ON WEDNESDAY, at a protest by the campaign called Communities against Cuts, Susan McKay of the National Women’s Council told her audience outside Dáil Eireann that women did not create the property boom and bust but that they would be expected to clean up the mess. “There’s far more women cleaning the Dáil behind us than working in it as politicians,” she was reported as saying. “It isn’t women who run the banks either and when did you last see a woman who said she was a property developer?” Apparently, her comments drew loud cheers.
I happen to know Susan and worked with her in The Sunday Tribune when she was an excellent reporter, particularly on issues relating to politics in Northern Ireland and on violence against women. She is an unashamed feminist, who wishes to promote the status of women in society. All of which is fair enough.
Unfortunately, if her comments on Wednesday were reported correctly, she is running the risk of engaging in unnecessary sexist stereotyping against men, of the type that if it was said about women it would have her up in arms. And rightly so.
If there are far more women cleaning the Dáil than working in it as politicians then whose fault is that? There is no distinction between men and women when it comes to the right to vote or to stand for election. Why don’t women elect more female candidates? In every election there are female candidates who do not get elected, which suggests women are voting for men in preference to women (just as men vote for women ahead of other men if they feel the candidate is preferable). Surely it would be run in any case to vote according to gender rather than ability?
The argument can be advanced that politics is not family friendly and that as a result many women choose not to the engage in the lifestyle that is required. But there are many men who do not enter politics for exactly the same reason, because they do not want to spend the time away from their partner and children that would be required. If they do enter politics they usually do so with the full support of their partners who know what the demands will be but who believe it is the right thing to do. Just as many women are supportive of their male political partners, I believe that the same would apply in reverse – as it already does in many cases – but that the women who may have political ambitions make the choice that it doesn’t suit them.
It is true that the boards of the banks are packed with men but not exclusively so. Gillian Bowler, for example, is chairwoman of Permanent TSB, although she is one of the few exceptions that proves the general rule. The ranks of the senior management positions in most banks are packed with men too. But is it the case that women, automatically, would have been more careful in their lending policies had they run the banks? Perhaps, many of the business decisions that have been made in recent years were testosterone fuelled, but many of the women who get into senior business positions are every bit as aggressive as their male counterparts.
There’s probably an argument that some feel the need to act like the men, to be accepted or to be promoted, but surely it would be sexist to say that applies in all cases, to suggest that a woman who has reached the top in business has somehow compromised her beliefs and nature to behave like a man? The reason that many women do not reach the top at such organisations is not down to a lack of ability, educational attainment or opportunity: sometimes it must be by choice, because they decide they have other priorities. And as it happens I also know of quite a few female property developers too even if Susan McKay does not. For example, a woman called Angela Cavendish has been one of the most active investors and developers in up-market Dublin properties in recent years and was on the board of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. There’s a large property company called D2 Private, which boasts on its website of a property portfolio valued at over €1.5 billion, which is co-owned (with a man) by its managing director Deirdre Foley. Sean Dunne, the so-called Baron of Ballsbridge, clearly operates in close co-operation with his wife, the former journalist Gayle Killilea. Michelle Kavanagh, wife of Corkman Robin Power, who lost control of his own commercial property empire because of excessive debts in the early 1990s, established her own multi-million portfolio of luxury houses for rent during the Celtic Tiger years.
There are many others and I know that in many cases the wives/partners of some of the country’s most prominent property developers were deeply involved in their business decisions too.
Many of these women also greatly enjoyed spending the proceeds of property deals in the country’s most expensive shops and restaurants. Conspicuous consumption – as defined by flash cars and long boozy lunches – is not exclusively a male affliction either and any idea that only rich men enjoyed the proceeds of the boom is not true. Indeed, it is also very noticeable how many of the overpriced houses and apartments built during the boom were purchased by single women or by female friends pooling their resources. Banks and building societies did not show any discrimination against working women who wanted to borrow massive sums over terms ranging up to 35 years.
In addition, I know of many cases where men were strongly encouraged by their female partners to borrow even larger sums and to buy even bigger properties than they might have done otherwise. They were encouraged to do so by women who, understandably, wanted what they regarded as better accommodation for their families.
In these circumstances it is divisive to start blaming men for our economic woes and casting women as victims. It is not only sexist – unfair to men and actually condescending to the women – but inaccurate. All the men I know worry as much as their wives and partners about paying the bills and providing for their loved ones. Just as there are men who feckless there are also women who have run up the debts through excessive spending and who do not know now how to face up to their financial and family responsibilities. More men than women have lost their jobs during the downturn, particularly in the construction sector – and please let no one pretend that working on the sites in all weathers is somehow easier than cleaning the Dáil, especially when men are more likely to lose their lives at work and have lower life expectancy. There are plenty of people who deserve loads of blame for the mess we’re in but let’s not try to divide it on sexist lines and let’s not try to pretend that it’s women who will be left to carry all of the burden. Blaming our economic crisis on men is a superficial argument to make.
Admittedly the case of my own book “Who Really Runs Ireland?” is populated almost exclusively by men, which would seem to support McKay’s argument, but the more significant factor is that the exercise and control of power is influenced far more by wealth than by gender.
There’s lots that has to be done if this country is to get out of this mess, but setting the sexes at each other is the wrong way of doing it.
Matt Cooper’s new book “Who really runs Ireland?” is published by Penguin and is in bookshops now.