Catherine Day is an economist and political advisor who has been blazing a trail in Europe over the last three decades. She was the first ever female Secretary General of the European Commission, serving two terms between 2005 and 2015 and has been appointed to chair the new Citizen’s Assembly on Gender Equality in Ireland.
Day went to school in Mount Anville in Dublin and holds a degree in Economics and Politics, and a Masters in International Trade and Economic Integration from UCD. Following a short stint at the Investment Bank of Ireland, in 1979 Day began what was to be a steady trajectory within the European Commission. She has held a number of positions of significant influence, working in the Cabinets of EU Commissioners Richard Burke, Peter Sutherland, and Leon Brittan. A key figure in the EU landscape of the 1990s, she was one of the names behind the pre-accession process for central and eastern European countries, and was pivotal during the 2004 enlargement which saw the addition of ten new member states.
In 2005 Day was appointed Secretary General of the European Commission by then president José Manuel Boroso and over the next ten years, played a key role in steering the direction of Europe. In 2015 she became special advisor to Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president and continues to champion the cause of the EU.
The new Citizen’s Assembly was agreed upon last year, as a vehicle to bring forward new proposals to advance gender equality, and to dismantle the structural economic and social inequities that disproportionately affect women. The Assembly has been given a short time frame within which to work, developing proposals that could potentially be enacted within a six-month period. Day has a challenging job ahead as she assists in the scrutiny of disparities that facilitate the last remaining barriers of gender discrimination in Ireland today.
The benefits of disassembling all-male workplace hierarchies from the top down and encouraging meaningful participation by women in leadership roles are well documented. Several recent studies focusing on the way gender balanced boards and committees conduct their decision-making process revealed a number of significant advantages over all-male bodies making the same decisions. Among these are financial benefits; diverse boards of directors are inclined to make more considered decisions with positive financial consequences.
As Chairperson, Day brings with her the wealth of experience she gained watching the growth of women in their professional lives alongside the growth in the EU. She directly correlates Ireland’s EU membership with the improvement of women’s rights in the country and sees much progress still to be made. Speaking at a DCU event last March, she stated that Ireland’s participation in the EU “has been very good for women in Ireland”. The EU’s focus on developing social values along with economic ones has created a series of invaluable female role models in all areas of society, including the financial sector. It is important to keep this in mind when considering the numerous benefits EU membership has provided, and to demand the same forward progress in women’s representation throughout the decade ahead of us.
As of today, Day is still one of only three women who have been appointed to the role of Deputy General within the European Commission. In the thirty-six years she spent amidst the changing EU landscape she has seen a great many changes to the fabric of Ireland’s society and to Irish womens’ professional responsibilities. She highlights the value of encouraging the young women of today to become the leaders of tomorrow by creating an environment conducive to both the progression of women and the modern values we hold in Ireland today.
Lara Treherne is Graduate Consultant with the L&P team at Cantor Fitzgerald, which provides ethical investment management and stewardship advisory services to non-profit clients.
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