Posted tagged ‘equality’

Parliamentary women

March 12, 2010

More than 90 years since Constance (Countess) Markievicz was first elected to the British House of Commons, and by virtue of the same election to the first Dáil, we are still far from having equal representation for men and women in our parliament. Out of 166 TDs (members of Dáil Eireann, the lower House of the Irish parliament) 22 are women. Party-wise these are distributed as follows: 8 are in Fianna Fáil, 7 are in the Labour Party, 5 in Fine Gael, 1 in the Greens, and 1 (Mary Harney) non-party.

Against this backdrop the Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny TD, proposed a new party policy under which there would be minimum quotas for women candidates in elections to bring about an increase in the number of women representing the party. This proposal was rejected yesterday by the Fine Gael parliamentary party. According to an Irish Times report, the decisive argument against the proposal was advanced by one female TD, Lucinda Creighton. And this is how she explained her opposition:

‘It’s a very easy solution to a very complex problem. It’s not a fix for solving the factors that prevent women from getting into politics and the issues that prevent them from staying in politics. You really have to look at other things like the long hours, childcare and how [women] are treated in the political environment.’

I guess I have some sympathy with both positions. Quotas are, I believe, a start to correcting the imbalance. But I also agree that the problem will not be corrected unless and until the national parliament is reformed and working conditions are less insane than they currently are. The existing rules are built around notions of a gentlemen’s club, with on the one hand bizarre late evening sittings, and on the other amazingly long holidays. There are reasons other than female representation that should bring us to want to reform all this, but one way or another it is urgent that this should be done.

My guess is that in the event quotas will be off the agenda, as will reform. Going on as before is just that much easier and more comfortable. Shame on them.

Male teachers returning?

March 9, 2010

Every year in the autumn I have for the past decade been presiding at degree conferring ceremonies at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin, which is a college of my university. The majority of the student who receive their parchments from me intend to become primary school teachers – and the overwhelming majority of them are women. I have not recently seen the gender breakdown of trainee teachers, but my guess is that typically over 80 per cent of these new graduates are female. I suspect that, for now, the majority of school principals are still men, but that will change over time.

One of the consequences of this is that primary school children often only experience women as educational role models. Is this good or bad, or does it matter? My guess is that it does, though not necessarily a much as some suggest. For example, a study has shown that female teachers are often nervous about mathematics, and convey this to their students, and to girls in particular. This then has onward implications for mathematics proficiency and the gender distribution in careers where this is important. Another issue is that boys are driven to a life of under-achievement because they see no male role models during these important formative years.

There may however be a slight change in the gender breakdown of students doing teacher training. According to a report, the recession and the resulting higher unemployment have pushed young men in Britain into considering the teaching profession. The number of men applying for teacher training courses rose by 52 per cent in 2008-09. We are still a good bit off an equal distribution between men and women, but it’s a start.

Generally in employment of all kinds there should be no male or female ghettos. But this is particularly true of teaching, where an unequal distribution may have a number of unpredictable effects. I don’t off-hand know what the trend is in Ireland, but I shall find out. And I hope that in Ireland, too, this unbalanced situation is being eroded.

Keeping women in the home

February 18, 2010

I came across something recently I had not heard for a very long time, and indeed had not expected to hear again, ever. I was having a cup of coffee in a Dublin city centre cafe, and at the table next to me were two middle aged ladies (you know, young compared with me these days). I don’t want to give the impression that I eavesdrop, but then again, maybe I do sometimes: I have to get material for my blog, after all. And here’s what they were saying.

Lady 1: ‘Do you remember Sarah [name changed], you know the red haired one that Jimmy was going out with?’
Lady 2:  ‘Yes. Too many opinions, if I remember rightly.’
Lady 1: ‘That’s the one. Well, she and Jimmy are getting married.’
Lady 2: ‘Really? I didn’t think Jimmy was, shall we say, the marrying kind.’
Lady 1: ‘Yes, I thought that. But they are. But do you know, Sarah is going to continue working in the travel agency, you know the one Louise was working in until they let her go.’
Lady 2: ‘I hate that. Another married woman taking up a job that could go to someone who needs it.’
Lady 1: ‘Yes, just thinking of herself instead of others at this time when good people are losing jobs.’

I suspect the two ladies themselves were not unduly burdened with jobs – they looked more like the shopping-and-lunching kind – but even then I was aghast at the conversation and was sorely tempted to interject. Such an exchange would not have been untypical in, say, the early 1960s, but in the new millennium?

Well, even if the spirit of the age is against them, the law is not. Because here is what the Irish Constitution (Bunreacht na hÉireann) has to say on the matter, in article 41(2) (in the context of constitutional protection for the family).

‘1° In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.
2° The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.’

Before we get too anguished at all this, it is worth remembering that the Constitution was adopted in 1937, and it is full of social and political commentary that is typical of the age in which it was written, which in Europe generally was the age of corporatism, fascism and conservative social values. It is a document of its time. All in all, it has been interpreted in case law in a more modern, liberal manner (the effect of that being that the Constitution does not mean what it says, but what the judges say it means). So I am not aware of any case in which article 41 has been used to restrict women’s rights in employment, or anything similar (though an attempt was made to use it in a case on the tax code).

But still it is there, and is capable of being quoted. More than that, the lead-in to article 41, in referring to the rights of the family, says that the family is ‘a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.’ This latter phrase could suggest that the ‘special’ status of women – what you and I might consider discrimination against women – cannot even be revoked by law, not even by constitutional law.

Anyway, Senator Ivana Bacik has now called for a referendum to remove article 41 and its provisions from the Constitution. I would go along with this proposal, as a method by which we as a country may secure closure to an age in which society victimised some of its members, including women, and in which inequality was the norm. It’s time to move on. I might merely suggest – and I’ll return to this – that we don’t restrict our discussions to article 41, but might look more broadly at the possibility of adopting a completely new constitution.

University entrance quotas

September 7, 2009

The BBC carried a news item today on a dispute in Brazil about quotas set by the government under which persons from some ethnic backgrounds and from disadvantaged areas have protected access to higher education. Brazil, like a number of Latin American countries, has ethinic groups that are seriously under-represented in universities, and therefore in the higher paid professions that require university qualifications. To improve this situation, quotas have been set aside for such groups, but this has now been challenged in the courts.

There is a point here that is worth debating in Ireland also. As I have pointed out before, the composition of the third level student population in Ireland equally presents us with a serious issue, with evidence that the education system is at least in some measure tending to perpetuate certain social problems. While none of these issues can be solved overnight, addressing them in part through university access is a good idea. Whether this can be done successfully through a formal quota system is doubtful, as the equality provisions in the constitution, ironically, would make it very hard to set up such a system in a way that would give it a chance of surviving a legal challenge. But we must continue to ask ourselves whether our access programmes are sufficiently combating educational disadvantage, and whether the resources made available for this purpose are really adequate.

Alongside the concern with socio-economic disadvantage, we also need to start looking now at how the new composition of the Irish population in terms of ethnic, racial and national backgrounds is being reflected within our higher education institutions. One lesson we must learn early is that racial tensions can mount quickly if there are ghettoised groups that don’t get access proportionately to certain careers or opportunities for advancement. Ultimately measures to address this will work best if they are introduced by the universities themselves, preferably in coordination. But the time to consider this is now.

The future for men – a PS

August 17, 2009

Following my recent blog post on the issues raised by under-achieving young men, today’s Guardian newspaper has a report which reveals that, in the UK, women are also more likely to find employment quickly after graduating from university, with a higher percentage in employment within six months. Admittedly, the percentage of those in full-time employment is about the same for men and women, but when you also factor in part-time and other kinds of employment, more women than men have jobs. The percentage of men who are unemployed – i.e. who have no job and don’t go on to take a higher degree – is greater than that of women.

However, the Guardian also reveals that more men than women go on to do postgraduate work. I am not absolutely sure what to read into that, but it is possible that it could indicate that the imbalance between men and women in senior posts will not be redressed as quickly as it should be. At any rate all the figures we have seen over the past week indicate that urgent attention needs to be given to gender issues in education.

What now for men?

August 15, 2009

As readers may know, I have just been on vacation. On one sunny day in beautiful East Hampton, I was sitting on a street bench waiting for my companion (described in one comment by a reader of this blog as ‘my long-suffering wife’) and was watching a group of children who were playing on the pavement as they also waited. They were all probably around 8 to 10 years old. Two boys, rather big for their age, moved in on a rather pretty looking but smaller girl and started taunting her, calling her a ‘dwarf’ and pushing her once or twice. I was just contemplating whether I should intervene when the girl raised herself to her full (but not substantial) height, fixed her eyes on the boys in a steely gaze and said, ‘Imbeciles!’ I am certain the boys had no idea what the word meant, but they both suddenly backed off, looked sheepish, and sat down on the ground almost disoriented. I relaxed again. She didn’t need my help. In fact, what I had just witnessed seemed rather symbolic.

In a post I wrote about a year ago, I commented on the growing insecurity of men and asked what it might mean, in social terms. It is an ongoing issue, and today again we had confirmation of that in reports that girls are out-performing boys in Leaving Certificate results in almost all subjects. Nor is this a phenomenon typical for or unique to Ireland: similar trends are known to exist in the United Kingdom, the United States, India, Pakistan, and pretty much everywhere else.

Some commentators – wrongly, I believe – conclude that what this means is that the feminist agenda, or the policy to achieve equal opportunities for women, has gone too far and that men are now the disadvantaged. When we look at who occupies key positions of influence and power the picture is not much different from what it was 20 years ago; most corporate board rooms are overwhelmingly occupied by men, as are government ministries, religious prelatures, and so forth. The changes that have taken place have had their greatest effect at lower levels. But that is not to say that there isn’t a problem. It is clear that young males in particular are now disproportionately chronic under-achievers and as a result are often alienated from society; some of them drift into anti-social behaviour or worse, particularly in lower socio-economic groups.

There are a number of causes and so also a number of measures that should be taken. But one of the key reasons for this trend appears to be the lack of male role models for young boys in their formative years. Men are often not sufficiently visible in the home, as they are either excessively absent at work, or absent in bars and other such establishments. When children go to school, they will sometimes only ever experience women as teachers in their junior schools. These are trends we do need to take seriously and to try to reverse. Perhaps one place to start is to tackle student preferences regarding teacher training – we need to persuade more young men to think of a teaching career, so that there is a greater gender balance and more of a chance that boys will see that learning and intellectual achievement is not something peculiarly female and possibly ‘unmanly’. We need to do this urgently.

Concerns for the equality agenda in a recession

February 24, 2009

In the current recession, and with significant issues of funding hitting almost everything, new priorities quickly emerge and old ones can suffer. Monday’s edition of the London Times newspaper reported as follows:

Plans to axe new laws that would increase costs for businesses, including enhanced maternity leave and tougher equality legislation, are threatening to blow open a Cabinet rift over how Labour should respond to the economic downturn, The Times has learnt.

The proposals, outlined in the Queen’s Speech just two months ago, and championed by Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader, are at risk after Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, and the Chancellor called for a moratorium on any measures that would add to the current financial pressure on businesses.

In Ireland, funding for the Equality Authority was reduced very significantly a few weeks ago, and as a result the Authority’s chief executive resigned

It is of course exceptionally difficult to undertake dramatic cuts to public expenditure while still maintaining strategic priorities. However, it is to be hoped that one of the casualties of the recession will not be the equal opportunity principle. As conditions worsen, it may be tempting to regard equality as a luxury, and some may even consider it a bureaucratic cost; but in the end equality of opportunity is what marks out a civilised society, and it is an ideal that should not be sacrificed. It may well be that its implementation should be monitored to ensure that it takes account of the tricky conditions in which many employers and other bodies now find themselves; but respect for people regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and other grounds should never be compromised.


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