From golden goodbyes to shining examples – the story of the gold sovereigns
3 MIN READ
Julie O’Neill joined the Office of the Revenue Commissioners in 1972.
By the time she retired from the civil service, in 2009, she had worked in eight government departments and was Secretary General of the Department of Transport.
But if she had been employed there and had married, before July 1973, her career would have been over before it began.
The law that stopped women from having a career
For over 40 years, Irish women were prevented from pursuing their careers by a law – the marriage bar.
Introduced in 1932, it was finally abolished in 1973 when Ireland joined the European Union.
Julie was one of the first generation of women who were not obliged to resign from their jobs simply because they later got married.
Women were finally able to pursue a career if they chose to, just as men had always been able to do.
Julie did get married in 1978. Five years after the bar was abolished.
‘I opted to stay on working and, when our daughter Claire was born just 10 months later, I became one of the first married women in the civil service to return to work after maternity leave.’
‘It’s incredible, when you think about it,’ says Derry, Julie’s husband.
But Derry’s family, too, knew about the marriage bar.
In fact, his mother owned something that symbolised it.
A gold coin.
When Derry was young, he was fascinated by a jewellery box in the family home.
In it, there was a gold half sovereign given to his mother on her wedding day by his father.
A symbol of all his ‘earthly possessions’.
Intriguingly, he learned that the half sovereign was a gift. Not from a family member or a friend but from a bank.
It had been given to his father from Hibernian Bank (which later merged to become part of Bank of Ireland) where his father worked.
Why did a bank give a gold coin to one of its employees?
At the time, there was a tradition. Everyone who worked in the bank was entitled to buy a sovereign or two half sovereigns at face value when they got married.
A sovereign if they married another bank employee.
Two half sovereigns if they married someone from outside the bank.
Men, Derry’s own father included, married and returned to work.
But for women, getting the sovereign, before 1973, marked the end of their career because of the marriage bar.
From symbols of discrimination to symbols of hope
Julie O’Neill happened to mention the story of the gold sovereigns to Andrew Keating, the Chief Financial Officer at Bank of Ireland, one day.
The tradition of presenting sovereigns to colleagues who were about to get married had long been forgotten and the practice discontinued.
Andrew was amazed to hear the origins of the gold coins and how they were connected to a law discriminating against women in the workplace.
He decided to look into it and made a discovery that changed everything.
‘I was surprised to discover that we still had some of the gold sovereigns just sitting in a safe,’ Andrew says.
It struck Andrew that Bank of Ireland could find a new purpose for the coins.
One that transformed them from symbols of discrimination into symbols of hope.
And, as Group-wide sponsor of Inclusion & Diversity, he knew he could do something about it.
Some suggested that he sell the sovereigns and use the proceeds to fund good causes. After all, they were worth a not insignificant amount of money.
But they turned out to be far more valuable as symbols.
Not of ‘earthly possessions’ any more but of progress towards gender equality.
‘I thought that we could present them to champions of inclusion and diversity to thank them for their efforts on behalf of everyone in Ireland,’ he says. ‘And explain the history and symbolism of the sovereigns.’
And that’s what happened.
Inclusion & diversity
The first person to be presented with a gold sovereign in this new context was Sharon McCooey, Head of Linkedin Ireland.
‘At the time,’ Andrew says, ‘we wanted to learn more about how we could improve our efforts to support inclusivity and diversity in Bank of Ireland. Linkedin generously shared their experience in this area with us which we really appreciated.’
In return, Andrew presented Sharon with the sovereign explaining the background to it.
Sharon and her Linkedin colleagues were astonished when they heard the story.
‘But,’ Andrew says, ‘their reaction was nothing compared to the overwhelming response from my own Bank of Ireland colleagues who were completely unaware of this part of the bank’s history.’
Bank of Ireland soon started to present the gold sovereigns to other champions of change.
The 30% Club
The bank presented a gold sovereign to the 30% club in November 2018.
The 30% Club is a voluntary business network that supports more than 220 significant employers in Ireland, committed to better gender balance at all levels of business.
The sovereign was accepted on the club’s behalf by Carol Andrews who had her own family connection to the story which she later shared on Linkedin.
‘It was particularly poignant for me,’ she wrote in a Linkedin post, ‘as my Dad worked in Bank of Ireland for more than 40 years, and his unfailing support for my career was his personal commitment to gender progress. Our past actions might define where we are, but our current actions define where we can be.’
The gold sovereigns have come a long way from the days when they confirmed that a woman’s career was over.
‘For us, they have become symbols of how far we have come as a society and as an organisation,’ Andrew says.
The bank still has some gold sovereigns and is planning to present them to more shining examples of inclusion and diversity.
Julie O’Neill is now a non-executive director of Permanent tsb, is on the Board of Ryanair and Chairs the Sustainable Energy Authority.
‘The half sovereign Derry gave me on our wedding day brought me plenty of good luck on my own personal equality journey,’ she says. ‘Mind you a supportive husband also helped!’
Find out more
To find out more about inclusion and diversity at Bank of Ireland click here.
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