‘Daddy flies aeroplanes. Mummy makes the food’ – portrait of an Ireland steeped in bias

Judging by the studio discussion in RTÉ’s ‘A Woman’s World’, change can’t come soon enough

‘The Big Picture: A Woman’s World’ featured a live discussion co-presented by Miriam O’Callaghan and Brendan Courtney

‘The Big Picture: A Woman’s World’ featured a live discussion co-presented by Miriam O’Callaghan and Brendan Courtney

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When Kelly Dolan’s daughter was three years old she told her kindergarten class what her parents did for a living. “Daddy flies aeroplanes,” she told the teacher, “and Mummy makes the food.”

Dolan, a captain with Aer Lingus, was perplexed and quite amused. Although they wore the same uniform, she occasionally liked to remind her husband, a pilot with the same airline, that she outranked him. How did their toddler manage to get this strange idea?

One explanation, for which The Big Picture: A Woman’s World (RTÉ One, Thursday, 9.15pm) provides ample evidence, is that gender inequality is so socially endemic, so culturally ingrained, that your world view might be shaped by hoary prejudices without even realising it.

One of the eight women who contribute to Tanya Sillem’s handsomely crafted and illuminating documentary, the physicist Niamh Kavanagh, notes the bewildering results of one study, for instance. It found that both male and female scientists – scientists, mind – were more likely to undervalue female applicants for positions, purely on the basis of their names, and offer male applicants with identical CVs an average of €4,000 more in starting salary.

How do you counter bias so prevalent that toddlers and empiricists seem to be equally susceptible?

Kavanagh offers some advice: “We are the architects of the technology of the future,” she says of physicists. Without women behind the blueprints, “those biases can be programmed into our technology”.

In politics, business, culture, art and sport, however, that is what has happened for generations. We’ve been very poorly programmed.

There are, of course, limits to what a documentary can do – even one bookended by a live discussion co-presented by Miriam O’Callaghan and Brendan Courtney – can achieve in recoding the gender mainframe. But the programme does make both achievements and injustices clearly visible.

Take the retired Defence Forces Capt Diane Byrne, one of a tiny minority of women serving in the military, who this year was awarded almost €1m following a judicial review into the decision to exclude her from promotion after she became a mother.

Or the challenges described by Jodie Moore, an English teacher who (like almost half of mothers with toddlers, we were informed) left employment to care for her three children. “This is every moment of every minute of my life trying to keep these children happy, not crying and just alive,” she says, not despairingly, while still making Byrne’s peace-keeping mission in Liberia sound like a blissful holiday.

The film’s panoply of women wisely includes a contribution from Ellie Kisyombie, a refugee originally from Malawi, living in Direct Provision exposing the daily realities of Ireland’s inadequate service and how asylum seekers can be exploited.

That ranged from the personal (“If a child has never seen their mother cooking, they don’t know exactly who you are”) to the catastrophic, where young women who are not allowed to work are preyed upon by opportunists, slipping into prostitution. “It’s poverty,” Kisyombie reasoned. Currently, though, that poverty is enforced and prolonged by Direct Provision.

It says something about the skills of the filmmaker that each contributor can be realised so personably, and that their exasperations, while comparable, are not competitive. It’s as easy to empathise with the Cork County Councillor Danielle Twomey as the Clare Camogie star Chloe Morey, for instance.

Twomey is a firm supporter of gender quotas in politics, who recalls taking her infant along to inspect road issues in a baby sling, and tearfully regrets missing her first steps while taking part in a radio debate.

Morey, comparing experiences with her cousin the Irish hurler Séadna Morey, exposes the gallingly unfair disequilibrium in State support for men and women in GAA, while the documentary shines a light on the worrying attrition of girls in sport. Is it any wonder they lack role models, or broad cultural encouragement, when our female stars are asked to bear the burden of their participation practically alone? 

If anger seems like an appropriate response, it finds its most intense, unanswerable expression in Dominique Meehan, a rape survivor who waived her anonymity when her attacker was sentenced to 12 years in prison. “He got what he deserved,” Meehan said after the sentencing, “and what I deserved.”

Responding to Meehan’s story first, which described how her trauma was prolonged by inadequate provision of Sexual Assault Treatment Units – unable to wash, use a toilet or even drink a glass of water for six hours after the attack while shuttled from the Rotunda to Mullingar – the live discussion was immediately subdued.

Minister for Health, Simon Harris, whose work towards repealing the eighth amendment has made him appear like the government’s Listener in Chief, was characteristically attentive and affirmative, but still reliant on the cautious promises of imminently-due reports and forthcoming policies. To judge from the block picture of wariness among the small studio audience, change can’t happen soon enough.  

Harris was not the only male politician of the night to adopted a motto, encouraging men “to step up to the plate” of feminism, a laudable sentiment, certainly, although one that harboured its own unchecked bias towards baseball.

A more popular motto, adopted by various speakers to refer to everything from aviation to sports to politics, was “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”

From its participants to its presenters to its makers, the programme, at least, made its own fine example and encouraging display.

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