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Independent.ie

Saturday 21 July 2018

Opinion: Will this scandal be a crucial lesson that we need a seismic shift in the promotion of gender equality?

Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

IT was lovely to smell the vegetation as the sun warmed the ground and that persistent cold wind eventually took its leave of us.

 I didn't realise how much I missed the smell of growing foliage until the Arctic air that kept it in abeyance was blown away by the welcome blast of heat.

The arrival of the warmth lifted my spirit and it must have lifted the hearts of the women and men of the land after this long and mean winter. Of course for those of us with a small patch of the planet to keep in order it meant dusting off the strimmer and hoping the lawnmower would last a few rounds of the lawn before expiring.

When summer comes you would wonder how we lasted the winter, what kept us going when the dark evenings came in as the rain hopped incessantly off the ground and the roofs for months on end?

I suppose there is an eternal hope in us that things will get better, and so, a mere 10-minute heatwave is enough to make us think we live in Provence.

But even as the hardness gives way to fresh mornings, warm afternoons and balmy evenings other portents swirling around us are not of a kind to fill one with confidence that all is well and all will be well.

It has been a most disturbing few weeks for women. As a man I am reluctant to comment. I believe what has happened in the CervicalCheck scandal has been exacerbated by the ham-fisted way men with power have dealt with it.

The combination of flawed processes, obfuscation and blatant avoidance of responsibility has led to the appalling reality that some women are now facing years of ill health and an early death. That these awful eventualities could have been avoided is indeed a scandal.

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I believe a major contributory element to this whole sorry and tragic story is the abiding gender imbalance in places of power and in the professions.

Listening to the discussions and debates and following the controversy in the volumes of print it became blindingly obvious to me that women of all political/ideological persuasions and none understood immediately the life and death nature of the CervicalCheck fiasco. Meanwhile many men continued to play politics with it.

I found myself moving from anger to despondence as I contemplated how the absence of women in high places and the paucity of a woman's perspective at all levels is impoverishing us individually and collectively and at its worst is causing women to die.

The eradication of gender equality has to be an urgent priority for us as a society. It has been crystal clear from the various debates on the CervicalCheck issue. In the Dáil, at the Dáil committees and on the range of radio and TV panels men were only 'sort of' getting this but women had it all from the start, and why wouldn't they?

This scandal should be a crucial lesson to us as a society that we need a seismic shift in the promotion of gender equality.

Starting with political representation we also need to have gender quotas imposed across the civil service, state boards, semi-state boards, sporting bodies, the professions, the lot.

In fact, it might be an idea to develop a type of BER rating for gender equality. Such a rating would be applied to organisations, public bodies, associations, corporations and companies when it comes to awarding public contracts, public funding, grant-aid or the like. The gender equality rating (GER) of applicants would have a key bearing on success or failure.

Perhaps this rating could be introduced into the tax code, indeed our beloved corporation tax rate could be graded according to the gender equality credentials of the relevant corporations.

It is clear from the more successful public initiatives introduced over the years that in order to change behaviour goodwill on its own doesn't achieve much; legislation, sanction and reward are also needed.

As cases in point the smoking ban, the plastic bag levy and the imposition of higher road tax on vehicles with higher emissions resulted in an improvement in public health and the environment. Goodwill backed by legislation and sanction did this.

Over the weekend there was some government recognition of the need for urgent action on gender inequality with the announcement that legislation is to be brought forward to address the gender pay gap.

It is hard to believe that women in Ireland continue to earn an average of 14pc less than men doing the same job. This proposed legislation will require companies of more than 250 people to publish details of any gender pay gap and employers will be subject to sanction if they fail to do so. There is no mention of a requirement to fill the pay gap but at least naming and shaming is a start.

Gender inequality such as the pay differential is continuing to have a corrosive and fundamentally undermining effect on our society. Expecting it to right itself organically has proven to be a completely false expectation.

Attitudinal change supported by legislation, sanction and reward has been proven to work.

In relation to the smoking ban and the plastic bag levy perhaps in a few decades from now young people studying the history of our times might ask their teacher 'What is a plastic bag?' or 'What is a cigarette?'. A real revolution will have happened and a better world will have dawned when young people ask their parents: "What was gender inequality, Mammy?"

As the summer comes we wonder how we lasted the winter, a winter we could have ended a long time ago.


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