Working together to champion equality between the sexes

The active participation of men and boys in challenging gender stereotypes and attitudes is crucial if we are to become a fully inclusive and equal society, says Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

AS MINISTER of state with responsibility for gender equality, I have, at times, found myself in the unusual situation of being one of a small number of men in a room full of women.

It is disconcerting to walk into a room and to find your gender is significantly under-represented. Yet, in Ireland, this is the norm for female senior executives in our workplaces, for women on boards, and, of course, for women in politics. It is only in recent times that we have begun to question why half of our population is all but absent from our senior decision-making positions.

The promotion of equality between women and men is a key concern for the Labour Party. As a political party, we are committed to the principles of social justice and equality for all. We are committed to promoting greater participation of women in politics and in public life. This is not an empty promise.

Our track-record shows this is a pledge we take very seriously. Labour was the first Irish political party to establish a women’s section, in 1971. Labour Women believes the socialist vision and values of the Party are key to the achievement of genuine equality between women and men in our society. In 1990, Mary Robinson was elected as the first female President of Ireland on the Labour nomination. We have a female party leader in Joan Burton and following this year’s local elections, 35% of all party councillors are women.

Last month, I participated in an event in Rome hosted by the Italian presidency of the Council of the European Union, entitled Gender Equality in Europe: an unfinished business?

The contributions of many of the speakers reaffirmed my belief that this is not an issue for just 50% of the population but the responsibility of 100%. Gender equality is not a women’s issue, it affects all of society.

It has been disappointing to observe in recent times the sometimes negative language that has been generated around gender equality and in particular, feminism. I was very impressed with the speech made by the young actress Emma Watson at the UN in September as part of the HeForShe campaign, which aims to create a solidarity movement for gender equality. In it, Ms Watson called on all men and boys to become advocates for gender equality.

It is an argument we should all echo and support. It is also worth noting that also in her speech, Ms Watson drew attention to the definition of feminism, which is “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes”. It is an inclusive ideology, which advocates a partnership approach to the achievement of equality between women and men in all spheres of life.

Men have an important role to play in fostering and promoting gender equality. The active participation of men and boys in challenging gender stereotypes and attitudes is crucial if we are to become a fully inclusive and equal society. This is not limited to workplaces. I believe a cultural change is necessary throughout Irish society and that this starts within our homes. We must encourage and support more men to play an active role in home and family life.

The equal sharing of care and domestic responsibilities between women and men is a prerequisite to enabling all citizens to reach their full potential professionally. It also provides positive role models for our children, both girls and boys. We must ensure our children are not constrained by gendered assumptions which could have a limiting impact on their lives — from school subject choices to career options.

As a former teacher and principal at an all-girls school, I know that this is particularly relevant to our girls and young women, who continue to be under-represented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, but we must also acknowledge and address the fact that boys do less well in terms of reading and are more likely to drop out of school.

The Government is committed to addressing the persisting gender inequalities in our society, particularly in relation to power and decision-making. As I announced in July, we are implementing new measures to promote gender balance on state boards. In the Department of Justice and Equality, we will be piloting the development of a Talent Bank of women suitably qualified to serve on state boards.

This will be developed with the assistance of our colleagues in the Public Appointments Service. Today, I will host a conference in Dublin Castle on gender balanced leadership. This conference has been jointly organised by the Department of Justice and Equality and Ibec to bring together, for the first time in Ireland, the key decision-makers from both the public and the private sectors to discuss the importance of gender balanced leadership.

We will be asking these senior leaders, the majority of whom are men, to become “gender equality champions” and to actively support and promote cultural change within their organisations that facilitates all employees in reaching their full potential.

By working together, I am confident we can move towards the true goal of gender equality — equality between women and men.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is minister of state with special responsibility for equality


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