Maresa Fagan: Societal and cultural change needed to redress inequalities facing women

Despite some progress, there is a palpable and growing frustration that the female voice was missing or not heard over the past 12 months, writes Maresa Fagan
Maresa Fagan: Societal and cultural change needed to redress inequalities facing women

While more women than men graduate from third level education, a 14% gender pay gap means that women, in general, work for free for almost two months of the year. That is just one of the paradoxes of life today for Mná na h’Éireann.

More women are working and more have been appointed to company boards than ever before but there is still a way to go to bridge the gender gaps and inequalities that continue to face the women of Ireland today.

While more women than men graduate from third level education, a 14% gender pay gap means that women, in general, work for free for almost two months of the year. That is just one of the paradoxes of life today for Mná na h’Éireann.

Women earn less, are at greater risk of poverty, have poorer pension entitlements, suffer disproportionately from gender-based violence, and are under-represented in positions of power.

Some of this inequity stems from the fact that women, by and large, assume the main caring role for children or other family members.

The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic last year brought some of these gender inequalities into sharper relief, highlighting, in particular, the greater caring and emotional burden that women continue to carry compared to men.

This has resulted in more women than men feeling the brunt of Covid-19 impacts.

A series of surveys by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) provides a snapshot of how women across the country have been holding up, finding that around 10% more women than men recorded a lower life satisfaction over the past year.

The fact that caring, childcare, and domestic responsibilities tend to fall to women has left many women, in particular those also working, burnt out, as they try to keep all of these balls in the air.

The public health emergency also exacerbated the levels of violence experienced by women, prompting the government to step up its response and provide additional funding for services.

Despite all of this, the EU Gender Equality Index for 2020 tells us that Ireland fares well compared to our European counterparts.

As a nation, we rank in seventh place across the EU, having made some gains since 2010.

Yet Ireland underperformed when it came to women in politics and in power, a point acknowledged by the Department of Children, which now assumes responsibility for equality issues.

Describing Ireland’s record on gender equality as “above the EU average”, the Department said “substantial progress” was made on corporate board appointments and gender-balance election quotas but accepted that the area of female ‘power’ in politics was below the EU average.

The general election in February last year saw 36 women elected to Dáil Éireann, the highest level of representation to date at 22.5%, the Department said, adding that the gender-balance quota will rise to 40% by 2023.

Despite some progress, there is a palpable and growing frustration that the female voice was missing or was not heard over the past 12 months.

In responding to the Covid-19 emergency, the government failed to factor in the childcare needs of working women, many of whom were part of the frontline response, or to consider that not everyone can buy children’s clothing or essentials online.

The Covid Women’s Voices coalition, which was born out of this frustration, said change is needed.

Dr Sharon Lambert, a UCC academic, who is involved in the group, said gender equality had taken a step back because of the pandemic and a lack of women at the top table where decisions were made.

“A lot of studies are saying that gender diversity and equality has taken a step backwards in the past 12 months because of Covid-19 and the fact that women are not in decision-making positions, except in a handful of countries,” Dr Lambert said.

Dr Sharon Lambert of the School of Applied Psychology, UCC, said gender equality had taken a step back because of the pandemic. Picture: Denis Minihane

Dr Sharon Lambert of the School of Applied Psychology, UCC, said gender equality had taken a step back because of the pandemic. Picture: Denis Minihane

“There are no women on the Cabinet Covid subcommittee. Women can be invited to make a presentation but there are no women on the committee when 51% of the population are women,” she added.

The diverse group of 150 women intends to continue challenging the status quo — the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day — to ensure that change happens.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the response from other women highlighting how they have been impacted. The next step is to bring all of those experiences to the attention of government,” Dr Lambert said.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) also pointed out that the Oireachtas special committee on Covid-19 refused a request to hear how the pandemic was impacting on women.

“It is really quite shocking given the global recognition of the disproportionate impact on women,” NCWI director Orla O’Connor said.

The voice of women, she said, must be heard and change is required not just at government level but across society as a whole: 

We need much more women-centred approaches where the voices of women are at the centre of the changes that are needed.

The NCWI director said gender-proofing government budgets and spending would help to reduce the inequality gap: “All budgeting and spending by the government should be assessed for its impact on women.” 

The Citizens Assembly on Gender Equality, which is examining gender discrimination and pay inequalities among a range of issues, could be a “key driver of change”, she added.

The constitutional position on women in the home is “sexist” and must be replaced, Ms O’Connor said: “The current wording should be removed and it should be replaced by something that recognises the value of care in our society.” 

The failure to listen to women during the pandemic is not a new phenomenon. Unfortunately, it will resonate with many women who feel let down by the state.

Women who were dragged through the courts due to the failings of the CervicalCheck cancer screening programme.

Thousands of survivors from mother and baby homes whose voices were almost erased and whose needs have yet to be addressed.

There are countless other examples. For decades, there is an all too familiar pattern of women not being heard or not having equal input.

Part of the whole legacy of Mother and Baby Homes is how we treat lone parents in society and how we treat women who don’t fit into whatever we think the norm is.

Ms O’Connor added that lone parents, who are mostly women, continue to be at greatest risk of poverty.

In the meantime, women must wait for a new government strategy to address some of these persistent inequalities.

The Department of Children, which took over responsibility for equality issues last year, has extended the last 2017-2020 strategy for women and girls to run until the end of this year while a fresh strategy is drafted.

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