It’s a woman’s world, at least for today, and that’s reason for hope

A portrait of Dr Barbara Maive Stokes, by artist Catherine Creaney, being hung at RCSI. Picture: Maxwellphotography.ie

Today is International Women’s Day. It is a day to be happy and rejoice. We can decide to be either depressed or encouraged at the general state of gender equality, so let’s choose the latter.

It’s very easy to do the opposite, when there is such an overwhelming amount of negative material to sustain it, but every cause needs to reflect on the wins and the positives, or else it all seems for naught. And, often, it is the small things that give the lift, such as the news that wearing make-up is no longer mandatory for Virgin Atlantic female cabin crew, as announced earlier this week.

We could pick this policy decision apart and sneer, but it is progress, especially from a company led by Richard Branson, who has a long history of using half-naked women to promote his Virgin brand, be it airlines, hotels, space flights, or cruises.

Even blatantly sexist companies are getting, belatedly, with the programme. That’s a reason for optimism.

So is the fact that International Women’s Day (IWD) is not just a day anymore; it’s a full week of events, which companies and groups and individuals can use to take stock of where they stand on gender equality.

Even if, deep down, some of them don’t care tuppence about it, they are forced to engage and to fake it. It makes business sense to have gender balance in the upper management of companies and on boards, and this realisation is filtering down to the everyday level and companies that don’t follow suit are viewed as tragically out of step.

We’ve just finished a year of celebrating the centenary of women’s suffrage and the Cabinet will meet today to discuss gender equality issues to mark IWD. It is expected to ratify the Istanbul Convention, which obliges governments to address violence against women, protect women from all forms of violence, and prosecute perpetrators. This has been a long time coming — the convention was signed up to as far back as 2015 — and getting to this stage involved a sustained campaign by the National Women’s Council.

But why do companies pay to advertise their sexism in the business sections of newspapers?

By this, I mean a group photograph of, for instance, their new partners (big legal firms are particular offenders) and one, maybe two out of ten or so will be female. Sometimes, it will be an entirely male line-up. Who thinks this is a good idea?

But back to the positive. 

This week, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland unveiled eight new portraits of women in medicine, as part of their Women on Walls initiative.

The aim of the portraits is to make female leaders more visible. If you to think about it, the only woman the majority of Irish people were used to seeing hung on walls over the past decades was the Virgin Mary.

The #MeToo movement has its origins in the horrendous abuse of women globally.

But it, too, gives us reasons to cheerful today. How many sexual predators are there who would simply have acted with impunity before, never even suffering a scintilla of fear that they might be made pay for their actions? It’s particularly pleasurable to imagine these absolute jerks being stopped in their tracks now.

In recent weeks, actress Emma Thompson, in a game-changing move, quit the animated movie Luck, being made by Skydance Animation. Thompson did this because the man hired to lead the company, John Lasseter, had previously been fired from Disney for sexual harassment and misconduct allegations. Thompson is a woman with considerable power in the acting industry and she used that power in a letter to outline her qualms about working with Lasseter, and particularly what it meant for the #MeToo movement and its implications for women. It was a big step in further removing the taboo around discussing sexual harassment.

“If a man has been touching women inappropriately for decades, why would a woman want to work for him, if the only reason he’s not touching them inappropriately now is that it says in his contract that he must behave ‘professionally’? she asked.

Elsewhere, we have gender quotas for general elections, resulting in an increase in the number of female TDs in the Dail to 22% in 2016. Hopefully, we will see even more female TDs after the next general election. That still means that 78% of our TDs are male, but even that small, but significant, increase, in 2016, gave, I believe, a very significant boost to what was extraordinarily female-friendly legislation passed at the end of last year.

That was the law that allows Irish women to avail of abortion in Ireland. This is the most significant change in our country for women not only since last year’s International Women’s Day, but for many, many years.

That campaign has not just proven a boost to women in Ireland, but all over the world, and not just for reproductive rights, but on the grounds of general gender equality, as well.

Earlier this week, I was at an IWD event where a woman asked what single thing could most advance the cause of gender equality. It’s a tough question. But my answer was that to make significant progress, women had to reach out to more men and convince them that, in keeping with the ‘Better for Balance’ theme for IWD 2019, the world would be a better place with women and men having equal standing.

Not only might that be the most effective thing to do, it would also be the hardest.

But in keeping with the optimistic tone, let’s decide that it is entirely achievable and get to work on it immediately.

Enjoy the day.

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