International Women’s Day: Speakers urge equality targets

Women bring new perspectives and different thinking, Being Greater Than event told

 

Scrambling over a wall while wearing a tight skirt is no easy feat, even for a trained member of an Garda Síochána.

When Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan joined the force in 1981, women only made up 1 per cent of the State’s gardaí.

She had to wear a skirt to work and was assigned jobs connected with women and children.

She remembers standing on a doorstep one night dressed in full uniform responding to a call for help. When the door was finally answered, a man in his 50s barked at the young garda to go, saying he wanted “a real policeman”.

Speaking at the Being Greater Than event run by Accenture to mark International Women’s Day, the Garda Commissioner reflected on the realities faced by the first 12 women who had joined An Garda Síochána in 1959.

Dáil debate

“There was an interesting Dáil debate at the time about whether or not women were suitable for the job of policing,” Ms O’Sullivan told the panel of speakers, chaired by broadcaster Keelin Shanley.

“A member of the parliament said women might be OK, but they certainly shouldn’t be too good-looking. They shouldn’t be horse-faced but... they should not be targets for marriage because it might distract men in the organisation and take away from the job.

“One of the very first lessons I learned was not just accept the way things are done around here but to come up with new ideas,” the Commissioner told a packed out audience in Dublin’s Convention Centre.

“New people bring new perspectives and a different way of thinking.”

Women now make up 26 per cent of An Garda Síochána staff, she said. “It’s about creating an environment where everybody can contribute to the best of their talent and providing opportunities for people.”

Retired Supreme Court judge Ms Justice Fidelma Macken also spoke at Tuesday’s event, which featured discussions on the progress made over the last 100 years in gender equality and the many more steps required over the next 100 years.

Building confidence

Ms Justice Macken reminded parents to re-examine how they encourage their children, particularly their daughters, when it comes to building confidence and self-belief. “You can do an enormous amount in terms of building confidence and ability and being fearless about where they want to go.”

Dr Rhona Mahony, the first female master of the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, called for a more “robust education system” to help women achieve their potential.

“Young women, by the time they’re 13 or 14 - there’s so much pressure on them to look beautiful. They’re very conscious of how they look and perhaps not conscious enough of who they could be.”

Speaking on a second panel on leadership, teacher and fashion blogger Sinéad Burke called for an active conversation on the meaning of the word “equality”.

“Even when we have an all-female panel, I think that’s excellent, but where is the representation of race, religious belief, disability?”

Gender disparity

President of Dublin City University Prof Brian MacCraith highlighted the gender disparity that continues to exist in academia. “It’s just unacceptable. It’s a lack of equity and fairness and an unbelievable waste of talent.”

We must avoid a “groundhog day” situation in 2017 and set solid targets to build on gender equality, said Prof McCraith.

“Today is the United Nations International Women’s Day and they’re using the terminology ‘Planet 50-50 by 2030’.

“We should set targets and measure ourselves as a nation, as a society, in terms of trying to achieve real progress.”