Still a long way to go on gender equality

THE lives of Irish women today would be utterly unrecognisable to the women who marked the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising almost 50 years ago.

The women, and men, who will mark the 1916 centenary next year enjoy opportunities in education, careers, and travel, in access to health services and the protection of legislation that champions social and human rights that the 1966 generation could hardly have imagined much less anticipated. We also enjoy, comparatively at least, unmatched material comfort and security.

Our membership of the EU has been a driving force in this evolution. Membership made us face our obligations and knocked the dust off old, hide-bound conventions that had become anachronisms preventing social progress. Despite those great advances — remember, until 1974 women had to quit public service jobs when they married — huge challenges around gender equality remain and must be resolved. This, unfortunately, is still a far from equal society.

On Thursday night, the majority of delegates at a Fianna Fáil selection convention in Longford objected when a woman was selected as the party’s general election candidate on foot of a diktat from party headquarters. That direction was made necessary by the Electoral Amendment Political Funding Bill 2011 under which parties must nominate at least 30% women candidates or risk having party exchequer funding cut by up to by 50%. Fianna Fáil’s reticence on the issue was also a contributory factor.

It is of course fine and noble to suggest that candidates must be selected on merit alone and irrespective of gender, but that logic can only stand if there is something approaching parity of gender representation in the Dáil. Tragically, such parity is as remote as the prospect of a woman replacing Paul O’Connell as the captain of Ireland’s rugby team. The figures, coldly objective as ever, show that our 166-member parliament has only 27 women deputies. This is a matrix of exclusion, tokenism, bias and failure. This one-in-six ratio is scandalously unrepresentative and must be reduced by any means possible, including candidate quotas if needs be. Of course some entirely worthy candidates will lose out but if they have the qualities and character that might enhance our political process, they will recognise the need for these measures.

That inequality was highlighted in a different way yesterday when European Commission statistics showed that Ireland’s gender pay gap is increasing. It was 14.4% in 2012 compared to 13.9% in 2010 and 12.6% in 2009 and 2008. The average EU gender pay gap stands at 16.4%. The EU set a target rate for female employment of 60% by 2010, and Ireland had exceeded that figure by 2007. However, during the economic crisis the figure dropped significantly, falling to 55.2% by 2012. In 2014, the rate increased slightly to 55.9%. Historically women’s opportunities were limited for many reasons, especially the anti-women bias of formal Catholicism and expectations around children and child minding, but we can no longer defend under-representation and lower pay. It’s time for more forceful action on this issue.

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