The conversation of gender equality and female rights is one that unfortunately continues to take place in 2021. In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the issue worldwide. According to McKinsey, women’s jobs were 1.8 times more vulnerable during the crisis than men’s.

For this culture jam, we wanted to dig deeper and interrogate gender equality from an Irish perspective. What does Irish society reveal when viewed through the female lens? To help us navigate the gender equality minefield we were joined by Orla O Connor.

Orla is the Director of National Women’s Council (NWC), the leading national women’s membership organisation in Ireland. She was Co-Director of Together For Yes, the national Civil Society Campaign to remove the 8th Amendment in the referendum and was recognised as one of the 100 Most Influential People by TIME magazine in 2019 as a result of this work.

Here are some of our key takeaways from chatting with her.

The pace of change has never been...as complacent?

Everyone believes women's equality is important but how strong is that belief. Even as recent as May 2021 the story of a Dublin golf club only beginning to permit female members speaks to true depiction of the state of female equality in Ireland. Deeply held beliefs in gender equality and lip service seem to be interchangeable talking points for some when discussing women’s rights. It was only 1974 when the ban on women in Irish society working and being married was lifted. This was a watershed moment for women’s rights in Ireland and yet the counter argument is made of how much more progress has been made in the 47 years that have elapsed since? The pace of change has a duality to it – milestones such as the 2018 referendum to repeal the eighth amendment in the Irish constitution evoke a sense of real momentum and energy for the women’s movement. However, Orla also points out that while the progress that has happened has largely occurred within this lifetime and government cycle, the rate of change is still quite slow. The movement for female rights and equality has been consistent for decades now. Breakthrough moments, like the 2018 referendum, represent positive swells within the female rights movement. But unfortunately any energy, attention and importance around female rights can dissipate once the aspired outcome is achieved.

One referendum does not gender equality make.

“True gender inequality becomes clear when you have a child”

Inequality oftentimes must be experienced first-hand to be understood. In the context of gender equality, the event of having a child can be the lightbulb moment for a lot of people:

“Often the experience of direct discrimination or inequality is really only felt when it comes to having children and then because of the lack of childcare, the lack of sharing of care responsibilities between women and men, it becomes a reality. It’s often then that it really hits and people think ‘Oh wow, Ireland is still quite an unequal place....True gender equality becomes clear when you have a child“

If becoming a parent is the catalyst for recognising- gender inequality in Ireland, then surely a growing number of parents in Ireland, due to increased population,, means a growing support for change?

Actually, yes.

But what is the required to garner change, another referendum?

Exactly.

The NWCI are calling for a 2022 referendum to amend article 41.2 which concerns the definition of family in the Irish constitution. The article in question details that a woman’s place is in the home and this placement is viewed as her contribution to the state. At a single glance, this wording is archaic, outdated, sexist language that does not reflect the progressive and growing female rights movement in Ireland. However the wording carries a much heavier weight. Article 41.2 has informed events such as the marriage ban - that prohibited women from working once they married. And in turn pay inequality in the form of access to pensions – as women were not permitted to work once married, they were deemed ineligible for the state pension. Article 41.2 is a keystone that weighs down female rights in Ireland, a signifier of what the NWCI has campaigned to dismantle for a number of years. In April of this year, the Citizens Assembly on Gender Equality voted overwhelmingly to replace this article along with some watershed recommendations for gender equality:

  • By the end of 2022, gender quotas should be extended for party candidates to local, Seanad and European elections.
  • Gender quotas should be increased from 30 per cent to 40 per cent and should also apply to men. Funding for public bodies should be contingent on reaching a 40 per cent gender balance quota by 2025.
  • Public funding to cultural, sports, arts and media organisations should be contingent on a quota of 30 per cent representation of women, and of men, on their governing bodies by 2025 and 40 per cent by 2030.
  • Paid leave for parents should cover the first year of a child’s life, be non-transferable, provide lone parents with the same total leave period as a couple and be incentivised by increasing payment levels to encourage increased take up.

These recommendations signal a cultural sea change in Ireland, an Ireland that seeks to place women’s equality at the centre of its Constitution, legislation and policies. One of the most striking recommendations from the Citizens Assembly was the recommendation that the conventional and constitutional definition of the family should also be examined. When forced to examine how the Irish constitution has disenfranchised women in society and we begin to redress this, our gaze begins to fall to othering of other groups: lone parents, same sex families etc. It seems that a growing number of families in Ireland is giving way to a national conversation of what exactly constitutes a family and how everyone, women included this time, must be given equal respect and autonomy in relation to the family unit and in the eyes of wider society.

“When you are a feminist, you have to be an optimist”

The past 18 months have been particularly difficult for women. Numerous reports and studies by organisations such as IBEC, EIGE, UNESCO to name a few, attempted to capture the scope and scale of how disproportionately women were impacted by the pandemic. Speaking about Ireland in particular, Orla noted how expectations made for women during lockdowns were not the same as men. That, compounded by the removal of childcare support systems such as grandparents, in particular grandmothers, led to further stress and pressure being placed on women. Ironically the childcare dependence on family relatives, grandparents and friends has been perpetuated in years in Ireland. This means we have failed to adequately invest in childcare programs, further implying the expected maternal role of women in Irish society and placing more challneges in their path. These Covid pressures have resulted in what Orla described as “more women calling the NWCI than ever before, with claims of being at the end of their tether or not being able to cope anymore”

Considering this is a time when we have looked to our government for guidance and instruction more so than ever before, it bears noting that the female struggle throughout the Covid-19 pandemic was largely overlooked. Research by the NWCI concludes that women represent 24 per cent of elected councillors at local government. While quotas have been introduced for national politics, it is still early doors and throughout the pandemic male faces led the public discourse around measures being put in place. Considering this, is it any wonder that at the beginning of the pandemic, women on maternity leave were not recognised as being entitled to pandemic supports? Or that the conversation around maternity restrictions has permeated and continues to be a hot topic in public discourse?

It feels like there is no end in sight, even as restrictions are being relaxed and women are slowly recovering from their specific experience of the past year, where do we go from here? How do we move forward with female equality in Ireland?

In the words of Orla “When you are a feminist, you have to be an optimist”. To that end, it feels that optimism needs to be practiced at an individual level if the collective goal of female equality is to be achieved. So here are some things that anyone can do:

  • Check out the National Women’s Councils’ campaign calling for better #AbortionAccess so that all women and pregnant people can access the care they need: https://www.nwci.ie/abortionaccess
  • The National Women’s Council needs support more than ever to campaign against the continued discrimination of women and hope people will join their feminist community to make sure that women's voices are heard! Sign up here to become a Feminist Changemaker today: https://www.nwci.ie/join/feministchangemaker




*Image credits: Maxwells Photography

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