Alison O'Connor: Where have all the women gone? All I can see are the men in suits

Some people don't like quotas, but consider this: it will take until 2063 to achieve gender parity, writes Alison O'Connor
Alison O'Connor: Where have all the women gone? All I can see are the men in suits

Taoiseach Micheál Martin (centre) at Government Buildings in Dublin, speaking during a press conference, with Minister for Climate Action, Communication Networks and Transport Eamon Ryan and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Picture: Julien Behal/PA Wire

“Is it time” read the text from a friend, “for the men in suits at podiums?” I immediately knew to what it was she referred. After a weekend of intense speculation surrounding what level of the Living with Covid plan we would be subject to, she was wondering when the line up of guys in suits and ties would be holding a media briefing to give us the details of our fate.

That very thing happened on Monday night —  three men standing side by side at lecterns, in what is by now a very familiar formation. Just before that briefing for the press took place, one of those men, the Taoiseach, had given a speech to the nation piped in to the 9 o’clock news. 

Prior to that again, on Monday evening, the Cabinet met for a discussion. Around that table were 11 male ministers and four female ministers — Heather Humphreys, Helen McEntee, Catherine Martin and Norma Foley. Men make up 73% of the Cabinet.

Anyway, ahead of that full meeting of ministers on Monday there had been a Cabinet sub committee on Covid. It was attended by six (senior) male ministers. That’s not to forget the Covid-19 oversight group. It is headed by the male who heads the Department of the Taoiseach.

Two days previously, on Saturday, the male head of Nphet, his deputy, a male, their male number cruncher and mathematical modeller, as well as the male head of the Health Service Executive gave a briefing on the national Covid picture in Government Buildings. The politicians on the other side —  all male —involved the same six male ministers that are on that Cabinet sub committee.

As it happens there were also women at that Saturday meeting in Government Buildings. They were the Taoiseach’s chief of staff, Deirdre Gillane, Eamon Ryan’s joint chief of staff, Anna Conlon, and Liz Canavan, Assistant Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach. 

These women would not have gotten to where they are today, and had the staying power to remain there, without being seriously impressive. So there certainly was considerable female input when key decisions were made. But, as it too often the case, the ultimate power rested with the men in the room.

A number of those men have done the State some great service over recent months as we struggle with this pandemic. But the utter male domination of the handling, decision making and public profile of Covid, actually matters on a whole host of levels.

Liz Canavan. Picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins
Liz Canavan. Picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Surely, if we are dealing with a once in a century crisis, the wisdom, intelligence and decision making powers of both genders should be brought to bear. If the entire top layer of people dealing with our response was female that too would also be unacceptable.

As already mentioned, those three women, high achieving in their own right, were at that Saturday meeting. There are also senior women dealing with Covid that we see included in Nphet press conferences, or those held by the HSE. But the names and faces known to the public are male.

The all-male line ups at those podiums are ultimately a result of the low level of female participation in politics, as well as other areas of public life. But with the Covid scenario it stands out like a sore thumb.

Another angle here is that we know something like this ends up affecting women disproportionately, just as the global recession did during the last decade. 

More women will be lost from the workforce because of the often more precarious nature of their work. They face the extra burden of minding children, especially during lockdowns. There are real dangers that the advancements made towards equality and diversity will be lost.

How timely then that last weekend the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality met for the first time online. The topic for discussion was ‘Women in Leadership’.

I was delighted to see that the suggestion of quotas for women was being thrown around like snuff at a wake — because this is truly the only way that women will break those barriers in sufficient numbers.

One of those who took part, Alison Cowzer, chair of the board of Women for Election, pointed out we come an abysmal 98th place in the world in the league table for female participation in parliament. Only 23% of our TDs being female and 24% of councillors.

The co-founder of East Coast Bakehouse said “a short, sharp, shock” to the political system is needed to make change happen quickly. This would involve legislation to cover quotas for local authority and Seanad elections, where 40% of candidates put forward by political parties would have to be female.

Targets are needed throughout the political system to improve diversity and the positions of women — for cabinet positions, Oireachtas committees, including the chairs of those committees and panels. “This is where the influence really rests with Irish politics,” said Ms Cowzer.

In the same session Sinead Gibney, Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, said it is not enough to politely ask big organisations to change. As well as local elections she called for quotas for female membership of the boards of private companies and sporting bodies. These actions “should also be backed up by the force of law”.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaister Leo Varadkar and Minister for Climate Action Communications Networks and Transport Eamon Ryan. File picture: Stephen Collins /Collins Photos Dublin
Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaister Leo Varadkar and Minister for Climate Action Communications Networks and Transport Eamon Ryan. File picture: Stephen Collins /Collins Photos Dublin

 “However we also know it is not enough to push open the doors to leadership positions (to women) if they are not equipped to step through it, or if they do not see anyone on the other side that looks or sounds like them.”#

 Ms Gibney also spoke of the importance of remembering black women, women with disabilities, women from the Traveller community, and trans women — who all face different types of discrimination.

Some people, including women, don’t like quotas, but consider this: even with the one we have in place for general elections it will take until 2063 at the current rate of progress to achieve gender parity. The citizens were given this nugget by Dr Yvonne Galligan of the Technical University Dublin.

In recent times New Zealand is often mentioned for how it is handling the pandemic so successfully. We look with envy at their progress. Credit is given to that country’s female prime minister Jacinda Ardern, acknowledged to be an exceptionally progressive and compassionate leader. Last weekend she had a stunning general election victory. Her centre-Left Labour party won 64 of 120 seats, and more than half of its MPs are women.

As well as that around 10% of the new parliamentarians openly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. This can be no coincidence. 

Prime Minister Ardern has led from the front on issues such as women's rights and inclusivity. She has managed to make women achieving in politics, not in the usual male way, but in a particularly female way, entirely possible. No all male podium line ups for the big Covid announcements there.

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