This interview is part of a series on Trailblazing Women role models (Entrepreneurs and Leaders) from around the world and first appeared on Global Invest Her. See what you can be.
Sinéad Burke is a Teacher, Writer and Academic. She graduated at the top of her class receiving the Vere Foster Medal from Marino Institute of Education and is currently undertaking a PhD in Trinity College, Dublin on human rights education that specifically comments on the ways in which schools allow children to have a voice.
Her TED.com talk has over 1 million views.
Standing at 3’ 5" tall, or 105.5 cm (the half is very important), Sinéad’s insight into life is slightly different than the average person’s. Being a little person brings an array of both challenges and wonderful opportunities but Sinéad’s greatest difficulty is that she lives in a world that was not built for her but for you. If you had to live in a world constructed for Sinéad, how would you manage?
Sinéad values kindness, empathy, volunteerism and is an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Irish Girl Guides.
“There’s often this notion there can only be one successful woman. I don’t believe that at all. Find your Tribe - the people who also believe that just because they have a slice of the pie doesn’t mean that you can’t too – we can all share. The rising tide lifts all boats.”
Who is your role model as a leader?
I’d have to pick two people in particular, two women. Firstly, I’d nominate my Mam. She is of average height and married my Dad, a little person. My Dad was born in the UK and he had no knowledge of the services or education for little people here in Ireland. Growing frustrated with the apathy of the healthcare and educations systems here, in 1997 my Mother set up a charity organisation called Little People of Ireland. For the past 20 years she has organised conferences and conventions for that community and changed the lives of hundreds of little people and their families, as to how they perceive themselves, the aspirations they now hold for themselves and the way in which they view the world. They are empowered to challenge that and have autonomy and agency with everything they do. My mother is rather extraordinary!
The second role model for me is Mary Robinson, who became the first female President of Ireland the year I was born. One of the things I really remember about her inauguration speech, was that she said the women of Ireland had gotten her elected, because ‘they didn’t just rock the cradle, they rocked the system’. I live in a country where the Constitution continues to say that a woman’s place is in the home, so to juxtapose that with inherently knowing from the earliest of ages, that a woman could be in the most senior leadership position, was transformative for me personally and professionally. I really never saw an obstacle for me in taking leadership positions because, in a very ridiculous way, I thought if Mary Robinson can do it then why can’t I?
What is your greatest achievement to date?
If you asked my parents, they would probably say my Degree. I was fortunate and worked hard to graduate top of my class as a Primary School Teacher and receive the Vere Foster Award, which is the medal given to the graduate who attains the highest mark in teaching practice. As somebody who is physically disabled, who entered the third level education system prior to a disability access scheme, that’s something I think my whole family is very proud of.
For me personally, my greatest achievement occurred in May 2012, at a competition called Alternative Miss Ireland. My rationale for entering came about because of experiences I’d had on nights out with my friends as a young adult. I had just turned 18 and up until that point was very angelic – had never been to a nightclub nor had drunk alcohol. We would go to nightclubs and I’d be dancing with my friends, as I have a right to do so. But with alcohol in various individuals’ systems, they would behave very inappropriately and abhorrently to me. I would be dancing, when random strangers would lift me up by the armpits, whoosh me into the air, put me back down and walk off. Initially when I sometimes tell people that story, they kind of laugh and think it’s humorous. While I understand that, it’s also incredibly cruel and unjust. I have every much a right to be in that location as everybody else does, and yet because of my physicality and my disability, people feel they can make light of it or use it to increase their own social currency. There were other moments where young men would stand in front of me and unzip their fly/zipper in my face because they felt it attributed to macho-ism and masculinity. It was just awful, made me feel incredibly unsafe and terribly vulnerable, so much so that I didn’t want to go out with my friends anymore.I would make up excuses about being unwell, say I didn’t enjoy the music rather than admit that other people were making me feel unsafe and vulnerable.
Becoming Alternative Miss Ireland Emeritus
One night we decided to go to the most famous gay nightclub in Dublin called The George, to watch the drag show. I remember telling my friends we had to be there before 11pm, because if you don’t get there on time, they give your table away. For most people that wouldn’t really matter, but for me it’s the only space in which I can see the show, because everywhere else is standing room. We got there a bit late, so my table was gone, but I distinctly remember the drag queens looking under the stage to get stools. They put them in the fire exit and called me over, saying ‘make sure you sit here so you can see’. That inclusiveness and thoughtfulness was extraordinary. The show was amazing and afterwards everybody went on stage to dance. They were playing Madonna’s Vogue and I knew all the moves, but was a bit reluctant to dance because I didn’t know how strangers would react to me. I decided to do it anyway and was so surprised by other people’s behaviour, because I was completely left alone.
“In that moment, everybody was different and our uniqueness was celebrated, not belittled or made fun of. I had never felt more accepted, than in that moment.”
So when the opportunity came up to enter the Alternative Miss Ireland competition, which was traditionally for the LGBT community, I as a straight woman, was really empowered to put in an entry. You had to put in a 7 minute performance in front of 1600 people in the Olympia Theatre (actually the stage where my parents met!). I told the story of Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs, told from my perspective. It opened with me on a 4 foot platform, with a 7 foot Snow White skirt, with a narration from Alan Stanford saying “Once upon a time, in a land far away, lived a little girl, who actually isn’t gay. But why did she enter I hear you all say? Is she alternative? Why yes she was born this way”. Then Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way’ started and my 7 tall dwarfs came out on stage, ripped off my skirt and took me down. It was very obvious, this was no ordinary telling of the story. My mother came on the stage dressed as the Wicked Queen and gave me the poisoned apple. In Act 2, I was asleep surrounded by my 7 tall men and my father, who is a little person, came onstage dressed as Prince Charming to wake me up by giving me a kiss on the hand. It was extraordinary.
We got a standing ovation from almost 2000 people and it was the last time that competition was held in Ireland (it was in existence for 25 years) and I became the Alternative Miss Ireland Emeritus. That acceptance has been absolutely fundamental for turning me in to the adult and person I have become. Knowing that some peoples differences may be belittled in society, and that there is also a space that sees those individualities and uniqueness as the qualities that make you ‘you’ as an individual – that experience of entering that competition and putting the act together, is probably my top highlight so far.
What has been your biggest challenge as a woman leader?
“I think one of my biggest difficulties is that I’m unintentionally and intentionally infantilized. I stand at the height of 3 foot 5 inches tall, I’m 105.5 cm and if you glance at me from the back, you may assume that I’m a child because of the height that I stand at. Then you turn around or ask me a question and realise that my vocabulary is not that of a 5 year old’s, and I can talk about epistemology all day! Putting that in a business environment, people can often underestimate you.”
It’s the notion that I continuously have to prove myself and my ability, because I’m a disabled feminist. Bringing in those different intersections of society can sometimes decrease your privilege and your power. Having to re-articulate your values and most importantly, your rights, is something that can be quite tiring and frustrating. However, I am meticulous and tenacious and will continue to do so, because I believe it’s what’s right. I believe it’s what I should be doing.
I don’t have an end-goal in mind of what it is I’ll eventually do, but I was very lucky to have grown up in a family where I was a loved child. I grew up with parents who always told me that anything I wanted to do could be achieved. I may have to find a different route to do it because of my disability, but it didn’t mean that obstacles weren’t able to be overcome. That was incredibly empowering at such a young age, to get that understanding. Having to articulate my value and my worth because of my physicality, for me the Internet changed so much, because it gave me a space where my aesthetic wasn’t relevant. Whilst I don’t hide what I look like online, my twitter, instagram, email, all of my photographs show that I’m this size, that I’m disabled – the internet gave me a space where what was important was my thoughts, my ability to critique, ask questions or be funny. A space where I was allowed to participate in a conversation without questions about my disability or aesthetic. That was incredibly empowering.
How do you mentor other young people?
Both formally and informally. Particularly in Ireland, we don’t have a very strong culture of mentorship, at least in an informal capacity. Perhaps it’s something that is done in the capacity of an organisation, where if you take a senior leadership position there is a responsibility there for you to mentor people who are in more junior roles. In society or the school system in Ireland, it’s not something that’s really encouraged, in the way that it is in other jurisdictions. I had the fortune to be in New York recently and the first question someone asked me was ‘who was your disabled mentor growing up?’. That idea of mentorship being so much a part of your life wasn’t familiar to me.
I’ve been fortunate to have incredible conversations. I remember sitting on the set of a theatre production I was involved in when I was very young and I met a woman there. She asked me who I was and what did I do. Everybody else on set was an adult, and I revelled in that opportunity to tell her all about myself. She was incredible, genuinely interested. I told her all about me and came home that evening completely enthused to tell my mother about this extraordinary woman that I’d met. She asked me who it was, and I said all I knew was that her name was Moya. Then my Dad said it was Moya Doherty, Founder of Riverdance! Of course I had no idea at the time. She has kept an eye on my progress and has been very supportive in a tangible and intangible way. Another example of that is last September (2016), I had the fortune to go to the White House to speak about fashion and disability during the Obama Administration and I couldn’t find anything to wear. I was having lunch with a stylist friend of mine, and we were both trying to work out which Irish designers were thinking inclusively and where we would be able to get something at such short notice. He took my phone off the table and sent a tweet that said, ‘speaking at an international event next week, can’t find anything to wear – does anybody have any ideas?’, in the hope that somebody might see something in a high street retailer and say, this skirt might work for you… 20 minutes later, I had a DM (direct message on Twitter) from Moya Doherty that said ‘Hi Sinéad, so sorry to hear you are having this trouble with clothes. I know how important they are to you. Do me a favour, make an appointment with the Costume Department at Riverdance. Anything you like, it’s on me. Have a great trip”. She had no idea where I was going or what it was for, and we had 4 fittings with the Costume Department at Riverdance and I wore Riverdance to the White House.
Taking inspiration from that mentorship, which perhaps isn’t as formal as people would say it is, checking in with people to see how they are and meaning it- using the resources that I have both social and financial to support other women and listening to them, that’s what I do. Listening sounds like a ridiculous characteristic for mentoring, but genuinely being invested and interested in people, meeting them for cups of coffee and spending time with people and using the network I’ve been very lucky to build up to help others are all things I do to help others.
“My favourite characteristic in any successful person, is somebody who climbs the ladder, but leaves the ladder behind them and helps you up the final rungs. I have been so grateful and the reason I’ve been successful (if I have been successful) was because an extraordinary number of people did that for me. The least I can do is to do that for others.”
Whether it’s meeting people for coffee, sharing my network or helping in a financial capacity if I’m in a space to do so, I’m happy to do it. I very deliberately choose two types of work. All work that I do has to inspire me in some way, I have to be attached to it. I have a very strong moral compass, which comes from being an educator and wanting things to have value and purpose. I deliberately organise my time so I can do a lot of voluntary work to help people and communities in developing countries, or facilitating events to ensure interesting and instigating conversations happen.
If you could do 1 thing differently, what would it be?
“I’d probably take more help from people. I’m very resilient and organised, purely because I’ve had to be to survive the physical environment and the world in which we live. But often that means that I take too much on, or am reluctant to hand over control. When you work as an individual and it’s all about your brand and your reputation, all of the things you’ve worked for to build up the place in which you are professionally, it can be difficult to give other people that responsibility and hand it over!”
I’m very belligerent in doing things myself and getting things done and sometimes asking for help in a professional capacity is difficult for me, because I like to think that I can do it all. Whilst I can, there’s just not enough time in the day sometimes! I’m challenged by that, because I want to be able to pay someone for the work they do. Getting an intern has been something that has been recommended to me, but I was part of that intern culture when I graduated from college (I did a Masters in Broadcasting and Radio) the economic boom was over, so I became qualified in a space and time there was no financial merit for my qualifications. I did free work, voluntary work and learned huge skills, but I do think we have to question the exploitation of intern culture. Because I’ve experienced it in a very tangible way, I don’t want to be employing it. I’m still a full time student (preparing my PhD) whilst doing other additional work, and am not in a position where I can bring other people in to get that assistance. Until I can do that and value their time and experience in the way I want to, I’ll be doing it on my own. It’s about finding that balance, but I haven’t found it yet.
What differences do you notice between men and women’s leadership styles?
It sounds very ordinary to talk about imposter syndrome, but for me I have 3 sisters and 1 brother. My sisters and I, if we were asked to do brain surgery on our most loved person, we would all feel like we needed PhD’s and 50 years experience in order to being to even contemplate doing that. Whereas my brother would read a Wikipedia article and give it a go, ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’. That inherent confidence, is something that is integral in terms of mens’ behaviours, leadership style, work ethic and self belief. That fuels them and ignites their success.
“We women have to be kinder to ourselves, believe in ourselves and sit in front of the mirror and say ‘I can do this’. That propels you so much further to overcome some of the obstacles that might be in your way. That inherent confidence, sometimes conditioned by society, is something women need to get a grip on. Some women have it and can lean in (and I would question the value of that sometimes too). Having more self-belief and confidence is important.”
How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m not authoritative, I favour the socratic dialogue – that idea of sharing opinions and ideas, making sure that voices and opinions are heard. The one question I continuously ask is, I take a step back and think, who isn’t being heard here? Which voices aren’t being represented? I tried to do that for a period of time, but you can only do that for so long, before progress doesn’t occur. I’m also quite good at decision-making, but only when I’ve listened to all of those voices. I trust my gut instinct. If I have to make an important decision I do 3 things: 1) check my gut instinct, 2) ring my Mother and Agent and 3) I sleep on it. Whatever decision I’ve come to at that stage is the one that I make.
I like to facilitate the questioning of things. It’s making sure that different learning styles are being accommodated for – understanding that those around a boardroom table, the loudest may not always be the correct voices, but also, not everybody will feel comfortable voicing an opinion on that space. There will be the quiet voices – how do you encourage them to have a say? For example I use various different methods like anonymous questionnaires, or in my classroom I use art as a stimulus and a medium to bring out voice. It’s about trying to balance having power and knowing you have power, having that power because you are in the most senior position with the privilege, and using that power to encourage others to nourish their creativity and own independence, to bring about a more informed viewpoint. At the end of the day, the proverbial buck stops with you and you must make the decision. Getting the most important advice, not feeling yours is the only opinion that matters, and realising that others have a voice with validity too is key.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
If I could give my teenage-self advice it would be 2 things.
- 1) Be kind to yourself. As individuals, the narrative and the monologue which plays in our subconscious is often very cruel , tough, not very understanding. The things we say to ourselves, we would never dare or deign to say to another individual. Because often those things are so negative, we don’t voice them but they play on our confidence, belief, how we view the world and our own achievements, accomplishments and aspirations. If I could, I would tell myself to be more kind to myself.
- 2) I would also tell her to find her tribe. There is huge value to finding the people who support your successes really earnestly and eagerly and genuinely. There’s often this notion there can only be one successful woman. I don’t believe that at all. Find the people who also believe that just because they have a slice of the pie doesn’t mean that you can’t – we just all share. The rising tide lifts all boats. They will be the people who’ll be there when you are really struggling. There’s not many people we can ring up and say, ‘I’m having a terrible time, don’t know if I can go on’… whatever it is. Finding those people is really important and you won’t find them all in one place. I don’t have a lot of friends from childhood or school, whereas I have lots of friends who have been together since they were 3 or 4. My friend group and network comes in all different domains and enterprises. Realise the value of bringing lots of different voices together and how there can be harmony. Find them!
What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?
Firstly, attaining my PhD on ‘The Voice of the Child and giving them a say in matters that affect them’. I have possibly 2 years left of work. Academia is amazing – so much thought-provoking work is occurring. It’s also a very different space to what I imagined it to be when I first started. When I began my PhD, my ambition was to be a Professor and Lecturer for the rest of my life - that’s what I was going to do. Since then, I’ve had the fortune to be involved in all sorts of activities in different domains and I’m not sure that’s where I feel happiest or most fulfilled at the moment. So I’m looking forward to instigating that curiosity and seeing do I want to work in the arts. Anywhere that would take me and would give me a mortgage would be wonderful!
I want to attain my PhD. It’s a lot of work and is very enjoyable. I hope it will bring me to a different space and platform. I have huge interest in human rights, education, feminist and women’s rights. I’m hoping the work I do to reduce hate speech or introduce a word for little people into the Irish language, and amplifying those voices, will lead to a role, but maybe it will be more fluid than that. Maybe Minnie Melange will become a Plc and I’ll consult!
3 key words to describe yourself?
- A Voice
“I’m currently wearing a jumper that says ‘Be a Voice, not an Echo’, from the children’s department from a high street retailer, so it’s quite nuanced. That idea of ‘Voice’ in all of its demonstrative definitions and something being tangible or intangible, and using your power and privilege to amplify voices that have been oppressed (or minority voices), is something we can all do actively.”
I use twitter as a medium to deliberately follow voices that are not within my immediate echo chamber and amplify them. For example I always use gifs of women, and make sure I retweet rather than quote tweet women of colour.
Parting key tips
About 5 years ago, I took a notebook (I’m addicted to gorgeous stationary!) and wrote all of the things I wanted to do, as minute or as enormous as they may be. Eg one of the things on my list was I wanted to be a guest on the Late Late Show (Irelands most watched prime time talkshow) and 2 years ago I happened to be on it. I have all types of things on that list and continuously add to it, or strike them off as they happen. And I also keep a separate notebook, where I write down all of the lovely things that have happened to me in the day, as simple as an interesting conversation, or a compliment I got from a stranger, or being in Paris and being able to see the Dior exhibition or talking to you! I take that notebook out in difficult times and remind myself of how fortunate I am and also how hard I’ve worked. My recommendation would be to keep track. I also go for a walk every evening and using my voice memo and headphones, I record the important moments from my day. I have a series of audio notes of things of value to me. Recording those notes and placing a value on them, is something I’d recommend.
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