Politicians stuck in a macho timewarp

Picture the scene: A group of workers gather for a staff meeting.

Politicians stuck in a macho timewarp

Some of them have drink taken so they giggle or slump in their chairs, or walk in and out of the room to the bar next door.

A woman employee arrives in the room and comments that it’s a little cold before her male colleague pulls her onto his knee saying: “I’ll warm you up.” He gives her a pat on the bum as she pulls away, mortified.

Another woman arrives and a few other boys start sniggering in the corner as one of them remarks: “Here comes Miss Piggy.”

The meeting gets under way and one of the small minority of women around the table makes a business proposal many of her colleagues disagree with. As they make their points, one man shouts that she is “talking through her fanny” and another fit of laughter breaks out.

It’s the kind of workplace behaviour that would make Don Draper, Roger Sterling, and the other power-hungry patriarchs of Mad Men blush.

Anyone watching proceedings in the Dáil and Seanad in the past week would be forgiven for thinking our Houses of parliament are stuck in a timewarp.

Consider the Oireachtas as a workplace or a business. Less than 15% of its staff are women and just three of 15 of its senior management — the Cabinet — are female.

It’s not just the numbers that are more suited to the 1950s; the crudely labelled “lapgate” and “fannygate” incidents have shone a spotlight on how politics is still far behind the rest of society when it comes to political correctness.

That these incidents were allowed to happen in the first place shows how out of touch many Oireachtas members are with what is acceptable workplace behaviour elsewhere.

Why else would a man pull a woman colleague onto his lap unless he thought it would be treated with light-heartedness rather than serious offence?

Why else would the Fine Gael press office initially dismiss it as “silly” and nothing much to worry about until they realised the next morning their thinking on the issue was way out of step with how the public viewed such behaviour?

And why would the woman in question, Áine Collins, have to be so cautious in how she responded to the incident?

The question of whether the environment is a sexist workplace is one that has been raised in recent days, but one that women members approach with caution.

“There is sense that if you don’t like it, then grow a pair of balls,” said one female TD. “This sort of behaviour is acceptable because if you say anything against it, you are just some silly little female who isn’t able for the rough and tumble of politics.”

The youngest member of the Oireachtas, Sinn Féin’s Kathryn Reilly, said it’s one thing being “thick-skinned for the dialogue going on across the floor” in debates but there is a “deeper layer for women” to have to worry about.

“Am I gong to be objectified? How are people going to refer to me? Do I have to worry about inappropriate touching?

“It might be seen by some as having the craic but others might not see it as appropriate.”

She believes the lack of appropriate sanction for such events as have been witnessed in the past week, serves to “normalise macho behaviour towards women”.

Labour’s Anne Ferris said if a TD or senator has a row with a chairperson “and they don’t sit down, or something like that, they can be suspended from the House for three days”. She said sanctions should take place for grabbing another member or using offensive language against them.

She does not believe the Dáil is particularly sexist but said unacceptable language is used in a way it wouldn’t be in other workplaces.

Fine Gael’s Mary Mitchell O’Connor said she wants sexism explicitly dealt with in the code of conduct for parliamentarians.

The Dublin TD, who was at the receiving end of hurtful comments when Independent TD Mick Wallace referred to her as “Miss Piggy”, said: “We need to change attitudes.”

She said: “Sexism is alive and well in Dáil Éireann and in Seanad Éireann and we have proof of it this week.”

Asked if this included her own Fine Gael party, she said: “Yes. I would say it’s alive and well in all parties.”

Labour senator Ivana Bacik called for a debate on making the Oireachtas “more friendly towards gender diversity”. She said overt sexism is rare, but “the general culture is male dominated” and “the heckling can be very laddish”.

Fianna Fáil’s Averil Power said while overt sexism is not commonplace, “the culture can be very macho”.

She hopes that gender quotas at the next election will change that: “In any profession or any environment that is totally dominated by one gender the culture of the organisation will reflect that.”

Fine Gael’s Michelle Mulherin, who is serving her first term in the Dáil, believes sexism isn’t the problem — there’s just a lack of good manners.

But that might be just the nature of politics: “There’s a power play going on and a job of work to be done and that doesn’t care what gender you are.”

Leinster House is not a typical workplace and its members are not employees. It’s more important than that. It’s the home of our national democracy and they are our representatives.

But instead of setting a high standard, they are only beginning to play catch-up.

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