International Women's Day

2011-03-09T10:54:41+00:00 March 9th, 2011|Categories: Opinion|Tags: , , , , , |
International Women's Day

This is the speech I gave last night at a great event run by Cork Feminista to celebrate the 100th International Women’s Day


Good evening everyone, and happy 100th International Women’s Day!

When I was sitting down to write this speech, I began to think about the recent election; the role of women in Irish politics and society; and what seems to be a feminist resurgence happening internationally at the moment, as evidenced by the existence of numerous new groups like this one.

My mind turned to an event I was at before last week’s election, organised by the 50:50 Group, a Cork-based group of women lobbying to improve women’s representation in politics.

I thought about something Cork North Central TD Kathleen Lynch had said about women’s priorities and outlook on the world. Kathleen’s take on women’s thinking gave me serious cause for thought, and this speech will outline the conclusions it has brought me to.

Feminist icon Eleanor Roosevelt once said “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

But this to me, portrays a fundamental discrimination in the way we approach the world. As Kathleen said that day, “she was at home baking the bread and trying to feed the children, and keep everything going, while he was off fighting battles”.

That has been a woman’s role. Battles, historically, are men’s preserve; but the struggle is women’s. The long game, the minutiae, the reality of how to keep going and stay afloat, has often been a woman’s concern.

Going back to what Eleanor Roosevelt said, it can be argued that if you don’t consider people first, neither ideas nor events matter very much.

Roosevelt, while a progressive, was a product of her time and place, where women were expected to stay in the background and in the domestic, in which people immediately close to oneself were the focus.

But that thinking can be widened, and is being widened with some success, in many ways. As the old feminist mantra goes, the personal is political.

And women, who think of people before ideas or events, often, are making this happen.

We are conditioned to feel that the ‘big picture’ is the one to look at. Men have been able to look at the big picture for centuries, because someone else was looking after the little picture. But in many ways the little picture is now coming into focus.

Thinking like a woman is not wrong; it’s different, and equally important.


The man’s game – time for the second half

Politics is and has been a man’s game. Women throughout the world have tried with varying levels of success, to play the game. But the first half is nearly over, the second half will have a lot more female participation.

In places like Sweden, one of the first to extend the franchise to women, and which has been firm in its resolve to improve women’s participation rates, the game has evolved to become one that is almost gender neutral.

International research has found that women are prevented from participating in politics by the five Cs – cash, confidence, childcare, culture, and candidate selection procedures. In some countries these have been addressed but in others, Ireland being one, there has been a lot of talk and very little action.

Some women who have reached the top have been encouraging to others, while many have not. It appears, in some instances, that parties have been prevented from introducing quotas by their female members. This is not so much a case of kicking out the ladder behind them, as preventing a ladder being erected at all; they have had to shimmy up the drainpipe, so why should their successors be any different?

However, there have been two developments in the past number of years that have been encouraging to me personally, in showing how politics can be done.

The election of Barack Obama in the US is one. Aside from the obvious cultural step forward of America’s first black President, there are some other unique points about Obama that make him a genuine change from those who have gone before. He was raised mostly by women and he is married to a woman who has been his equal in ambition and achievement.

Obama is of the new generation now reaching leadership age, that clearly believes women are equal to men.

(Before I list these, let me make a disclaimer – he’s not perfect, and if any of these things does happen, I’ll be sorely disappointed.)

You can’t imagine Obama stopping to admire an aide’s rear end, almost as a caricature of himself, during an international summit. You can’t imagine him dallying with prostitutes. You can’t imagine him sinking pints til half four in the morning to be ‘one of the lads’ purely for the sake of it, with an important interview the next morning.

And his wife. She is an intelligent woman – possibly more intelligent than he is – that he is not threatened by. His style of leadership focusses on negotiating, bargaining, and diplomacy, traits that many male leaders consider weak, or beneath them.

While Obama is the same age as Brian Cowen, his life experiences are a lifetime away. But there are men now, younger than him, who have grown up in Ireland in households where the mother is joint breadwinner, or chief breadwinner. Where it’s the norm for girls to outperform boys in school and for women to have careers.

That makes an enormous difference. The generation coming to power is one that has known this to be the norm.

The second major development is the financial crisis. While we are in danger of glossing over the events of the past few years in favour of looking forward, a consensus is starting to build that the old ways just do not work.

The boys’ club of banks and the baboon-like contests of the financial world, and of politics, has directly caused the financial crisis.

Constant competition for inflated, false gains, constant comparison with the next guy, and an adulation – in Ireland particularly – of the chancer, the fools’ gold peddler, the no-proof crook, have brought us where we are. The big guys with their huge profits and massive property portfolios, have been brought low. It’s the small-timers, the people who worked steadily, incrementally, for smaller gain, who are surviving.

Politically, as I wrote in last week’s newspaper, there has been tiny, tiny progress in the most recent election. With fewer women candidates, more women were elected than ever before. It’s not much of a record; still just 25 out of 166.

But the discourse is open again in a way it probably hasn’t been since a generation of feminists who are now part of the system was heard, loudly, in the 1970s.

It’s up to our generation to progress what those women achieved, and I believe this decade is the decade in which it can happen. In the decade that will celebrate a centenary of women ‘getting’ the vote – 1918 – it’s time for women now to ‘get votes’ and become an active part of a system that is ripe for change.

What are you thinking?

As the world changes politically, however, it is changing in many other ways.

The social networking phenomenon, a personalisation and individualisation of commercial enterprises, and the revolution in business and personal lives and how they interact has not yet been fully understood.

It’s been noted that women appear to be far more opinionated on the likes of Twitter and Facebook than they are reflected to be in mainstream media.

Time and time again I have watched Vincent Browne or Prime Time while tweeting and a chorus has come from those I follow on Twitter about lack of women on a panel – with no shortage of willing participants online. (vinb, as we tweeters call it, is one of the good guys for including women – sometimes even having two!)

With the likes of Twitter and Facebook – and greatly accelerated by a recession-prompted change of focus – business is starting to think like a woman.

It’s a gross generalisation, of course, but it’s the old ‘what are you thinking?’ debate.

Marketing and advertising are now seeking to get into your head rather than your pocket.

Going back to what Kathleen Lynch said that day, women think differently.

And I believe that this new focus on relationship building in business, the focus on a marketing that is built on the individual’s likes and dislikes, while it can be a little intrusive, is a mirror of that ‘what are you thinking’ divide.

It’s a feminine way of doing business, and it’s taking over how every company operates. It’s more nuanced than a sale, or a special offer. It makes the customer feel special.

In business, since the recession, it’s small indigenous companies that are providing employment, and that are seen as the saviours. Food producers, exporting retailers, craftspeople; all these are being seen as the way to go. Empowering every small business in the country to hire one more staff member would wipe out unemployment – rather than looking to the latest dot com to open a HQ in Dublin and hire 500 people.

In media, hyperlocal is the new buzz word. Much media is simply a more advanced form of gossip, and hyperlocal is the new Mass. Find out what’s happening in your neighbourhood from local users feeding in their knowledge, get targeted offers and brands from local retailers and companies; it’s all micro. And it’s all about people.

In international development, empowering women is a key focus.

The days of giving money to a village chief are gone; these days women are provided with microfinance, farming tools and knowledge.

Kathleen Lynch said that day in the Imperial Hotel, “women are the managers of their own universe”.

Teach a man to fish, and he’ll never be hungry. But, as Hillary Clinton has added to the old saying, “teach a woman to fish, and she’ll teach her whole village”.

Women think differently, and that’s why gender equality is third on the list of the UN Millennium Development Goals – not as an end of itself, but because empowering women will help achieve the other goals more effectively.

The turmoil that is now spreading throughout the Arab world is a further step for women, hopefully. In Egypt, women young and old were front and centre of the protest movement. It’s too early to say what outcome the wave of revolutionary action in the Middle East will have, but the participation of women, in Egypt at least, is hopeful.

The personal is political

I was born in 1985. My first political memory is of Mary Robinson wearing a purple suit, being sworn in among a sea of black suits.

My primary school class was roughly half and half, and I spent eight years vying with my best friend – a girl – to be the higher achiever. In our class, only about half the mothers worked. But this was pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland, and the fathers didn’t have jobs either. Now, most of the mothers work part-time, but the fathers, again, are out of work.

In secondary school, I watched as the boys dropped out or left early for apprenticeships and the girls stormed home in the points race – it wasn’t a high achieving school, but ten of our class got over 500 points. One was a boy.

In college, I was surprised to see boys working so hard and studying – they were a new phenomenon.

Up to then, you see, it had never occurred to me that men and women were equal. My role models were women. I don’t mean to be glib; this is truly my experience. It was only from university that I began to realise it was supposed to be the other way around.

In fact, there is a whole other debate about the detrimental effect all this underachieving in school is having on young men, and this is certainly an issue too.

I watched Mary Robinson’s swearing-in with my mother, the main breadwinner in our home, who recently retired and now has two jobs.

She was born in 1954, the Marian year. She grew up cooking for her six brothers, and went to a school where girls were streamed into the college class, the secretarial class, and the shop girl class.

The impact of Mary Robinson’s Presidency has been huge, but unfortunately, it has not trickled down through politics in terms of feminism.

I think, though, that as this generation of women become political, business and thought leaders, that early memory of her, first citizen amongst men, is starting to be felt.

Celebrating disorderly minds

It has taken me a long time to react correctly to comments that it’s great to have a woman editing the Cork Independent. It’s never struck me that this is exceptional – our sister paper is edited by a woman, and our Advertising Manager is a woman.

I regularly get ‘dear sir’ letters. By regularly, I mean at least three a week.

That’s about three quarters of the total letters we receive. We couldn’t make it any easier for our correspondents – my editorial, with a clearly female photo, is there on page 2. With EDITOR written in bold beside my name. But that’s just carelessness in their haste to be heard.

The best yet was a phone call the newsroom received recently.

Our political coverage in the week before the election featured a list of all candidates in all constituencies in Cork. The list was printed exactly as we received it from the Returning Officer. I had debated about alphabetising it, but decided not to – people with early alphabet names have all the luck!

The call was from a reader, complaining that we had given an advantage in the listing by not alphabetising the names.

“Tell your editor,” he said, to the female reporter that answered the phone, “that he should have put them in alphabetical order.”

“She. Our editor is Deirdre O’Shaughnessy” came the reply.

“She? That gurl with the blonde hair is it, who writes the column? Well, that explains it,” he said.

“How so?”

“Women,” he proclaimed, “have disorderly minds.”

Perhaps I’ve had a charmed career, but I have never suffered because of my gender. Yes, I’ve endured the passing sexual harassment almost all women get at some stage. And I have had comments of surprise and even disbelief when people have met me in person, but I like to put those down to youth! And for the record – I don’t have an orderly mind – but that is nothing to do with gender .

Part of my good fortune is the fact that I don’t yet have children or family responsibilities – I’m not seen as an inconvenience in the workplace, as so many mothers are.

But the changes that are taking place in the world at the moment – and I have taken a very, very narrow view in this discussion – are momentous, and we could be reaching a tipping point.

It is hard to recognise this when you have election fatigue, and you are working and your husband isn’t, and you are worried about oil prices.

So, to Eleanor Roosevelt; what’s wrong with talking of people first? Ideas work for people, and events involve them. We think differently. Small, perhaps?

I have no doubt that the glass ceiling is there, somewhere, waiting for us to crack our heads on it; but if enough of us reach high enough, it will crack before we do.


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