An equal-opportunity culture: Our attitudes are the real glass ceiling

When she opened the National Women’s Council’s new offices in Dublin earlier this week Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald emphasised again that a lot more needs to be done to support women — and families — to ensure that more women are in a position to be decision makers in defining roles in society.

Despite great and welcome advances it is more than unfortunate, and stupid too, that this call to arms remains valid and barely answered.

This is especially so as the barriers to this entirely rational and desirable state of affairs are all too obvious, suggesting that if there was a real will in society, or in politics, the situation might be different, particularly as this is now an equality rather than a gender issue.

The cultural roots, and maybe the legacy of a dominant patriarchal religion too, supporting this imbalanced situation run very deep in Ireland and are seen in almost incomprehensible but very real ways.

One of these is the under-representation of girls in school subjects such as physics, chemistry, technology and honours maths suggesting that girls reach second level without the confidence, ambition or encouragement needed to consider tackling these subjects. This entirely irrational inhibition plays out in pretty decisive ways.

This year 4,000 students sat higher-level engineering in the leaving cert but only 200 — an accusatory one-in-20 — of these were female. And it goes on — 1,000 students took higher-level technology but only 200 were girls; 5,300 sat higher-level physics — 1,500 were girls. In 2013, only 25% of leaving cert physics students were girls. The consequences, according to the Higher Education Authority, are that women make up just 15% of undergraduate engineering students and 18% of computer science students. This hardly seems the ideal environment, much less a glasshouse one, to bring about real change in one of the defining industries of our age.

This barrier, and it is a limiting barrier even if it is an artificial and contrived one, has an impact at the most basic level. Clonakilty CoderDojo, a club to encourage children to develop as computer programmers, has around 50 members but only 10 of those are girls. This points to a bias so deeply rooted that it can almost be described as institutionalised if unintended misogyny.

However, CoderDojo clubs may also have found the solution — girl-to-girl mentoring. At one stage the Cork club had about 100 members but only two were girls. By asking girls to encourage new girl members the club has reached a point where the gender split is 50/50.

There are many difficulties around making sure that people can realise their potential irrespective of gender. Some of these are practical but the greatest barriers by far are cultural — and that will remain the case until 12-year-old Mary believes as passionately as 12-year-old Johnny that she can become a professional scientist. Ultimately this is not a resources issue but rather a set of limitations based on cultural perceptions from another time.


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