Dr Orlaigh Quinn Trail Blazing Secretary General

Dr Orlaigh Quinn talks about 50 years on from lifting the Marriage Bar

The Marriage Bar was introduced in 1924 in Ireland and it was a ban on married women working in the Civil Service.  The new Irish state later hardwired this philosophy into Article 41 of the 1937 Irish Constitution  which stated that “The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”. Ireland was one of the last countries to lift the bar in 1973 and while things have improved greatly over those fifty years there is still some way to go and change comes dropping slow. According to an ESRI report on Gender Balance At Work in 2020 men are twice as likely as women to occupy senior grades in the Irish Civil Service compared to women with the same educational achievement and length of service.  There are some terrific women however who have risen to the top and bucked the statistics and one of them is the guest on this Women In Leadership podcast Dr Orlaigh Quinn.


Dr Orlaigh Quinn is one of a rare breed. She rose through the Irish Civil Service to become the Secretary General of the government’s Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment in Ireland.  There have only ever been 13 women to reach this position. What is even more impressive is that she was a trail blazer with few women role models. The reason there were so few women in senior leadership ranks was in no small way due to the fact that the Marriage Bar was in place in Ireland. This rule meant that when a woman got married, she was barred from her job and had to resign her position in the public service. In return she received a marriage gratuity -a decent sum of money at the time -the idea was to compensate her for surrendering her job and future prospects.

“The Marriage Bar was also in other countries, the Netherlands UK and America had it” she tells us in the podcast, “but they actually abolished it in the 1950s. Ireland had it until 1973. It applied to the civil service but it also applied to quite a lot of other areas in the private sector, the banks, they just took the lead from us.”

Secretary General Group

All Changed in 1973

The biggest loser, apart from the woman and her family though, was the state as they lost out on a pipeline of talented and educated women who could have contributed to the development of the country over those vital years. They could have carved out decent careers for themselves and built teams of diverse people with more creative ways of developing Irish society. The marriage bar was only lifted in 1973 after Ireland joined the EEC which later became the European Union. One of the consequences of the marriage bar was that there were few role models at middle and senior management levels in the service.  The gender pay gap was another consequence. There is still a gap and measurement of the gender pay-gap has only been started in recent years so there is no historical record to compare.

“I always looked for opportunities, and I had great opportunities.”

A Can-do Approach

Orlaigh has a remarkable ‘can do’ attitude and never seemed to suffer from the often quoted study where women don’t apply for jobs and promotions because they don’t tick all the boxes.

“I was curious, I think there was always that opportunity to do something. So when I started in the civil service, I started in a grade that no longer exists, which was Clerical Assistant, a very low level, the lowest of the low. I started in a department that no longer exists, which was Post and Telegraphs.  I started on the digitalization of the phone directory, which also no longer exists. So I’m officially a dinosaur from my early career.  I always looked for opportunities, and I had great opportunities.”

One thing she credits her success to is a thirst for education which her family were very supportive of.

“My parents never went past primary school, my mother had a scholarship, but couldn’t take it up. They were both north inner city people in Dublin. My father had to take up a job as soon as his father died. So education to them was hugely important. And I think both of them regretted that they didn’t have formal education. Their ambition was to make sure that we all were educated to secondary level. And at that time, that was fee paying. Again, when you look back, it’s not that long ago. I think for a lot of people, women and men, education was very much the route out of poverty, and the route to good jobs and good good livelihoods.”

Europe The Key To Economic Growth and Education

Europe and development funds allocation were key to Irish social and economic development she says. “So the EU was hugely important, and still is, in terms of the funding that is provided. And then obviously, Ireland made huge strides based on the funding that went into the colleges and universities. Interestingly Ireland was a bit of an outlier compared to other countries, because we used a lot of our funding on the human scale side, on the training, a lot of other countries pretty much put all their money into infrastructure, into roads or bridges and we were unusual across Europe.”

Working With Politicians

While the job of Secretary General is not a political role she says, you always have to aware of political possibilities of any policy decisions and you must not be afraid to question your political bosses.

“I frequently would say to people, you must stand up, you must. It’s that truth to power, you must be able to say, ‘I see the problem, but have you thought about this?’ And it’s it’s the way you approach it as well. But you have to be able to say to a minister, ‘I don’t think that will work, or have you thought about the consequences?’ That’s your role. That’s the job. That’s why in some ways at the Secretary General level, you straddle that somewhat. You’re not in a political job at all but you are very conscious of the political ramifications and the decisions. So you must speak up.”

Taking Care Of Your Team – Family First

On managing teams Orlaigh believes in investing in people over the long term because it is the right thing to do and pays dividends.  “I would have done a lot of talks, I would have always said, when you come into the civil service, or any job, I believe in very strongly, family is first, the job is second. If you look after the family, the job will look after you. I never believe that people take advantage of things like that. I’ve seen people with really difficult family circumstances and I would just say to the team ‘guys, you know, let’s just gather around and mind this person while they’re out and taking care of things’ and it just comes back to you in spades.”

Dr Quinn has so much to say about social policy developments both in Ireland and in Northern Ireland and how decisions are made which she has a unique insight into and is well worth a listen to.

Her Pearls of Wisdom are excellent too as are her Jaw dropping moments!



Angela Mezzetti
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