A woman has been promoted to the rank of general in the Defence Forces for the first time and is taking up a key leadership role in an overseas mission.
It is the latest in a series of “firsts” for Galway city born Maureen O’Brien, who has risen to the rank of brigadier general.
General O’Brien has been appointed as deputy force commander in the Undof mission on the Golan Heights, a strategic and highly contentious area on the Israeli-Syrian border.
She takes up the post immediately for an initial appointment of one year, which could be extended.
Promotion to general follows her career successes in becoming the first female lieutenant colonel in 2011 and colonel in 2016.
But her proudest moment to date was to be appointed the first female battalion commander when she took charge of the 27 Infantry Battalion in Dundalk in 2012.
General O’Brien told Independent.ie: “If you are in the infantry corps, it is the pinnacle of your career to be made a battalion commander.
“And that was a very important day for me to be given that role”.
She admitted she had a reputation for being forthright in her views and suggested that the title for her biography, should she write one, would be “Sticking to my guns”.
General O’Brien has extensive overseas experience and her first two deployments were with the Unifil peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.
All of her postings with peace missions overseas have been in difficult spots and as a result she is one of the most accomplished officers operationally in the Defence Forces.
She also served with Minurso in Western Sahara, where she realised as a young captain how much women could contribute to a military organisation, and with Untaet in East Timor while she became the female deputy commanding officer of an infantry battalion with Minurcat at Chad.
It has been a long, hard road for women over the past four decades to be fully accepted into the Defence Forces.
The first four women joined the cadet school in 1980 and after commissioning they were members of the Women’s Service Corps, allocated mostly administrative tasks within their units and on service overseas they were sent to office appointments at headquarters.
Full integration of women within the Defence Forces came in October 1981 when the corps was disbanded and on the same day, the first female recruit platoon passed out in McDonagh barracks in the Curragh.
But it was a further eleven years before the non combatant policy for women was withdrawn and females could fully participate in all roles.
General O’Brien agrees with Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett that the current ratio of women in the military, standing at 6.7pc at home and slightly over 7pc overseas, is not good enough.
Vice Admiral Mellett said huge efforts have been made in recent recruitment campaigns to attract more women into the military and said there were several reasons why the numbers were so small.
He said studies showed that women, in most countries, were socialised from a young age to fulfil stereotypical “feminine” roles and not to opt for careers such as STEM (science, technology, engineering or maths) or the military.
Conversely, he said, the socialisation of young males predisposed them to more “masculine” pursuits.
There was strong evidence of various gatekeepers such as career counsellors not championing careers in the military for women, he added.
Studies also suggested that the strongest gatekeepers preventing women joining the military were parents.
General O’Brien accepted she was not a girlie girl growing up and was more focused on her ability as an athlete with a will to win than playing with dolls.
She recognised there had been massive change in the organisation since she joined, after a short spell as a teacher with a background in science, in 1981 when there was only one female role model, Maureen McEnery in the cadet school.
Vice Admiral Mellett said women had a crucial role to play in dealing with conflict. A key indicator of conflict was the gender gap and the larger the gender gap, the more likely a country was to be involved in intra and interstate conflict.
For the Defence Forces, achieving greater gender balance and normalising a gender perspective were drivers of capability. In male dominated military organisations, women, gender, equality, diversity and inclusion were all matters of leadership, which would enable women in peacekeeping to become force multipliers for better outcomes, he added.
In her new role, General O’Brien said she would be “the boots on the ground” for the force commander, ensuring that directives were being met while another responsibility was to liaise with the Israeli defence forces.