06 March, 2024 | Posted by Michelle Hogan

'It’s so important to reduce bias and discrimination on all levels' - How We #InspireInclusion at Portobello Institute

reduce bias and descrimination

The theme of International Women’s Day 2024 is #InspireInclusion.

International Women's Day is a global movement which aims to create a world that is diverse, equitable and inclusive.

Portobello Institute was founded by Delia Lyons in 1981, and today, her daughter Rebekah Lyons continues to make education accessible.

As a female-led further and higher education provider, we are looking inward this International Women's Day to celebrate the women who make Portobello Institute the wonderful, supportive, nurturing and inclusive learning environment it is.

Q&A with Lynda O'Neill, Head of Quality and Operations at Portobello Institute

What is your role at Portobello Institute? 

I look after the Quality Assurance processes and policies, making sure they are up to date, and in line with legislation, and I also ensure that they are implemented. In terms of Operations, I just started this role in January 2024 and I oversee the smooth running of the facilities and buildings within the Institute.

How long have you worked at Portobello Institute and how would you describe your journey here?  

My eight-year anniversary is in March! I started in the Admissions department, moving to Quality in late 2019. Portobello Institute is a very different place now from when I started – the range of programmes we deliver has evolved from a diverse range of Further Education and short courses to a much more cohesive offering now within the Higher Education space.

When I started, we offered a wide variety of weekend or day-long workshops in beauty and makeup – there was an endless stream of students coming into the building weekly.

Now our students are with us for a longer period, and we get to know them better, which is really nice. There’s also a much more diverse mix of students because the programmes we now offer attract a far wider audience both in Ireland and further afield. 

The theme of International Women’s Day 2024 is ‘Inspiring Inclusion’, can you share some thoughts on what this means to you as part of your role at Portobello? 

To me, ‘Inspiring Inclusion’ means creating an environment where all individuals, regardless of gender, feel valued, respected and included.

Within the context of third-level education, this means that everyone has the opportunity to succeed. Some of the things we do at Portobello on this include ensuring all of our students have access to the same resources and we create a safe and supportive environment for them to learn. We implement policies against bullying and harassment and provide support services for those who may experience such issues. 

We actively promote diversity in the curriculum and ensure that all of our processes are fair and inclusive. We foster an environment of openness and promote understanding amongst students and staff of inclusion and equality.  

Being a woman, working in education and working in a female-led environment – how has this supported you to retain your career and deal with life as it happens? 

Prior to working here, I had worked in advertising and marketing for almost 25 years and that industry is more male-dominated (or at least it was at the time!). I never would have envisaged my career taking the turn that it did, but I am so very glad of it. For one thing, I know that what we do makes a genuine difference to people's lives and their careers.

Although I have worked in companies led by women before, and I also worked for myself for a long time – there is something very unique about Portobello. I was extremely well supported when my husband was diagnosed with cancer, and a few years later when my mum was dying – the support of the Portobello team was absolutely incredible.

I cannot imagine how I would have managed to continue to not only work but advance my career during those times without that support. 

Through your work at Portobello Institute, how do you inspire inclusion for others? 

We actively seek participation from staff and students in meetings about our programmes and the Institute as a whole. We look for their opinions and feedback regularly.

One of the first tasks I undertook when I moved to Quality was to review and update all of our policies and documents to ensure that the wording and phrasing were inclusive, we offer support and training to staff members on what inclusivity should look and sound like to reflect these updates as well.

The main building itself is a Georgian-listed building so there are some restrictions on what we are allowed to do but we are continually looking at ways of improving, by listening to feedback and so on – such as the introduction of a choice of either gender-neutral or assigned toilet facilities.

We of course have support in place for people with learning difficulties. Importantly, though we have a huge amount of experience with people coming back to study after a long break (sometimes 20 years or more) and we can offer these students guidance and support to get back into academia or work towards their career goals. 

Do you have examples of times when you saw inclusion making a positive impact on students and/or colleagues? 

I remember a situation way back when I first started, there was a student who simply could not afford his fees for a pre-university nursing programme we offered at the time. This person was a refugee who had come to Ireland in a very bad state medically, had been cared for at a Dublin Hospital and had thankfully made a full recovery.

All they wanted was to become a nurse to give back some of what they had experienced themselves and needed this qualification to enrol on a nursing degree.

We met with the student, spoke with their referees and were able to offer a bursary to them. They successfully completed their studies and gained their place with DCU nursing school the following Autumn. This is something I will never forget; it would not have been possible without the inclusive attitudes within Portobello at that time.   

Why is inclusion important in education? 

I think it’s so important to reduce bias and discrimination on all levels. Within an educational environment, people are already primed to listen so it’s the perfect place to either plant the seeds or nurture those already there, regarding social inclusion, empathy, understanding and equity.

When I went to primary school – everyone in my class was white and female (or at least assigned female and treated as one). I missed out greatly. Nowadays, we have the opportunity for people to learn alongside a host of cultures and diverse people, in one cohort. I think this is amazing and important.

Education is not just about the curriculum and getting a piece of paper at graduation, it’s about what we experience along the journey because we carry this with us for the rest of our lives. 

In your experience, how can education play a role in empowering women? 

Education opens doors for everyone. For anyone in need of empowerment, education will help them open that door. With an education, people have the opportunity to gain career advancement, which means more earning power. Money always helps, but more importantly, they will have the skills and self-confidence to pursue paths that would otherwise have not been open to them.

Educated women are more likely to voice their opinions, therefore they can in turn empower other women to advocate for rights and social and political change. Education cultivates leadership skills and educated women serve as role models and mentors.

It’s cyclical – empowered women produce more empowered women. Eventually, we will get there. 

Giving Back

At Portobello Institute we understand the importance of giving back by having a small in-house charity we set up called 'Dochas Leanai'. 

College director, Denise Flood, travels to India and Belarus twice a year with a team of about 15 individuals, across staff and students. Devoted work includes training Montessori teachers and setting up Montessori schools in slum areas in Pune India.

The charity is also heavily involved in supporting training in a girl's rescue centre and a small school for profoundly hearing-impaired children. This involves self-defence training in a community project and sports and arts and crafts camps in a slum school in Pune.

Read more inspiring International Women's Day interviews here.

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