Sunday 18 August 2019

Catherine O'Mahony: 'If you pine for a time when the words 'gender equality' are no longer needed, you are in for a very long wait'

'Not a single country in the world – nope, not a one – will meet agreed targets on gender equality by 2030'. Stock photo: PA
'Not a single country in the world – nope, not a one – will meet agreed targets on gender equality by 2030'. Stock photo: PA
Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

Oh, what a week to be alive. 'Love Island' is back and it has raised many questions for the alert viewer. Such as: Is Tommy the world's biggest narcissist? What is a surf model? And, does the fact that everyone on the show - boy and girl - is judged wholly on their ability to fill out their skimpy swimwear represent an advance for gender equality?

Coincidentally, it's been the week we also learned that not a single country in the world - nope, not a one - will meet agreed targets on gender equality by 2030.

And, yes, the news did clash with 'Love Island' and Donald Trump's distracting tour of Europe, which might explain our lack of collective outrage.

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Perhaps we are all jaded about matters gender. Perhaps the endless fight for gender equality - maybe even the mere mention of that over-rehearsed term - triggers a certain fatigue.

But sit up, everyone, pay attention; for the record, here's where we are.

There's such a thing as the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Gender Index and it has provided the first snapshot of where 129 countries in five global regions stand on gender equality in relation to the so-called 2030 Agenda (this is a set of targets to which 193 UN countries signed up in 2015).

More specifically, it measures how far advanced we all are in meeting agreed goals on 51 different issues, including health, gender-based violence, climate change, work opportunities and conditions, and more.

And it makes for grim reading. It turns out that there are 1.4 billion women and girls living in countries that have failed to achieve any kind of meaningful gender equality. Another 1.4 billion live in countries that barely pass.

Even the highest-scoring countries - and Ireland is among those - have plenty more to do, particularly on complex issues such as climate change, gender budgeting and public services, equal representation in powerful positions, gender pay gaps, and gender-based violence.

Melinda Gates, whose foundation backs the index, said it should be a wake-up call for the world.

The good news, such as it is, is that Ireland ranks ninth on the index, while Denmark - where, incidentally, men do more housework on average than they do in any other country - is first, and the UK is 17th.

The US, where states are busily rowing back on abortion rights, got 27th place.

So we made the top 10, along with the other richer nations we are lucky to count ourselves as comparable to.

And we can be smug about that, to a degree. We are definitely not scoring badly on the areas that countries in sub-Saharan Africa struggle with, where challenges such as access to safe drinking water and electricity remain. We are relatively progressive.

Recent years have seen a raft of gender- equality-friendly policies introduced here, from the introduction of abortion services through our legalisation of same-sex marriage and our landslide latest vote in favour of easing up on laws around divorce.

We can perhaps even cite Diageo's ground-breaking allocation of generous paternity leave for new fathers.

But, at a risk of labouring the point, even our top-10 ranking means we're just among the best of a bad lot.

No country is actually set to achieve what they said they wanted to achieve by 2030. An "excellent score", the devisers of the index said, would require a mark of at least 90 out of 100. No country got there, not even the Scandinavians.

In many ways, this isn't news. That we have much to do towards gender equality has been clear for years now and the latest local elections reinforced the point.

Because you could have been forgiven for concluding that women would sweep the local elections, such was the visibility of female candidates in the run-up to them.

But while there was indeed some increase in local female representation across most of the political parties, as it turned out, some councils filled less than 6pc of their seats with women councillors. Of the total 949 councillors elected across Ireland, just under 22pc were women. It's a far cry from parity.

Our pay packets also still tell a dispiriting story as men still earn 14pc more than women here, according to the latest report from Eurostat.

Melinda Gates, as it happens, is pretty good at identifying where the crux of the problem lies. In her own house, she has explained, she noticed that her children and her spouse (that would be Bill) had in theory agreed to clean up after dinner, but in practice left it to her most nights.

She had to introduce a new rule; that nobody leaves the kitchen before she does, to force everyone to pitch in. Her own labour - naturally - was immediately slashed.

A tiny victory, albeit one for a woman who, let's face it, could afford staff to clean up anyway.

Inevitably, most women are less lucky, some dramatically less so.

To varying degrees, right across the world, women's unpaid labour continues to be the bedrock of how homes and societies function.

In all cases this brings at least some limitations in how they live their lives, how they frame their expectations, what economic weight they can wield, and the extent of their participation in decision- making.

We all know this. And yet, outside of Melinda Gates' kitchen, enforcing new rules to free women up has not been a seamless process. And it's clearly going to demand meaningful buy-in and action from the entire household, not just the females.

There's better telly than 'Love Island', in this regard. We could all tune in this evening to the 2019 Fifa Women's World Cup, which sees RTÉ and TG4 miraculously between them covering every single clash.

It's going to normalise this women's sport and that's a good thing, a powerful thing, and it means a positive end to a rather dismal week for gender equality.

We need so many more of these incremental powerful things and when they happen, we need to offer our support.

Because 2030 may no longer be a reasonable target for gender equality.

But wouldn't we all like to believe that for some future generation, the words gender equality - and maybe even 'Love Island' - won't just be old-hat, they'll be meaningless.

Irish Independent

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