Gender equality: is there still room for improvement?

Undoubtedly, gender equality has been improved in recent times, but how have the issues surrounding the inequalities on both sides been examined in Ireland? ask Deirdre Lennon & Lorraine Wemyss

Undoubtedly, gender equality has been improved in recent times, but how have the issues surrounding the inequalities on both sides been examined in Ireland? ask Deirdre Lennon & Lorraine Wemyss

Since the very foundations of the modern state, gender equality has posed a potent problem in Irish Society, when the specific inclusion of the word “Irishwomen” caused a mass furore upon the publication of the Irish Proclamation in 1916. But is the notion of gender equality still an issue in contemporary society or in a world where calling someone a leprechaun lands you in court — has the notion of inequality between man and woman become redundant?

Trinity’s continued commitment to the issue of gender equality has ensured that it is now “the academically strongest Gender and Women’s Studies Centre”

According to the Gender Equality Division: “Gender equality is achieved when women and men enjoy the same rights and opportunities across all sectors of society, including economic participation and decision making, and when the different behaviours, aspirations and needs of women and men are equally valued and favoured.” But what is Trinity’s policy on the gender debate?

Trinity College Dublin openly advertises itself as an equal opportunities employer. College’s policy division unequivocally states that it “is committed to the introduction and development of policies, procedures, and practices which do not discriminate on any of the grounds contemplated in equality legislation.” Like all employers, Trinity is bound by several legal documents in relation to gender equality. These include The Employment Equality Act 1998 and 2004, Equal Status Act 2000 and 2004 and The Universities Act 1997. These serve to combat discrimination and promote equality of opportunity in employment. These certainly emphasise the point that there are more transparent requirements in state bodies and educational institutions like Trinity with regards to employment rights/equality legislation. They’re also more vulnerable to legal action as a result.

The Access and Equality Policy of Trinity College Dublin “sets out a formal commitment by the college to treat with equal respect all those who apply to join the college, whether it be staff or students, and all those who are members of college, staff and students alike, with regard to gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, age, disability, race and membership of the traveller community.”

Women are integral to the University both as students, staff and academics. According to Trinity’s Staff Office women make up 51% of all Trinity’s staff, 36% of all academics and 47% of all research staff. But it is not just in the employment arena that women play an integral role: females also make up 62% of undergraduate students and 61% of the overall undergraduate and postgraduate student population.

2004 was a landmark year for women in Trinity. It was the centenary of the first admission of females to the institution and Trinity celebrated the achievement of its female alumni with a number of events. Over the course of the year women graduates, former women staff and colleagues from a number of other institutions met to discuss the achievements of their predecessors, and the opportunities and barriers which female graduates will need to surmount in the future.
It is reported that in 1895 the board of Trinity College Dublin noted: “If a female had once passed the gate it would be practically impossible to watch what buildings or what chambers she might enter, or how long she might remain there.” This notion was repudiated in 1904 when the first women were granted matriculation rights to the college; however, this was certainly not the end of the saga.

As recently as the sixties, women were forced to leave the university’s grounds by 6pm and readmission to use the library facilities or even to attend an evening event required that they sign themselves in at Front Gate. Women were also forbidden membership to the main societies active on campus, and were not allowed to dine at commons or even to be elected as a foundation scholar.

Within the last six months, the Equality Authority and the ESRI launched a report calling for paid paternity leave and encouraged the introduction of new laws

From the 1960s, however, female students were given a new and provocative sense of empowerment. The decade marked the appointment of a woman Chancellor, a woman Vice-Provost and women in a number of high profile administrative and academic posts. Trinity has maintained its commitment to equality and the special role of the female population within the college, perhaps suggesting that the so-called “glass ceiling” does not exist as much as we previously thought.
This is demonstrated not just in terms of policy, but also more acutely and on a practical level with WiSER – Women in Science and Engineering Research, as well as the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies.

WiSER “seeks to develop sustainable mechanisms and practices to ensure that women can compete in research on an equal basis using their scientific expertise, knowledge and potential.” It is particularly involved in unearthing and publicising the obstacles faced by both genders at all stages of their careers. The Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies was established in 1988 in order to reflect the increasing diversity of the college community, and in 2005 became a fully fledged member of the School of Arts and Humanities. Trinity’s continued commitment to the issue of Gender Equality has ensured that it “is now the academically strongest Gender and Women’s Studies Centre in Ireland.”
The student body is doing its bit to maintain gender standards within the college too. A recent addition to the many societies in Trinity was the Dublin University Gender Equality Society (DUGES), founded in February 2007 by Harriet Johnson. Speaking to Trinity News, the vice-chair, Alison Treacy, said that the society was set up to “address a balance from a feminist viewpoint, as well as providing a viewpoint from both sides of the gender divide.” The society has a mixed gender committe, something which offers a range of opinions on the sort of events which should be held. Treacy mentions that the society looks to the international scene to investigate gender equality policy in other countries. DUGES also focuses on issues such as domestic violence for men and women, holds workshops on rape awareness and examines high suicide rates.

Two of Trinity’s most illustrious female alumni are Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. Both of these women have succeeded and reached the pinnacle of possibly one of the most male-dominated arenas in Irish Society today: politics. According to Tony O’Reilly, politics is “a job for the boys” and it certainly seems that women have categorically being consigned to the doldrums of the Irish political scene. The fact of the matter is that women do indeed take up some of the most important policy making positions within Irish Society, but for some reason the media seems to prefer to run stories in relation to their male counterparts, designating women to the bench.

Leading female lights of the Irish policy scene such as Ms Justice Laffoy, Patricia McKenna, Geraldine Kennedy, Senator Ivana Bacik and Kristina McElroy compare poorly in terms of column inches awarded to their male equivalents.
The majority of political parties certainly have many active female groups. In recent decades, the constitution of the main stream political parties has been altered to ensure that there is an adequate female candidacy. These changes, however, seem to have effected little change with young males topping the polls for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael respectively.

The Women and Men in Ireland 2004 CSO Report revealed that Ireland had the eighth-lowest proportion of women in parliament of the twenty-five EU member states, with the figure 13.3% cited. This did not get any better in the next general election, as 2007 witnessed one of the lowest returns of women to the Dail.

Fianna Fail nominated more men to the senate than before, and the Green Party gained only one female senator. Both Patricia McKenna and Joan Burton, of the Green Party and the Labour Party, respectively, were overlooked for leadership of their parties. Perhaps there is a glass ceiling at the top of the Irish political scene. Apart from Mary McAleese, Mary Coughlan and Mary Harney, where are the other prominent female politicians?

One of the major recurring gripes in many work places concerns the issues of maternity and paternity leave. In relation to Trinity, the provisions for both seem to be bound by the general set of rules for most workplaces. In Trinity at present, the provision for the number of paid paternity leave stands at three days. Within the last six months, the Equality Authority and the ESRI launched a report calling for paid paternity leave and encouraged the introduction of new laws to ensure that there are flexible working arrangements for men. It was intended as a springboard to help increase equality for both sexes on this issue.

The media in both Britain and Ireland have been following the issue of pay differentials closely. A recent report in Britain showed that women in full-time work were being paid, on average, 17% less than their male colleagues. The figure for part-time work is even more shocking, where a 36% gap was cited. It is 2008, and there remains in Ireland too, a significant gap between the genders, pay-wise. The same CSO report shows that in 2002, a mere six years ago, that women’s income was 82.5% of men’s income. This remains the case, despite Equal Pay legislation, and EU directives. The recent controversy in Britain regarding the Equalities Bill has not gone unnoticed in the Irish media.

The Irish government has taken steps to promote equality too, and incorporated Gender Mainstreaming into the National Development Plan 2007-2013. Gender mainstreaming includes a requirement that equal opportunities be part of the criteria for selecting projects which are funded by the NDP, as well as striking a balance between the number of men and women who sit on Monitoring Committees. The plan itself is divided into Training, Advice, Statistics and Research.
It appears from various reputable sources that the major issue surrounding gender inequality was the lack of comprehensive data available until recently enough. The introduction of several strategies to combat this is interesting to examine in relation to the wider sphere of society.

A further more specific initiative is the National Women’s Plan 2007-2016, which aims to acquire this missing data on a range of issues, including the aforementioned topic of gender mainstreaming.

This plan asks whether it will go further to achieve one of its main aims – to equalise socio-economic opportunities for women. The intention is a worthwhile one, if the scope and drive for gaining a clearer view of which projects work in each sector of society, for both women and girls.

However, while this is an admirable aspiration on the national level; when you break it down locally, it doesn’t quite attain its stated goals. One such policy is to “ensure that all women have access to information on fertility, contraception and sexual health matters”. This national policy is failing at a local level in the Coolock Well Woman Centre, where they admit freely that funding has not kept pace with demand.

Even as recently as last Wednesday, at a conference organised by the European Commission in Dublin, it was stated that higher levels of gender equality in the workplace increase productivity by 15 per cent in some cases.
One aim of the conference was to bring both genders into workplaces dominated by the other sex. The European Commission has also been actively involved in pushing for the advancement of its “Roadmap for Equality between Women and Men” since 2006.

It certainly seems that in some areas of Irish society gender equality remains an aspiration rather than an actuality. The Irish Constitution makes overtures to the fact that a women’s place is in the home and despite tireless effort it seems that females in a position of power are the exception rather than the norm.

Massive improvements have certainly been attained, but that does not necessarily equate with egalitarianism. According to the National Women’s Plan, such progress needs to be maintained and steps taken to erode even more inequalities.
Perhaps it is important to bear in mind a prominent executive in the UK’s observation about the “glass ceiling” concept: “At least with a glass ceiling it
is possible to see through to the next level.”