COLETTE BROWNE: Panda or no panda, the war over gender equality is far from over

FACED with a barrage of criticism when it chose a panda as one of it’s 12 female “faces of the year 2011”, a haughty BBC spokesperson wondered what all the fuss was about.

After all, cartoon character Peppa the Pig had been on the previous year’s list.

The end-of-year compilation, a favourite of media desperate to fill column inches during the festive silly season, described women who hit the headlines in 2011. Among the female humans who managed to make the elite list were Pippa Middleton, dubbed “her royal hotness” after her sister married Prince William, and Charlene Wittstock, the Olympic swimmer who infamously sobbed as she married Prince Albert of Monaco.

Conspicuously absent from the list were women who’d actually managed to achieve something other than marrying into royal families or eating bamboo. Like, for example, the three women who jointly shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, or Christine Lagarde, who made history when she became the first woman to head the IMF.

No, what we were served was a list of, predominantly, women who had been passive agents as events outside their control catapulted them into the news cycle — congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who miraculously survived being shot in the head; Nafissatou Diallo, who accused former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault; and US Marine Kelsey de Santis, who asked pop star Justin Timberlake on a date.

Anyone who had the temerity to voice some disquiet about the fact that a monochrome bear made a 12-strong list of the year’s most newsworthy women was accused of having a sense of humour deficit. But, while no one would claim the BBC’s ill-judged list would itself make a list of the year’s worst examples of chauvinism, it was emblematic of the kind of casual sexism that’s all too pervasive in a society where role models for young women, who have not slept with greaseball footballers or come to prominence on tacky reality shows, are virtually non-existent.

Asked if he considered himself a feminist, British Prime Minister David Cameron responded: “Er, I don’t really know what it means any more, but I suspect probably not.” The Tory leader is not alone in his confusion. There are many who view feminism as some kind of hideous anachronism, believing that the issue of gender equality has been fought and won, but the statistics simply don’t support that cheery contention. Nearly 40 years since Ireland was forced, after joining the EU, to introduce equal pay legislation, a Department of Justice report has revealed that recent female graduates still earn 11% less per week their male counterparts and that pay differentials are even more pronounced within only three years. A separate Finfacts study has found that men in senior management positions are paid 18% more than women.

As well as facing discrimination at work, women are disproportionately the victims of violence. The 2002 Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report, the most comprehensive carried out to date, revealed 30% of women experienced sexual abuse as children and 6% were raped as adults. The figures for men were 24% and 0.9% respectively.

According to the ESRI, one-in-seven women, compared to one in 17 men, experience severe domestic violence in this country. From 1996 to September 2011, 174 women were murdered in Ireland and 107 of these were murdered in their own homes. Safe Ireland, in a one-day census of domestic violence services in 2010, found that 555 women and 324 children received support during that 24-hour period and, in its end of year report, revealed women and children could not be accommodated on 3,236 occasions because refuges were full, highlighting the fact that Ireland has a risible one-third of the refuge capacity recommended by the Council of Europe.

In response, the Government announced it was cutting funding to Safe Ireland, which formerly represented 20 refuges and 21 domestic violence support services, by 100% — meaning no more embarrassing reports.

Women are also woefully underrepresented in our political system. Of the 566 candidates who contested February’s general election, only 86 were women. Of these, 25 went on to win a seat, meaning less than 14% of our TDs are women — a statistic that places us on par with progressive countries like Djibouti, where eight out of 10 women live below the poverty line. To its credit, the government has proceeded with its promised gender quota legislation, which will impose financial penalties on political parties unless at least 30% of its election candidates are women, despite the hysterical objections of those who would prefer a more organic non-interventionist approach that would ultimately see gender parity among TDs — in another 300 years, if the current rates of near stasis were to continue.

While previous generations battled institutional sexism, one of the biggest battles for feminists in the 21st century is against the lazy objectification of women in media and the alarming absence of female voices from the commentariat. Guardian journalist Kira Cochrane, in a survey of British print and broadcast media at the start of the year, found that, in a typical month, 78% of newspaper articles were written by men, 72% of the contributors to agenda-setting Question Time were men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4’s flagship Today show were men.

Journalist Una Mullally did a similar snapshot survey of Irish broadcast media in 2010 and found that 90% of radio presenters were male. Little has changed since then as, with the notable exception of Morning Ireland which boasts a number of excellent female broadcasters, Irish national radio is also devoid of female anchors with Mary Wilson, on Radio One’s Drivetime, the only other female host on any national station between 7am and 7pm.

While women’s voices are largely absent from media, women’s bodies are omnipresent — with models in various stages of undress used to flog everything from crisps to toilet cleaner. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf described how women feel under constant pressure to conform to an unattainable beauty ideal that has been entirely socially constructed by patriarchal institutions.

“We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement,” she wrote.

Unlike men, women, everyone from the housewife doing the school run to the corporate professional, are judged not only on what they say and do but on how they look — a phenomenon perfectly encapsulated by Silvio Berlusconi’s crass dismissal of Angela Merkel, Prime Minister of the biggest economy in Europe, as “an unf**kable fat ass”.

The malign influence of this constant barrage of “beauty pornography” is also evident in the results of a survey that found 63% of girls would rather be glamour models than doctors or teachers and most 15 to 19-year-olds see Jordan as a better role model than Harry Potter author JK Rowling.

It’s true that many important battles have been won since the suffrage movement first fought for the right to vote but, panda or no panda, the gender war is far from won.

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