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We should stop colluding in fantasy and tell the truth

Miriam O'Callaghan was dead right. It's a disgrace that, despite last week's pre-election dust- up being the fourth leaders' debate she has chaired on RTE, she's still waiting to get her journalistic teeth into a female party leader. Quite right, too, that she urged women to stop complaining about the situation and actually do something to make a difference.

Except, silly me, she didn't. O'Callaghan merely made some asinine comments to the effect that "it's difficult for women to go into politics... we have babies and society makes that difficult", before moving on to the business of the night.

What's weird is that Miriam, who stood there last Tuesday claiming that "society" (a word that can mean just about anything) does its damnedest to scupper the chances of women with babies, has eight of the little blighters at home. They're not all babies anymore, since Miriam has been repopulating south Dublin for quite some time, giving the initial ones a chance to grow up, but they were all definitely children to begin with.

How did Miriam manage to rise to the pre-eminent position she now enjoys in Irish broadcasting? To be honest, I haven't a clue. It would have worn me out years ago. But the Prime Time host actually did do it. If anyone is in a position, therefore, to advise women on how the achievement can be repeated, Miriam's your woman.

Instead, she retreats into Tammy Wynette platitudes about how "sometimes it's hard to be a woman..." Cue those steel guitars.

She's not the only one. Nicola Horlick was the so-called Superwoman who rose to the top in the uber-competitive environment of the City of London whilst juggling six children at home (not literally; that would've been cruel). She now says business isn't doing enough to promote women and that, if companies don't buck up their ideas, quotas should be introduced to make sure a certain proportion of women sit on every board. "I am not a feminist, and I believe in meritocracy," Horlick told the London Evening Standard last week, "but," (and you just know from the preamble that this is going to be one heck of a but), "sometimes you have to create rules initially in order to give certain sections of society a chance."

That obviously raises the question why, if "certain sections of society" are to be given a leg-up by the government, women expect to be first in the queue. Aren't ethnic minorities worse off than women? Aren't unskilled, unemployed men worse off than educated, professional women?

Where should quotas start? More to the point, where do they stop? Even if all the quotas were in place, the system would still rely on women taking up the challenge. There's no point parachuting women on to the board of every Iseq-listed company, only for half of them to start running off on maternity leave in a couple of years and just expecting their jobs to be waiting for them when, and if, they return. That's hardly fair on the men and women who stayed in the office when others were off playing happy families.

It's complicated. Life becomes tricky for working women when they have children not because society doesn't like babies, but because having children constitutes a huge change in a woman's life that cannot avoid impacting on her career. It's difficult to see how the chasm between that old life and the new life can be miraculously bridged.

Many men will readily sacrifice domestic responsibilities in pursuit of success. There's nothing at all to stop women making the same sacrifice. They won't be happier as a result; in fact, they'll probably be downright miserable, and wretchedly guilty for neglecting their children, which will be the inevitable outcome. But if Virginia Woolf could recognise in the Twenties that the only way a woman could be free was to have a room of her own and a private source of income, then it's a bit silly, nearly a century later, to keep pretending there's some magic wand which can be waved that would allow women to have it all.

Most major decisions in life come down to picking between one thing and another. Having both would be lovely, but what are the chances? Women should tell one another the truth, not collude in meaningless fantasies.

Besides, it's not as if we're exactly deluged with a vast array of female role models to inspire and emulate. Currently, readers of the Daily Mail are being treated -- the word is heavily sarcastic -- to extracts from the personal diary of the wife of former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown. It's a book so devoid of substance that it could double up as a black hole. This is a woman who established her own public relations firm together with an old school friend before the two of them were 30, and then gave it all up when she got married. That was her choice; I've no problem with it.

What I do have a problem with is the fact that she appears to have donated her brain to medical science along the way, and is now boring for Britain with a series of profound insights about the time she burnt the baby's sterilising bottles because she forgot the pan was on the stove, and the day she and Gordon put on the Marigolds to clear out a cupboard whilst volunteering at a hospice.

Sarah Brown is peddling this cutesy, mumsy nonsense in order to counteract the public image of her husband as a vile-tempered control freak with all the warmth and charm of a Rottweiller with toothache. How very loyal. But she shouldn't think it has escaped our attention that, as she infantilises herself in print, Gordon's the one publishing weighty tomes on economic theory. Again that's her choice. Just don't say that "society" forced her to become the political version of a Stepford Wife. Sarah did that all by herself.

Don't start urging more Irish women to get into politics either if, when they dare say what they think, like Lucinda Creighton, the same politically correct cheerleaders who insist they want more female politicians turn on her like savage hounds. Seems that only certain types of women are acceptable, after all. Those quotas are getting harder to fill every day.

Sunday Independent