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Choices or Barriers? A Response to Matt Cooper

14 October 2009

Senator Ivana Bacik

(A version of this response appearered in The Examiner on the 8th of October 2009)

Last Wednesday, at a protest against cutbacks outside the Dáil, Susan McKay of the National Women's Council made a speech which provoked some controversy. I was at the protest and heard her say, accurately, that women had not created the economic recession but that they would be worst affected by it; and would have to clean up the mess. She went on to say, again accurately, that there are more women cleaning the Dáil than sitting in the Dáil Chamber. Nothing controversial there, I thought.

But in an article last Friday, Matt Cooper mounted an attack on this aspect of McKay's speech. He took offence at her reasonable suggestion that the lack of women TDs and Senators, property developers and company directors might be due to structural problems within society. Instead, he suggested that the fault lies with women themselves; that the absence of women leaders is due to choices that women make, rather than barriers that women face.

Cooper then proceeded to pick out individual women property developers and conspicuous consumers, suggesting that in fact women are well represented among the elites in Ireland; although he admitted sheepishly that his newly published book ‘Who Really Runs Ireland?' is populated ‘almost exclusively' by men. That truth rather undermines his argument.

Indeed, the truth is that women face immense barriers in seeking to reach the top of the career ladder across all areas of public life. It's not so much that a glass ceiling stops us climbing up; it's more that women are located on a sticky floor, and it's very hard to get unstuck.

This is particularly true for women from disadvantaged backgrounds, because of course class poses real obstacles for men and for women. But it is even true of women in otherwise privileged positions.

In recent research we conducted at Trinity College into the legal profession, for example, we found that men still overwhelmingly outnumber women at the top levels, even though women have been entering law in larger numbers than men for years (two-thirds of all law students nationally are female). We found that women lawyers' careers were being blocked at a critical stage. When we asked respondents to our study why this was so, both male and female lawyers answered overwhelmingly that it was due to ‘children'. That is, that at the crucial point

when legal careers are taking off, women are more likely to take time out to have children and to bear more responsibility for childcare, with a consequent negative impact upon their ability to progress in their careers to the same extent as their male colleagues, because of the ‘long hours' culture in legal practice.

Just as women face obstacles in their legal careers, so too are women less likely to succeed in politics than men. In Ireland, the proportion of women TDs has never exceeded 14 per cent. At the 2007 general election, only 22 women were elected to the Dáil out of 166 Deputies, constituting 13 per cent. At this rate, the National Women's Council has estimated that it will take 370 years for the percentage of women in the Dáil to reach 50 per cent.

By international standards, Ireland's level of women in politics is very poor. We rank at 83rd in the world, lower than the international and the European average, even lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. The Seanad, it must be said, has a better gender ratio than the Dail; 13 women out of a total of 60 Senators, or nearly 22 per cent. However, this is still way off the top

performers like Sweden and Finland, where women represent over 40 per cent of those elected to parliament.

Why are there so few Irish women politicians? Of course, it's possible that Matt Cooper is right. It could just be that Irish women are less likely than Swedish or Finnish women to want to enter politics. Just as apparently more of us choose to stay slogging away on the shopfloor than sitting in reclining chairs in the boardroom.

Sarcasm aside, it's clearly not just a matter of choice for women. Our study showed that women lawyers were hampered in their career progression due to the inflexibility of the legal culture to accommodate caring responsibilities. Similarly, other studies show that women face specific obstacles in seeking to enter politics; often referred to as the ‘Four C's'.

These are: difficulty with Childcare; less access to Cash; less Confidence than their male colleagues; and overall, a Culture that favours an ‘old boy network'. This cultural barrier is probably the most difficult to address. In the legal professions, the same culture exists - women solicitors not being invited on crucial golf outings with big clients, for example. In politics, equally, most political parties' selection procedures favour the men who have ‘put in their time' rather than the women who may have difficulty getting to evening meetings because of childcare commitments.

The good news is that these barriers for women may be overcome, without mothers have to choose between spending evenings with their children or attending political meetings. Experience in other countries has shown that once the political will exists to tackle low levels of women in politics, then family-friendly initiatives can be adopted, and positive actions taken to encourage parties to recruit women and put them forward. When that happens, more women are selected as candidates and ultimately elected as politicians.

In recognition of this reality, the Oireachtas All-Party Committee on Justice, Equality and Law Reform, of which I am a member, recently set up a Sub-Committee on women's political representation at my initiative. As rapporteur to the Sub-Committee, I am currently working on a report seeking both to examine the specific obstacles facing women in politics, and to recommend how more women may be encouraged to enter political life. Despite what Matt Cooper thinks, there is a broad awareness across the political parties that action is needed to address this problem.

That's what Susan McKay meant when she said that more women are cleaning the Dáil than legislating within it. She may have provoked some controversy with this accurate statement of fact; but she also named an uncomfortable truth.