Hearing that a woman is about to take her husband’s name after marriage is a revelation guaranteed to get my back up. Just what era are we living in, I wonder to myself at such times. What signal does this send out across the genders except to denote a form of handing over of ownership of a key part of your identity?
This name thing is a bugbear to which I have been unable to find a satisfactory answer. I may never do so short of surveying new brides and asking why they are indulging in something so daft. I do also understand there was a time when it was done without question. But this small thing is all part of a continuum surrounding gender issues, some far pressing, all part of how highly women are valued in our society.
Take a look at the case this week of Majella Moynihan treated so appallingly by State institutions, along with the Catholic Church getting its oar in. It is impossible to feel anything but shock upon hearing her story, but there is a horrible familiarity to it all the same. Such a brave woman to speak out as she did; Majella’s story shows how the past continues to come back to haunt us. This was official Ireland, and we still have that legacy today.
In the last few days it has been impossible to forget those happy, smiling photographs of Ana Kriegel. The shots, most of them clearly taken on holidays, were obviously released by her parents, such extraordinarily dignified people, to give back humanity to this beautiful girl, after the appalling details of her murder trial. The ages of those involved in this case — both the victim and the perpetrators have been so hard to take in — but it is part of a pattern of violence against women, often ending in death. You just have to keep an eye on media reports from Irish courts to see the depressing evidence, the ever repeating pattern, where so many men seem so firm in their belief that women are only there for their gratification.
Less appalling but depressing nonetheless were the recent local elections results. Over three quarters of the seats filled in councils all over the country were by men. The holy grail was 30% of seats to be filled by women, but this was achieved in only a handful of cases. There were almost 950 councillors elected and just 22% of those were female. It is proof, if it were needed, that only quotas, just like we now have in general elections, will work. Equally it is all well and good having election quotas in place but you also need to work on sorting out the reasons why women are slow to enter politics.
So for any number of reasons, some more serious, others simply annoying and frustrating the recent announcement that a new Citizens’ Assembly to consider gender equality is to begin its work in October this year is such good news. When he first floated this idea last year the Taoiseach spoke of how “the vicious circle of gender inequality must be straightened out”.
Leo Varadkar has had a steep learning curve himself on gender inequality. But to be fair he hasn’t shirked it. He revealed the idea of this assembly on gender issues in his speech to last year’s International Congress of Parliamentary Women’s Caucuses which saw female parliamentarians from all around the world gather in Dublin.
There are many who will say we already have such an assembly and it is called the Oireachtas; that the politicians there are paid to have these discussions, come to conclusions, and make laws. But I would say look at how the abortion issue, which drove us deranged as a society for decades — often fuelled by politicians — was so incredibly and maturely well-handled through a Citizens’ Assembly in 2017. To be fair when they handed on their work to the politicians they did indeed rise to the occasion but the heavy lifting had been done by the citizens.
On State boards the number of women has just crept over the Government’s target of 40%. This shows that if you set a target it can be reached, but it needs to rise above the bare minimum. In the civil service, at the rank of secretary general and assistant secretary general, 40% of the most senior positions are now held by women. Again we are getting there, but just not fast enough.
If you want a glass half empty feeling just look at the business sector where women constitute only 18.1% of members of the boards of leading Irish companies. Then there’s the gender pay gap. The Government is bringing forward legislation requiring companies to set out their gender pay data. As a result of that sectors where the differential between male and female earnings is particularly high will come under the spotlight. It will also identify the companies with poor representation of women in leadership positions.
This pay legislation is still making its way through the Oireachtas but the assembly will look at the reasons women are still paid less, and find it harder to reach top positions as well as examining womens’ unequal share of the burden of care.
It was wonderful recently to see drinks giant Diageo announce 26 weeks of paternity leave at a full rate of pay, a really progressive policy. In time Irish men will be able to take seven weeks paternity leave, increased from two. But just as with maternity leave employers will not be obliged to contribute anything towards the cost of this.
Does this go some way to explaining why last year only 40% of men who had become fathers availed of the benefit, paid at a rate of €240 per week. This is a relatively new scheme, and those figures are up on the previous year, but why isn’t the uptake higher? Another good discussion point for the upcoming assembly.
A final point, which is another personal bugbear, but unlike the previous one something official can be done about it. This is the Constitutional provision dealing with women in the home. It states: “By her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”
This needs to be turfed out of the Constitution as soon as possible. A referendum on it has been delayed by the arguments of some who want a new article dealing with carers in our Constitution. A worthy discussion, of course, but given the complications involved it only serves to delay getting rid of that other sexist claptrap quickly. The beauty of such an assembly is that these are just the type of issues that will be prioritised.