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Blog Archive: Accelerating the Pace of Change

Writtten for the NWCI Blog - December 2014

Last year marked National Women’s Council’s fortieth birthday; it also coincided with the occasion of forty years of Irish membership of the European Union. Undoubtedly, two significant anniversaries for both Irish society and economy. Two weeks ago, the Women’s Council opened the doors to their new home in Smithfield – a home which will undoubtedly provide a welcoming platform for new and progressive initiatives and plans towards equality. As one of the speakers on the evening of the opening, I was struck by the recurrent themes running through so many of our contributions – that change comes ‘dropping slow’ and despite four decades of activism, policy and legislation – much work is still required in the pursuance of gender equality.

So, where are we now? It’s fair to say that the percentages of female representation across various sectors don’t point to an ideal scenario: women’s representation in politics, board leadership, entrepreneurship and media very often hover around the mid-teens. It is also helpful to provide balance to this statement, however, and recognise the increase in representation in certain areas – for example State boards, where representation currently stands at 36.2%. The 2013 GEM Report also highlighted a narrowing of the gap in terms of the ratio of women to men starting businesses. It’s notable that both of these examples have seen specific measures introduced to promote activity – including Paula Fitzsimons’ “Going for Growth” programme and the DCU Ryan Academy “High Fliers” Accelerator – both of which are supported by Enterprise Ireland, who themselves have been central to the promotion of female entrepreneurship through their funding mechanisms. In 1993, the Irish Government introduced a 40% target for State boards – which might explain why there’s a 25% differential between private and State boards.

I’m regularly asked by colleagues why it is these ‘gaps’ persist? Frankly, there isn’t one simple response. There are, however, two very real issues: societal norms and perception. Norms engrained over a period of recent history where a marriage bar existed. Perception that has subsequently come to pass.

That said, it’s all too easy to blame some of the utterly regressive realities of the past. It’s important not to brush off more recent narratives – including the suggestion by noteworthy tech giants that, in order for senior female staff to preserve their careers, it may be useful to offer them specific health insurance to preserve their eggs. This commentary comes from a sector known to have suggested women shouldn’t question gender pay gaps – because, if you’re good enough – you’ll be suitably remunerated. That explains the 13.9% gender pay gap… we’re just not working hard enough. Maybe it also explains the fact that STEM is an area with a distinct dearth of women.

I may well be teetering on the brink of sounding a bit aggressive now [for that read also ‘too feminist’], indeed I’m often nervous about coming over all “bra-burning stereotype” when I talk about these issues to colleagues. The truth of the matter is – and to paraphrase Una Mullaly’s erudite contribution at the “Why We Still Need Feminism” event earlier this year – quoting Panti’s “Noble Call”, many of us ‘check ourselves’ for being too feminist.

There’s much work to be done in the context of gender equality; of that there is no doubt. Central to this discussion is the importance of collaboration and interconnectedness – across organisations, initiatives and most importantly, society. Feminism is not the stock preserve of women; it is just as relevant for men. By bringing #HeForShe to mass awareness, Emma Watson reminds us of the significant role men play in gender equality for so many reasons.

In opening the doors to their new home, NWCI have commenced a new chapter in their hugely important societal role – continuing to accelerate the pace of change.

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