Finn McRedmond: Ireland’s sick system has been exposed by Covid-19 gender imbalances

Leaving women out of high-level Covid conversations can have nothing but negative effects

‘The meeting of the three Coalition leaders (pictured), three Ministers, the chief medical officer and the deputy chief medical officer on Saturday seems like a patent absurdity.’ Photograph: Julien Behal/PA

‘The meeting of the three Coalition leaders (pictured), three Ministers, the chief medical officer and the deputy chief medical officer on Saturday seems like a patent absurdity.’ Photograph: Julien Behal/PA

 

We have come a long way in the past eight months, since Covid-19 fully asserted its presence across Europe, to understanding the virus. But there are still plenty of unknowns: What is the full cost of lockdown and how are we going to pay for it? Can we learn to live with the virus as we await a vaccine that may never arrive? Is a zero-Covid strategy a futile pursuit?

There are few obvious answers and even more difficult questions that elude simple responses. One thing, however, is becoming increasingly clear. Though it appears men are more vulnerable to the most severe effects of the disease itself, it is women who are disproportionately affected by many of the pandemic’s by-products.

Incidents of domestic abuse have risen since the outbreak of Covid-19. Women are more likely to be single parents – juggling work and childcare responsibilities. They are over-represented in industries set to see a flurry of new job losses - hospitality, retail and tourism. And the Guardian noted that women occupy most care-roles (with 82 per cent of adult social care jobs in the UK held by women) where day-to-day pressure has been immense.

With all of this in mind, the meeting of the three Coalition leaders, three Ministers, the chief medical officer and the deputy chief medical officer on Saturday seems like a patent absurdity. Among the eight names – there to discuss the possibility of entering into a second lockdown – women were conspicuous by their absence.

Domestic violence

There are plenty of debates to be had over the inherent value of gender parity (though the moral imperative for seeking greater diversity in our political class ought to be obvious). But if we reduce the question to a simple outcome-driven approach, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid the question: why were there no women in the room at all? Not least as confusion mounts over childcare provision policies and fears over increasing incidents of domestic violence amid a second lockdown grow.

There are reams of evidence that point towards the practical benefits of gender parity in leadership structures. Most recently the consulting firm McKinsey found a strong correlation between gender diversity and greater profitability. So too did it find that gender diversity indicated organisational and structural health in companies.

It all sounds very corporate. And we should be careful not to assume the struggles facing a pandemic-stricken government and the financial interests of a company are the same. But the takeaway is a simple one: Gender diversity affects performance outcomes; and gender diversity is a symptom of a healthy governance structure. The former point is easy to quantify. The latter perhaps more difficult.

We would do well to zoom out. There has been endless ink spilt on how women leaders are better adept at handling the pandemic – as observers endeavour to make global comparisons between countries whose Covid-19 response has been deemed a success, and those deemed a failure.

Jacinda Arden, prime minister of New Zealand, has emerged as a fan favourite thanks to New Zealand’s relatively low death rate and her so-called compassionate leadership style.

That there were no women in the room is symptomatic of something unhealthy at the core of our political culture

In Taiwain Tsai Ing-wen’s approval ratings have skyrocketed thanks to quick and decisive action against the disease.

We should avoid making spurious claims that women are better at pandemic-management thanks to their feminine qualities. Geographical factors are of far greater importance to New Zealand than Arden declaring the Easter Bunny to be a “key worker.”

So too should we remind ourselves – as in the case of Taiwan – that implementing a successful track-and-trace policy is not a function of womanhood.

Greater gender diversity

Instead we are witnessing a very different phenomenon play out: greater gender diversity in politics is a manifestation of a healthy political culture. As Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University, wrote: women leaders rise to positions of prominence “in a political culture in which there’s a relative support and trust in the government – and that doesn’t make stark distinctions between women and men”. When it comes to implementing Covid-19 policy, these places already have a head start.

If this is the case, then the absence of women from the meeting on Saturday in Dublin is all the more troubling. For a so-called socially liberal country, one which has seen two women as head of state and one woman currently leading a major party, Ireland still falls far behind in international rankings when it comes to parliamentary representation of women (in 2019 occupying the 83rd spot globally).

And we should not forget recent reports stating – that at this rate of travel – it will not be until 2063 that gender parity is achieved in the Dáil.

We do not need to indulge in sentimental odes to the value of gender equality in politics – legitimate though they may be. Rather we can simply note that leaving women out of these high-level conversations can have nothing but negative knock-on effects on policy. But of far greater concern is what it reveals about the conditions of our governmental structure in the first place.

That there were no women in the room on Saturday is symptomatic of something unhealthy at the core of our political culture.

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