News Colette Browne

Sunday 21 September 2014

Why is it all right for a male minister to cry when it's career suicide for a woman?

Published 29/05/2014 | 02:30

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Minister for Health Dr James Reilly pictured while on a visit Oberstown Centre in Lusk North County Dublin. Picture: Mark Condren
Minister for Health Dr James Reilly pictured while on a visit Oberstown Centre in Lusk North County Dublin. Picture: Mark Condren

If a female minister routinely became emotional in public she would be derided as hysterical and hounded from office. Why is it different for a man?

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Delivering a speech on acute medicine this week, Health Minister James Reilly, below, appeared to become emotional.

As he spoke about changes to the health service, which had been prompted by Savita Halappanavar's death, his voice faltered. It's not the first time the minister has battled his emotions at a public engagement.

Earlier this year, he broke down as he spoke about the bravery of the parents whose babies had died at Portlaoise Hospital.

While one would need a heart of stone not be moved by these tragic stories, Reilly is renowned for struggling to contain his emotions as he speaks about difficult subjects as part of his brief.

Health journalists can recount many instances where the minister appeared visibly moved as he travelled around the country meeting both patients and professionals.

But does the minister's quivering lip and trembling voice betray humanity or weakness?

Politicians are not automatons, and cannot be expected to remain impervious to the stories of human tragedy that cross their desk every day, but the frequency of Reilly's public battles with his emotions should raise some questions.

It is impossible to imagine a woman being taken seriously if she appeared as affected by her brief as Reilly seems to be.

If a female minister was to stand in front of a room full of hospital consultants, her voice faltering as she delivered a speech, questions would immediately be asked about her suitability for the role.

She would be described as either weak or manipulative. Too personally affected to be effective in her role. The phrase "tired and emotional" would be deployed to devastating effect.

Perhaps that's why it's so difficult to point to any examples of female politicians breaking down in public.

Meanwhile, a large number of male politicians routinely choke up and wipe away tears.

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone infamously wept through his own Labour party election broadcast. He was so moved by the prospect of his imminent defeat by Boris Johnson, that he couldn't contain his grief.

Even a political bruiser like Winston Churchill was not averse to turning on the water works in parliament, although they were usually used to deflect a political attack.

John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, is also renowned for blubbing in public.

No one bats an eyelid when he gets choked up delivering speeches about military spending or when relaying stories of his childhood and his 11 brothers and sisters.

Meanwhile, when Hillary Clinton welled up during her bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008, it spawned thousands of articles about her fitness to become commander-in-chief.

Did the American people really want a woman whose heart could rule her head when she was making decisions?

Did they want a president who seemed to be unable to separate her personal and professional life?

Did the briefest hint at the human being underneath the polished political façade disqualify her from the role?

Cable news channels played slow-motion clips of her wiping her eyes ad nauseam as panels of commentators tore her to shreds.

The brief clip of Clinton crying generated far more column inches than any of her foreign policy endeavours as Secretary of State.

So, the consensus seems to be that, for female politicians, crying can be career suicide, but for a man it shows bravery and maturity, someone who is in touch with his feelings and not afraid to show it.

Which is why Reilly's public battles with his emotions have gone unremarked upon and largely unnoticed during his tenure in office.

As a man, no one thinks that his ability to do his job is in any way compromised by the fact that he seems to be so personally affected by the traumatic stories that he hears.

Can anyone honestly say that a female minister, who displayed the same levels of overt emotion, would escape scrutiny and censure?

Irish Independent

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