able to mentor someone in return is a part of the cycle of solidarity.  Mairead hesitated to seek a mentor, thinking she would be a bother.  But, once she reached out, she found many women who wanted to help her and share their wisdom.  “One mentor told me to surround myself with people who have your back.  These people can be your eyes and ears. They should be encouraging but not afraid to call you out as well.”  Mairead now mentors people herself and finds it highly rewarding.

Mary found being a mentor “absolutely brilliant. She also recognized the importance of having a female mentor who understands your experiences.  She realized a different pair of eyes help you see things in a new way, making you better at what you do.  “Though I’ve worked extremely hard at building up the organization, I have received as much and more as I give. Surround yourself with really good people who help you in your journey.”

Caroline relayed one piece of advice she gives to the young women she mentors. “Learn to say no and ask for help if you need it. I think a lot of women can relate to this idea that we need to be superwoman. We try to take on so much and we don’t reach out to others for support.” She thinks women are very hard on themselves.  She tries to reassure them that, as they get older, they won’t invest so much of their opinion of themselves in what other people think.

Mary, Caroline, and Mairead are powerhouses of innovation and change.  They are also women who share parallel experiences across three different generations, and three different specialized fields.  Regardless of age and profession, women face a lot of scrutiny.  All three Fellows expressed having, at one time or another, felt this pressure.  Their approach to dealing with the pressure and criticism of being a female leader was a solid recipe of knowing one’s self and one’s principles.  Women must surround themselves with positive mentors and honest supporters.


This year’s International Women’s Day campaign is #PledgeForParity, a commitment from men and women to stand up and fight for gender equality. The pledge urges action over talk, and calls for gender-balanced leadership across the world to develop more respectful, inclusive cultures.  If you are interested in helping women achieve their goals and accelerating gender parity, you can #PledgeForParity here.  

This post was written by Quincy White, Intern at Ashoka Ireland.