Great strides made towards gender equality but playing field is still not level

Wed, Feb 1, 2012, 00:00

COMMENT:The Central Statistics Office study shows women are better educated and are earning more – but men still rule

THERE’S VERY little for men or women to cheer about in Women and Men in Ireland 2011, a report published by the Central Statistics Office. Unemployment is high for both genders. Men may dominate the Dáil and top positions in the Civil Service and many fields, but are also more likely to take their own lives or die in a car crash. There are some worrying figures on mental health and alcoholism.

At first glance there seem to be some bright spots when it comes to gender equality. The gap between men’s and women’s incomes has narrowed – women’s incomes are now 73 per cent of the average man’s income, up from 70 per cent in 2010. Women tend to work fewer hours, and when we look at average hourly earnings, the gap is even narrower – women earn 93 per cent of what men earn per hour. Not perfect, but better than it was.

However, the CSO study doesn’t look at one very important factor: unpaid domestic work. A 2008 study by the Economic and Social Research Institute and the Equality Authority showed women, including those in paid employment, still do the vast majority of housework. Including paid and unpaid work, women work on average 39 minutes longer than men daily, they just don’t get paid for lots of it.

The shrinking hourly pay gap is little consolation when you’re up to your elbows in dirty laundry.

Yesterday’s report shows girls continue to outperform boys at school – 53 per cent of young women have third-level qualifications as opposed to 39 per cent of men. More boys than girls are leaving school early, though, happily, the number of male early-leavers has declined. Good marks won’t necessarily help women make it to the top of the professions. Girls have been outperforming boys in education for some time now, but as the study shows, men still rule.

Some commentators are fond of blaming society’s woes on a mysterious feminist mafia, but it’s hard to see where those powerful feminists are hiding given that women make up just 15.1 per cent of the Dáil (compared to a 24 per cent average in parliaments across the EU), a third of State board directorships, and less than a quarter of elected members of local and regional authorities.

The vast majority of senior civil servants are male – from 82.4 per cent of secretaries general to 69.4 per cent of principal officers (77.4 per cent of clerical officers, on the other hand, are female). Even in professions dominated by women, they don’t get the top jobs – 52.6 per cent of non-consultant medical and dental professionals are women, but only 35.7 per cent of consultants. In secondary schools, where 63 per cent of teachers are women, only 40 per cent of management are female.

Of course, some will argue that many women choose not to go for the top jobs or they opt to work in the home rather than for paid employment. They argue that women are over-represented in certain occupations because they choose to work in certain sectors over others. And of course, this is true. The thing is, we don’t make our choices in a vacuum. We all grow up bombarded with powerful messages about how our gender is expected to behave.

Psychologist Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender showed that when people are reminded of their gender and its stereotypes, they will live up – or down – to that image. And women who do want to advance in their careers face real barriers. Taking time out to have children is one, of course. But having a family might not damage one’s career if it weren’t for the fact that, as the Economist pointed out last year, “work in most organisations is structured in ways that were established many decades ago, when married men were the breadwinners and most married women stayed at home”. This doesn’t suit women who don’t have a devoted domestic goddess taking care of the household – or indeed men who want to spend more time with their children.

Women face other issues – from a comparative lack of female mentors and role models to the fact women are socialised not to demand more at work. Add the prohibitive cost of childcare, and it’s a wonder any women reach senior positions at all.

Ireland has come a long way on gender equality, but the playing field is still not level – not for women who want to run the country (or even become a school principal), nor for men who want to spend more time at home.

At the recent Davos summit, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg spoke of how boys are brought up to be “leaders” while girls who show similar traits are chastised as bossy and hence unlikeable. She called for “girls to be ambitious at work and men to be ambitious at home”.

Let’s hope Ireland is listening.

Anna Carey is a journalist and author. Her novel for young adults, The Real Rebecca, won its category at the 2011 Irish Book Awards

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