Numerous visible and invisible inequalities still exist

Today to mark International Women's Day, Dr Maeve O'Riordan Coordinator MA in Women's Studies Lecturer Women's Studies, talks about progress made in tackling gender equality - with a lot more to do. 
Numerous visible and invisible inequalities still exist
Dr Maeve O'Riordan Coordinator MA in Women's Studies Lecturer Women's Studies, UCC

WE cannot know all of the challenges that the 17 or so babies born in County Cork today, on International Women’s Day 2017, will face and overcome in their lifetimes.

Of course, we hope their challenges will be few, but unfortunately, we know they have been born into a world, a country, and a city, where gender impacts on citizen’s opportunities in various ways.

It is easy to be complacent and to assume the journey towards gender equality is guaranteed. It is not.

Progress towards the level of equality we currently enjoy in Ireland has been hard won. It has never been automatic. Feminists have had to battle for women to achieve the right to vote, the right to an education, the right to work, the right to have their decisions regarding their bodies respected. While some of these battles have been won, many more are ongoing. Numerous visible and invisible inequalities still exist.

One aspect of life on which these babies’ gender might have a serious impact as they grow up is the world of work. Equal pay legislation was first introduced in Ireland in the 1970s, but it has not been fully achieved in 2017.

Unless there are radical changes in society, the girls born today will earn less than the boys when they grow up. According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics body, on average, men in Ireland earn 35% more money than women in their lifetimes. The girls born today will not be promoted at the same rate as their brothers. The very latest European figures, released today, show that one manager in three (of businesses with ten or more employees) is a woman. However, these female managers earn a quarter less than men — or 77 cents for every euro earned by male managers (Eurostat 2017).

Many of the boys and girls born today will be steered by centuries’ worth of expectations into choosing different career paths. Women in paid employment in Ireland spend, on average, 17 more hours per week on unpaid labour in the home than men (Eurostat, 2015).

This is not just an issue for women, or for those with daughters, the expectations on men to be sole breadwinner, to be ‘hard’, to be ‘strong’, impacts on men and boys on a daily basis. While women are often excluded from the most highly paid positions, men can be excluded by social norms from entering the most caring of professions or the option of staying outside the labour force to care for children.

Do you want your child or grandchild to be limited in their opportunities because of their gender? Do you want assumptions to be made about their abilities based solely on their appearance? If not, it is time to make a change in our society and our workplaces.

The focus of International Women’s Day this year is the working world. The theme ‘Be Bold for Change’ invites us to combat gender inequality by logging in (https://www.internationalwomensday.com/BeBold) and pledging to take action in one of five key areas.

If we are to ensure equal professional opportunities in the future, we must, among other things, understand the reasons for the current inequalities. Higher Education, the area where I work, suffers like many others from an over-representation of men in the highest-paid positions, and an over-representation of women in the lower-paid positions.

Even though roughly equal numbers of men and women work in our universities and ITs, 81% of professors are men, while 72% of the lowest paid administrative and support positions are held by women (HEA, 2016). Last year, I was lucky enough to be involved in the work of the HEA’s National Review of Gender Equality chaired by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. This report examined the situation in the higher education system in Ireland and found that three myths have been used to explain the difference in the proportion of men and women at the top of the career ladder.

1. ‘Historically there were not enough women in the career pipeline’;

2. ‘Those women in the pipeline are not ambitious enough in their careers to progress to the top of the career ladder’;

3. ‘Progression is based on excellence and merit; therefore those women in the pipeline must not be good enough to progress to the top of the career ladder’; The HEA report found, after extensive research (survey, statistics, consultation), that in fact, “The reason why women are not to be found in the same proportion as men in the most senior positions is not because women are not talented or driven enough to fill these roles, it is because numerous factors, conscious and unconscious, cultural and structural, mean that women face a number of barriers to progression, which are not experienced to the same degree by their male colleagues; systematic barriers in the organisation and culture within higher education institutions mean that talent alone is not always enough to guarantee success.”

Higher education is not the only area where such barriers exist.

Women earning less than men for the same work, or women being limited to lower-paid jobs, is not just an issue which impacts on the lives of the individual women involved (though if it was, that alone should be reason enough to change). The UN Commission on Women argue for the economic benefits of equality. They report that if women were to participate in the economy on identical terms to men, it would add up to US$28 trillion, or 26%, to annual global GDP by 2025 compared with a business-as- usual scenario. This impact is roughly equivalent to the size of the combined Chinese and US economies today. Companies with three or more women in senior management functions score higher in all dimensions of organisational effectiveness.

Like other advances towards gender equality, full equality in the workplace will not happen automatically. The conscious actions of many bosses, colleagues, mentors, employees and family members are needed. Make a pledge to combat gender inequality today, and act on it tomorrow and throughout 2017. You could, for example, pledge to challenge bias and inequality, which blinds us to the merits of those who do not fit the traditional stereotype of a leader or successful employee or colleague, or you could pledge to celebrate women’s achievements, which can go unnoticed or undervalued.

If we individually, and together, advocate for gender equality it might just be possible to hope that the babies born today in CUH will mature into a more advanced society where they will be valued on their merits, and they will not be hindered by outdated views in their choice of career.

At Women’s Studies in UCC we are celebrating women’s achievements on March 20 with a Herstory Salon, and all are welcome, please register at https://www.uccconferencing.ie/product/herstory-salon-20th-march-2017/. Throughout 2017 we will continue to challenge bias and inequality and champion women’s education through our MA programme which helps students to develop an understanding of the world, and the critical skills needed to change it.

You may notice more people than usual wearing black today. Many will be wearing black as a means of supporting the ‘Strike4Repeal’ movement which is ‘being bold for change’ in holding demonstrations, walk outs, and rallies in cities, towns and universities across the country. These activists are demonstrating that they are tired of waiting for an opportunity to vote to repeal the 8 th Amendment in a referendum. Abortion is a personal and not a constitutional issue, and it has no place within the constitution of the state.

You can learn more about the strike here — http://strike4repeal.org/

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