Monday 23 October 2017

It's time to face down sexist boors

'Lapgate' may bring a welcome end to the demeaning of women in Leinster House

FG TDs Áine Collins and Mary Mitchell O'Connor, herself a victim of crass behaviour
FG TDs Áine Collins and Mary Mitchell O'Connor, herself a victim of crass behaviour
Mary O'Rourke didn't want to complain about her experiences of sexism in the 1980s for fear of her career suffering
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

It's just after 3am on Thursday morning on the floor of Dáil Éireann in Leinster House. The crucial late-night debate on the abortion bill has paused for a vote.

But the Dáil cameras are still rolling. In footage which has now gone viral, Fine Gael deputy Áine Collins can be seen leaning down to speak to her colleague Tom Barry, who suddenly grabs her and places her on his knee.

Ireland's first female President Mary Robinson
Ireland's first female President Mary Robinson

When Collins initially tries to get up, Barry pulls her closer, restraining her for a few seconds before loosening his grip, appearing to slap her side as she quickly walks away.

The unedifying episode was initially dismissed as "horseplay" within Fine Gael, with a spokesman saying, "it was a piece of silliness between two people who happen to be friends".

"I've spoken to the female TD involved and she is not really offended. She saw it for what it was, in the moment, just a piece of silliness," he said.

However, the consensus on social media was rather different, with one tweeter summing up the sentiment, stating: "I'm fuming at the reaction of FG, dismissing it. If I did that in my workplace I'd be sacked and rightly so."

Within a matter of hours, with the controversy growing, Barry released an unequivocal apology, which suggested the matter was being taken more seriously.

"What I did last night was disrespectful and inappropriate," he said. "I have apologised to Áine Collins and she graciously and immediately accepted my apology. No excuses, I just shouldn't have done it."

But was his behaviour emblematic of a latent sexist attitude to women in politics?

Leinster House has long been renowned as an old boys' club and that antiquated image was reinforced by the incident.

The Fine Gael party clearly wants to draw a line under the embarrassing episode, which has put archaic attitudes to women in politics in the spotlight, but it is just the latest in a long line of sexist incidents that female politicians in this country have had to endure.

Former Fianna Fáil Minister Mary O'Rourke has previously written about her experiences of casual sexism when she was the only female cabinet member from 1987 to 1991.

At the end of cabinet meetings, Charlie Haughey would routinely turn to her and, attempting to make conversation, say: "Well, how are things with you, Mary? Have you been shopping lately? Have you bought any new dresses?"

"There was no point in kicking up a fuss at times like this. After all, I wanted to get my education budget through. I just smiled and kept my tongue firmly in my cheek," she said.

One of the most egregious examples of outright sexism in politics came from former Fianna Fáil TD, Pádraig Flynn, during the presidential election in 1990.

In remarks that were widely credited with scuppering Brian Lenihan's presidential ambitions, he derisively referred to Mary Robinson as having a "new-found interest in her family".

The inference, of course, was that, in pursuing a career as a successful barrister and politician, she had sacrificed her family on the altar of her professional ambition.

In his mind, it was impossible to have both a political career and a family and his comments left nobody in any doubt about where he thought a woman's proper place was – in the home and far away from the corridors of power.

Regrettably, one doesn't have to delve back into the mists of time for examples of a sneering attitude to women.

Then Taoiseach Brian Cowen came under fire in 2010 when he snapped that Labour party leader Eamon Gilmore should "rein her (Joan Burton) in now and again".

Burton said the remarks echoed similar comments from Cowen's political mentor, Albert Reynolds, when he responded, "that's women for you", when heckled by FG TD Nora Owen.

And Mary Mitchell O'Connor TD admitted she was "upset" when Independent TD Mick Wallace referred to her as "Miss Piggy" in a private conversation broadcast by Dáil microphones in 2011.

She said the incident was representative of a casual sexism that persists in Leinster House but insisted: "I don't want an apology, it was banter among the lads. I don't want to hear any more about it – can we move on now."

The obvious dichotomy, of Mitchell O'Connor's labelling of the incident as both casual sexism and banter, is instructive.

The dilemma faced by women is stark: standing up to sexist slurs could lead to isolation in a male-dominated Leinster House, where women comprise a mere 15pc of the population, but brushing off incidents as unimportant, or horseplay, sends a message that the behaviour will be tolerated.

Overwhelmingly, female TDs seem determined not to make a fuss, the alarming implication being that they believe the behaviour is too endemic to change or that there will be a professional price to pay for taking a stand.

O'Rourke didn't want to complain back in the late 1980s for fear of her career suffering, while Mitchell O'Connor also preferred to brush the matter under the carpet.

Meanwhile, Collins has also instantly forgiven her colleague for behaviour that he himself has admitted was unacceptable and demeaning.

This determination to downplay incidents could be self-defeating, entrenching sexist attitudes and perpetuating a culture in which women are patronised as vacuous playthings, whose appearance is more noteworthy than their opinions.

A survey published earlier this year found that voters respond positively when female politicians are seen to stand up to sexist bullying and lazy gender stereotypes.

It revealed that female politicians suffer a loss of support when their appearances, rather than their policies, are focused on, but that this ground is regained when they speak out about this objectification.

"Voters respond positively to the woman candidate standing up for herself," it found.

One female TD who has been outspoken about gender-based bullying in Leinster House is Lucinda Creighton, who has condemned the "toxic culture" that pervades the political establishment.

"As a TD in the Oireachtas before the last election, I found that period really difficult. There certainly is a lot of latent bullying that goes on and there certainly is a lot of culture that is really quite toxic.

"I would say it's there in our parliamentary party, in Fine Gael it's there, all the political parties where women just aren't necessarily treated in the same way or with the same degree of respect as men," she said, during an interview with Marian Finucane on RTÉ radio last year.

Female TDs are not alone. While there is a dearth of statistical evidence, because of the surreptitious nature of sexual harassment, an Equal Opportunities Commission report in 2000 found that 50pc of women experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

A more recent poll for the Washington Post and ABC News, in 2011, reported that 25pc of women had encountered sexual harassment at work.

These results jar with the perceived wisdom that sexual harassment in the workplace is a relic of a bygone misogynistic era, which has been eradicated by the feminist movement. Patently, the problem still persists.

Politicians in Kildare Street are supposed to set an example, and treat their office and colleagues with respect, but what kind of message does it send to women, and men, when a male TD manhandling a female colleague on the floor of our national parliament is trivialised as "horseplay" and goes unpunished?

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