Surprised to feel at home at Equality Authority


It seems the obvious step of seeking gender equality for both genders is being taken

ALTHOUGH I have been writing about equality for years, I had never, until last Wednesday, been inside the Dublin headquarters of the Equality Authority. To be truthful, I didn’t even know it was in Clonmel Street, off Harcourt Street, a short walk from St Stephen’s Green. It may be relevant that I have never before been invited. But there was also my sense that the kind of equality the Equality Authority was interested in did not embrace the kinds of things I had increasingly, since the mid-1990s, found myself writing about.

Last week, I was invited to the launch of the authority’s Strategic Plan 2009-2011, Equality for All in a Time of Change. Curiosity, and a hunch about the new chair of the board, dragged me along. But, still, I half expected the kind of frosty reception I have long been getting in such quarters for pointing out things that have been unpalatable to some of those already ensconced within the equality tent.

I happen to know the recently appointed chair of the authority, Angela Kerins, as a colleague for the past five years on the board of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. For many years Angela has been a towering force in advancing the cause of people with disabilities. She and several members of the authority’s staff actually greeted me as though I was not after all in the wrong place. Over the next hour or so, I met several old acquaintances and new friends among those campaigning on behalf of the disabled, the Travelling community and others. I encountered also the long disappeared Peter White, former Fine Gael press secretary, now a member of the authority’s board.

For the first time in many years, I felt at home in a place where hitherto I would have found large tracts of carpet opening up around me. But my sense of a change went deeper than the personal. A man sitting beside me drew my attention to page 25 of the new Strategic Plan, which outlined under the heading “Objective 1” that the Equality Authority will henceforth seek to promote “the status of men as carers, in particular the equal sharing of caring rights and responsibilities between women and men and continuing dialogue with men’s organisations on issues of equality for men”. Further down the page was a commitment to respond to “gender equality issues for men including their impact on health and wellbeing”.

Already I was glad I came.

Addressing the meeting, Prof John FitzGerald of the ESRI gave an overview of the likely impact of the recession on those already weakened by difference or marginalisation. He highlighted an emerging disparity in the education levels enjoyed by women and men. It seems that an unnoticed byproduct of the boom years has been that young men were opting out of education to avail of ready money in, for example, the construction sector.

On a day when newspaper reports were again emphasising discrimination against women, FitzGerald pointed out that whereas almost 60 per cent of women now enter third-level education, the figure for males is 40 per cent. This, he said, will have serious adverse consequences for men in both the economic and personal contexts, as low educational attainment is also seriously disadvantageous in relation to marriage prospects.

What I found most remarkable was that FitzGerald spoke as though the outcome for males was as important as the outcome for females. I pinched myself, but found he was still speaking. There were no caveats, no weasel words, no counter-balancing what-aboutery. I have never before, at a public meeting held under the auspices of any State organisation, heard someone say something with the clear implication that the Irish State is as concerned for its sons as for its daughters.

Angela Kerins outlined what, to these ears, sounded like a revolutionary message at a time of seismic change: “Let there be no doubt that the equality agenda and the work of the Equality Authority is owned by every man, woman, and child in Ireland. We are determined that everyone who has an interest in our work will feel a part of it, and that no one will feel that the authority does not have a real concern about an issue which affects their dignity or their equality.”

It is 13 years since I began to write in this newspaper about the hidden ways in which men are discriminated against in this society – about, for example, how fathers are treated after the personal relationships between them and the mothers of their children have fallen apart. It has been a rough ride. Often, I have felt like a counter-revolutionary, seeking to undo gains achieved in earlier waves of progress and change.

I do not exaggerate when I say that, sitting in the offices of the Equality Authority in Dublin last Wednesday, I felt for the first time the possibility that the day might yet arrive when I will no longer have to annoy myself and everyone else by seeming to be the only one who has noticed what strike me as the most glaringly obvious things. Before our eyes, the concept of equality in society was beginning to be reintegrated with the dictionary definition.