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10 April 2003 Edition

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This is a man's world


Discrimination against women has always existed. It's too hard to pinpoint exactly when it started, or why it did, but it can be identified as far back as Aristotle's ancient Greece. Even this so-called 'enlightened' philosopher affirmed the so-called inherent inferiority of women to men. Women, were in fact 'slaves of slaves' in ancient Greece.

Stereotyped attitudes towards women still exist. They are the reason that, even in 2003, women are discriminated against throughout the world.

Women in Ireland face discrimination in various areas of their life. The 26-County workforce is steeped in inequality, despite years of equality legislation, and women are still scantily represented in politics and other decision making roles.

Religious morality, a predominantly male invention, has helped to sustain the tradition of discrimination. The Catholic Church's lingering influence on this state means numerous laws still exist that run contrary to the rights of women living in a supposedly modern, equal society. The Church does not recognise the state's divorce laws and has sought to have abortion constitutionally criminalised. In a country where the majority of people define themselves as Catholic, the Church's failure to recognise the full potential of women's contribution to Irish life has trapped women in narrow sterotypical roles within private and public spheres.

The Church has tried to amend its traditional position on women by setting up committees, consisting solely of women, to act as advisory forums to the various cardinals. However, last weekend, a group of women resigned from the Dublin forum, saying that the voices of women were still not listened to. In a letter to the Sunday newspapers, the women said that the "poor response of the hierarchy to women's gifts, talents, energy and skill, has left us disappointed and disheartened". The women added that they refused to collude with a system that has shown itself to have difficulty in hearing women. The Catholic Church obviously has a long way to go before it fully tackles its discriminatory attitudes.

Women face discrimination in their social lives as well. However much we deny it, the age-old -if a woman gets drunk on a night out, she's making a 'show of herself', but if a man gets drunk on a night out, he's having 'a good time' - attitude still exists. The same prejudices occur if a woman has numerous relationships, (she's promiscuous), whereas if a man has numerous relationships, he's a lady's man, a charmer, a stud, a lucky fella', and so on. What would seem to be a trival issue, something women should just ignore, actually impacts on their lives. This hypocritical attitude to sexuality is also refected in the justice system having a direct impact on rates of prosection and sentencing in rape cases, for example.

UN Convention

In 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was drawn up by the UN. It served as an international bill of rights for women, and the 26-County government signed up to it in 1985. It recognises that discrimination against women is embedded in social and cultural patterns and calls for a change in the role of men and women in society.

But the Dublin government has been remiss in its application of CEDAW.

This is immediately obvious in its budget for 2003, which the government promised would protect those more vunerable sections of society, (women are more likely to be in minimum wage jobs, reliant on social welfare and under the poverty line). The government has faced criticism for not poverty-proofing the budget, but neither was it gender-proofed, ie. analysed for its effects on women in particular. So, Irish women will continue to get a raw deal from investment in healthcare, for example, stuck at the lowest life expectancy in Europe.

And that investment promoted as being 'women friendly' simply serves the interests of the bosses. Childcare is touted as a measure to create an equal playing field among men and women in the labour market but in reality it is about getting women into low paid jobs with scant regard for child welfare.

In addition to economic discrimination, the National Women's Council publication, 'Jobs for the boys - Putting women in the picture', criticised the state's policies towards women in politics, showing discrimination measures in practice that not only hinder women from accessing the political arena, but deliberately made it impossible. Currently, only 16% of elected representatives are women and 'Jobs for the boys' listed examples of women not being chosen for winnable seat constituencies and once elected, not receiving cabinet positions.

In 2002, a gathering of representatives from European Parliament and national parliaments came together to discuss an EU-wide constitution. The Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat government sent five men to the convention, despite the National Women's Council lobbying for women to be sent as part of the contingent. The European Women's Lobby has criticised the first draft of the constitution for not referring even once to equality for women in Europe.

And on International Women's Day this year, only one woman was appointed onto the seven-member board that makes up the National Pension's Resource Fund Commission. The government broke its own commitment to have a minimum of 40% women and 60% men on the board.

There has been an enormous shift in attitude towards discrimination against women over the last 20 years. A worldwide consciousness on women's rights has developed, and in this state in particular there is an ever growing number of young, articulate, well educated women who are prepared to fight for their rights and bring cases to court which can change the constitution.

The emergence of a pop culturetrend called 'girl-power' in the '90s encouraged a mentality of 'anything you can do, we can do better' among young women. Sadly, as those young women began to enter college and the workforce, the illusion of equality was often replaced by 'some are more equal than others', and this time, the phrase wasn't referring to the girls.

Women are still under-represented, underpaid and discriminated against throughout this entire island. All the legislation in the world isn't going to make any difference, while the same stereotypical attitudes exist. While it is up to society as a whole to tackle innate discriminatory attitudes towards women, governments, employers and in this state, the Catholic Church, have an enormous role to play in dealing with the enormous gap in equality which women still face.

We've come a long way in our struggle, but for many in this state, women are still the 'slaves of slaves'.

Women at work

Almost 30 years ago, the 26-County State introduced an Anti-Discrimination Pay Act, aimed at tackling the gross inequalities between men's and women's pay cheques. The Act was the first of many designed to bring to an end all types of discrimination against women.

Today, 2003, the 26 Counties is considered to be one of the most progressive states in the EU when it comes to equality legislation.

The Equality Authority, established in 1998 under the Employment Equality Act, is one of the latest bodies set up by the state to monitor discrimination. In one of its first reports, it had already received roughly 5,000 enquiries. Straight away it was obvious that over half of them were gender based. By the year 2000, 120 cases were taken on behalf of women, which amounted to half of all the cases being taken by the group.

The Equality Authority expressed its surprise at the large numbers of complaints being made by women. It asked the question, how can a state have so much legislation to tackle discrimination against women and yet still be steeped in it?

The nature of the complaints shocked a lot of people. They had naÔvely thought that those type of complaints belonged to a different era.

How wrong they were. The cases didn't just involve sexual harassment, which people accepted was still a factor for many women in the workplace, nor did they only involve women in lower paid jobs.

In The Mater Hospital vs Dr. Noreen Gleeson, the latter, a well regarded and respected professional, was awarded £50,000 when it was found that she had been passed over for a job because of her sex. The court came to this conclusion after noting that there had been no transparency in the hospital's selection process and that the claimant was in fact more qualified and experienced than the successful applicant.

Then there was the case of a former trainee receptionist, who had been discriminated against by CERT for refusing to wear a skirt to interviews. The Director of Equality Investigations awarded her £3,000 and concluded that the uniform policy was based on a conventional view that women should wear skirts.

But the case that caused the most upset was one in which a woman had been sacked purely for being pregnant. The woman was awarded £40,000, and three subsequent cases brought by women for pregnancy dismissal and demotion that year also resulted in financial compensation.

Attempts have been made at addressing workforce discrimination. Female participation in the 26-County work force has risen from 25% in 1971 to 48.6% in 2001.

The afore-mentioned Anti-Discrimination Pay Act 1974 outlawed practices where women were paid less than men for equal work, and the Employment Equality Act 1977 outlawed discrimination in employment on the grounds of gender and marital status. Maternity leave became statutory in 1981 and has been improved over the years. This year, the length of maternity leave was extended from 14 to 18 weeks.

Different wage scales for men and women may have been abolished in the early '70s, but inequality persists. Underlying discrimination, such as lack of childcare facilities, remains. Women are still, on the whole, paid less than men (almost 30% less in some cases). A disproportionate concentration of women workers in low paid sub-sectors of the services sector and in part-time and temporary employment plays a crucial role in determining women's low paid positions.

It is interesting to note that data available on earnings in the 26 Counties is provided in detail for the industrial sector, but not in the service sector, where women are heavily represented. When investigating the average hourly female rate in the industrial sector, it became apparent that the average hourly female's earnings amount to 73% of the hourly average male's. In manufacturing, men tend to work five hours extra a week, and often emerge with 40% more in wages than their female counterparts. Keeping women in low paid work adds to the inequality in their lives; it means they are more likely to be dependant on their partner, more likely to put their families' needs above their own and more likely to live in poverty when older.

Women still face discrimination when it comes to the interview and promotion process and still don't receive adequate maternity leave compared with the rest of Europe. When a woman takes her maternity leave in the 26 Counties, she is entitled to social welfare benefits that are among the lowest in the EU. They can range from §135.60 minimum to a maximum §232.40, depending on a woman's earnings. Her employer is not obliged to pay her salary, although a few do, recognising that the social welfare payments are, on average, below the minimum wage.

From the top down

So why do women still face discrimination in the workforce?

There are a number of reasons. One reason is the PLU, the 'people like us' preference. If a workforce is dominated by white males, chances are it will continue to employ, or make sure it only promotes, white males.

Another reason is past discrimination. It takes a number of years to overcome a traditional discrimination, and there was a time when most jobs were considered 'men's jobs' only. Just think of how many women DART drivers or builders you've seen lately. But the biggest problem for women who face discrimination in the 26 Counties is the attitude of those who hold positions of power.

It has long been recognised that childcare and family unfriendly working hours contribute significantly to women staying out of the workforce, or not being able to make progress in their careers once they're in it. In 2001, the 26-County government introduced a new 'Family Friendly Work Day' on 1 March to try and encourage new family-oriented policies in the workplace.

The most ironic thing about this is that the Daíl has the most unfriendly family working hours imaginable. Daíl sessions are held on Tuesday's (2:30pm-9:30pm), Wednesdays (10:30am-9:30pm) and Thursdays (10:30am-5:30pm), and can often run late. In March, one Tuesday's session was extended until 10pm so that work could be done in advance to give ministers time off on the Thursday to attend Cheltenham, or to visit the US for St. Patrick's Day.

Mondays and Fridays are usually full of Committee work. In addition to this, TDs are expected to keep up with their constituency work. There is still no crËche in the Daíl, although female members have been asking for one since time began.

Countries like Sweden introduced policies of paid parental leave for males and females as a result of CEDAW, but this state's government has consistently failed to meet its existing commitments.

Parental leave in the 26 Counties is unpaid. Women often take time out of their career to raise children, and lose an awful lot of ground in their career. When they return, they often find they have lost promotion opportunities. By shouldering the bulk of caring roles, women are left open to indirect discrimination time and time again.

With an ever-growing number of intelligent, educated and skilled women entering the workforce in this state, the old traditions are coming under threat. Today's young woman, who has just finished top of her class after four years of studying electrical engineering, is less likely to not question why her male counterparts are on more money than her.

The tide is moving towards equality within the workforce, but with the opposition it faces, its progress will be slow.

Ard Fheis tackles inequality in ranks

At the recent Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, equality and women's rights dominated many of the debating sessions. In the sections on Local Government, Health, Equality and Human Rights, and Party Constitution and Rules, discrimination against women was hotly debated by numerous delegates. One of the only motions to need tellers was that demanding that half of the Ard Chomhairle be made up of women. The motion required two-thirds of delegates to pass it, and scraped in on the button, by 104 votes to 52.

The irony wasn't lost on the delegates. Of over 300 motions, the one that proved the most contentious was the one that attempted to redress discrimination against women at the highest levels of the party.

While the majority of delegates who voted against the motion, did so with good intentions and the belief that quotas are actually demeaning to women, it has been proved that positive discrimination as a practice does help to bring about equality, which becomes, after a short time, self-perpetuating.

Less controversial was an Ard Chomhairle motion mandating that all members of the party and staff undertake equality education and training at every level of the party before the end of 2003, which was easily passed.

By approving these two motions, along with other motions addressing inequalities within the party, Sinn Féin showed that it may be at last ready to begin seriously tackling the issue of gender inequality and discrimination within its ranks. Women also noted the prominence given to gender equality by Gerry Adams in his Presidential Address.

The recently established Sinn Féin Equality Department, headed by Lucilita Bhreatnach, is tasked with identifying the barriers and challenges that women face in Sinn Féin. She has a tough job ahead of her but a good start will be implementing the equality education and training voted in at the Ard Fheis as a priority, to run concurrently with policy development.

An Phoblacht Magazine


  • Don't miss your chance to get the second edition of the 2019 magazine, published to coincide with Easter Week
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