herald

Wednesday 18 October 2017

It's hard to get a date in Ireland, let alone a proposal, but some things are better for women these days

Ahead of International Women's Day this Sunday, Katie Byrne examines where Irish women are right now - in terms of pay, childcare, abortion and equality

Miriam O'Callaghan with daughter Georgia
Miriam O'Callaghan with daughter Georgia

It's important to examine the trials of the past before imagining the future. Those who believe we no longer require feminism in Ireland need only hark back to the 1970s.

It was an era during which female civil servants had to leave their job when they married and women couldn't collect their children's allowance unless it was mandated by the father. It wasn't until 1976 that a woman could sit on a jury.

Emancipation was a hard-fought campaign. Members of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement travelled to Belfast in 1971 to buy contraceptives, just as members of Irishwomen United boarded the Dublin-Belfast train in 1977 to buy copies of the British feminist magazine Spare Rib. The publication had been censored in Ireland for being "usually or infrequently indecent".

Ireland was very much a theocracy in the 1970s. Even women who had been liberated by the sexual revolution of the 1960s were troubled by a pervading sense of Catholic Guilt that was - and still is - ingrained deep in their psyches.

They were born into a theological culture of abstinence, chastity and purity. Fornication, masturbation and contraception were sinful and the Virgin Mary was a credible role model.

Helen's Reddy's 'I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar' had hit the airwaves, but in Ireland it was more 'Forgive Me Father, For I Have Sinned'.

Conservative US Cardinal Raymond Burke recently blamed the "radical feminist movement" for marginalising men within the church, along with other charges so preposterous that they don't warrant repeating.

He has established an important link, though: Irish women's liberation was only realised when they stepped away from the oppressive parochialism of the Catholic Church's doctrines.

Today Ireland is more a democracy than a theocracy. Church attendance has declined sharply for various reasons and there is a spike in those defining themselves as atheists and agnostics.

The Catholic Church still has control over women's bodies, however, as the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar brought to the forefront. Her death also brought the campaigners out in force.

Is the pro-choice campaign a largely feminist battle? That's up for debate. What we know for sure is that as long as abortion is illegal in Ireland, secrecy and shame will continue to surround it. Irish women have been denied real public discourse on the subject. Those who speak out about their abortion experiences tend to fall into one of two camps: The Renegades, who describe the experience with an attitude so blase that they may as well have had a tooth pulled. And The Redeemers, a camp of women that found God, regretted their abortions and aligned themselves with Pro-life groups to spread the good word.

There is no grey; no middle-ground. We need to hear from the women who found the experience traumatic but don't regret their decision. These stories will help women make better informed decisions and direct them to post-abortion counselling services if needs be.

A referendum would help too. There are still cases of rape victims being denied abortions in Ireland, which is a particularly barbaric example of "victim blaming", a term that has become common parlance in the feminist agenda.

However we need to ask ourselves if the heinous act of rape itself needs to be part of the agenda too. Yes, men are much more likely to be the perpetrators of sexual assault and domestic violence, but surely these men need criminal convictions and psychiatric attention more than they need to be told to "check their privilege" or "Man Up".

Camille Paglia, who describes herself as a "dissident feminist", recently courted controversy when she bemoaned the victim complex at the heart of new feminism. "College campuses are hysterically portrayed as rape extravaganzas where women are helpless fluffs with no control over their own choices and behaviour".

Equally, in the pursuit of equality, we need to talk about male domestic abuse and male rape (a recent study in the US revealed that 46 per cent of male victims reported a female perpetrator). If we are serious about raising awareness around this subject we need to stand in solidarity with men and highlight a culture of victim-blaming so entrenched that it isn't even talked about.

Today Irish women prioritise career over children, or at least they carve out a career first and start a family later. It's the new normal, but do we respect the women who prefer the old-school structure of staying at home? Are we having children later out of choice or circumstance?

Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, recently told an audience of women in Dublin to "date whoever you want, really, but the cool boys, they are not going to change as many diapers, so don't marry them".

She makes it sound so easy. It's difficult to get a date in Ireland these days, let alone a marriage proposal.The hook-up culture, compounded by Tinder, has done away with dating. Women can now have sex just like men. Love 'em and leave 'em. The thing about one-night-stands, though, is that they can be as lonely as they are liberating, as many women - and men - will attest.

One wonders if our very behaviour in the bedroom is changing too. Many feminist groups have slammed 50 Shades of Grey for perpetuating violence against women. It raises an interesting debate at an even more interesting time. Studies show that many women have a preference for physical sexual submission while they are attracted to the signifiers of male dominance in everything from scent to tone of voice.

Has this sexual preference become even more widespread in the bedroom as women gain more power in the boardroom? Is the male-female power struggle balanced beneath the sheets? Just a thought …

The dominance dilemma continues in the workplace where studies show that female leaders are more likely to be described as "bossy", "shrill" and "ice queen". Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, was allegedly fired for being "pushy". Are women in the higher echelons of the workplace marred by stereotypes, or do they adopt a "ballbreaker" persona in order to get there?

We've yet to dominate salary surveys, though. Women are breaking the glass ceiling but still not getting the salary they deserve when they get there. Women in Ireland are paid almost 14 per cent less than men while 50 per cent of women are earning €20,000 or less.

The kneejerk reaction is to blame the patriarchy. However, it's important to note that women are still less likely to ask for a raise, or go for jobs for which they don't meet 100 per cent of the job spec requirements.

We also have a maternal compulsion to care. Women in Ireland are more likely to look after sick and elderly family members and stay at home when a child is sick.

Read More: Miriam O'Callaghan: 'They can be whatever they want to be, so long as they work hard'

Unfortunately - and this is the rub - it sometimes makes more financial sense for the woman to stay at home with a sick child because often they are earning less. We favour short term gains over long-term progress in an economy where there ain't nothing going on but the rent.

It's a conversation that couples need to have early on. A small but nonetheless fascinating study in the Harvard Business Review that looked at the career expectations of graduating husbands and wives found that half the men thought their careers would take priority while almost all the women thought their careers would take equal priority to their husbands.

It's only when men and women have an equal role in parenting can we achieve salary parity. Legislation is key. Says Orla O'Connor, director of the National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI): "There is currently no paid paternity leave for men in Ireland. NWCI has been campaigning for the introduction of two weeks paid paternity leave for men which we hope will be introduced by the Government in the upcoming Family Leave Bill. EU data suggests that where this is paid paternity leave available, the take up is usually high."

Paid parental leave is the next challenge, continues O'Connor: "Ireland significantly lags behind when it comes to leave. Ireland is the only country that provides no well-paid leave and its leave policies still assume that women will be the main caregiver for children.

"There are 26 weeks of maternity leave at a low rate. A further 14 weeks of maternity leave is unpaid. In addition to paid paternity leave, it will be equally important to introduce paid parental leave. Currently, the take-up of parental leave of 18 weeks per child in Ireland is low by international standards."

Read More: Sarah Webb: I want my girl to be strong, smart and independent

It's almost impossible to have a conversation about equality without mentioning Norway as the best in class. Norway has a mandatory 14-week parental leave known as the "daddy quota" which is rolled out on a use-it-or-lose it basis.

Norway also has higher than average numbers of women on boards and in top-tier positions, along with higher than average numbers of female political representatives - they introduced gender quotas in the 1970s. In Ireland, female TDs make up just 16 per cent of the Dáil.

But this isn't just a political issue. Passing bills can often lead to the "illusion of inclusion", which is what happens when solutions are made available but uptake is still low.

It's another conversation that has to start at home. Are women willing to let their partner take parental leave over them? Are we challenging the stay-at-home father stigma and promoting a culture that celebrates fatherhood as much as motherhood?

It would help if advertising agencies and certain cartoons stopped portraying Dad as a bumbling idiot who can barely change a nappy while Mum looks on exasperatingly.

Yes, we've come a long way since the 1970s, and we'll go a lot further too.

Today women in Ireland (25-34) are more likely to have a third-level education while female solicitors now outnumber male solicitors. The Dalai Lama predicted that the "world would be saved by the Western woman", while visionary Nikola Tesla predicted that a new "sex order" would emerge with "the female as superior".

Progress is inevitable. The next challenge is negotiating the matriarchy.

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