Sunday 15 December 2019

O'Sullivan rocks system, but biggest male bastion remains

Noirin O'Sullivan
Noirin O'Sullivan
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

WHEN Mary Robinson was elected as President of Ireland in 1990, she said she was elected by the women of Ireland, "who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system".

The election of Robinson, who as a young lawyer and feminist had introduced a controversial bill to legalise contraception, marked a radical, welcome sea change in women's rights on this island.

It took more than 20 years for the pill to be legalised and we only got around to passing one of the world's most restrictive abortion laws last year. But would even Mary Robinson have imagined that within 25 years of her election, women would not just be rocking - but arguably taking over - at least one part of the system?

Yesterday Noirin O'Sullivan, a former Assistant and Deputy Commissioner of An Garda Siochana, was appointed as the country's first ever female Garda Commissioner.

The appointment, a unanimous decision as it turns out, is a truly historic occasion for the Garda, an institution - like many others - that hasn't always extended a welcoming hand to the fairer sex.

It is hard to believe that until 1973, women were forced to resign from the civil service when they got married.

Now Ireland boasts a female Garda Commissioner and Chairperson (Designate) of the new Policing Authority, which will be taken up by Josephine Feehily, former chairman of the Revenue Commissioners.

We also have women occupying the roles of Minister for Justice (Frances Fitzgerald); Attorney General (Maire Whelan); Chief Justice (Susan Denham); Director of Public Prosecutions (Claire Loftus); Chief State Solicitor (Eileen Creedon); State Pathologist (Dr Marie Cassidy); European Ombudsman (Emily O'Reilly); as well as Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (Emily Logan).

The concentration of women in leadership roles, primarily in the justice sector, is unprecedented in Ireland and may - unusually - be unprecedented in Europe and even further afield.

It is striking to note that the vast bulk of these female appointments were made in the aftermath of the near apocalyptic banking crash in 2008. That crash was preceded by what IMF Director Christine Lagarde observed was evidence of an extreme macho, locker-room culture: we witnessed plenty of that testosterone-fuelled machismo in Ireland too.

Does increased female participation and leadership matter? It does, according to the World Bank, which estimates that the closing of the employment gender gap could boost GDP by 13pc in the eurozone alone.

Would the world be any better if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, or Lehman Brothers had at least a few sisters? The answer to that is yes, probably, if an analysis by banking giant Credit Suisse is to be believed.

Its examination of almost 2,400 companies, between 2005 and 2011 - pre and post-crisis - found that big companies with women on their boards outperformed comparable companies with all male boards by 26pc. Do women act better than men under pressure? They can do, according to several, major cognitive neuroscience research projects, which have reported that men take more risks when they are stressed, whilst women's decision-making improves the closer they come to a stressful event.

It's all down to cortisol, apparently. But whatever the science, it is inescapable that the promotion of women - we are 50pc of the population, after all - makes sense commercially, socially and culturally. Women have made great strides in recent decades, ably assisted by European legislation which has helped break down the cultural barriers faced by women in the workplace and elsewhere.

But the proof of the pudding ultimately lies in effective policies and laws that truly support women and their families.

Here, the news is not so good: as Noirin O'Sullivan shattered the glass ceiling of An Garda Siochana, Irish women reported that they are afraid to take maternity leave or career breaks for fear it will hit their employment prospects.

It seems to me that women cannot enjoy true parity with men - or anything close to it - until affordable childcare is a basic right that is made available to all parents, male and female.

The enduring power of patriarchy fails men too, especially those fathers seeking meaningful custody and access to their children following a separation.

The continued political and economic onslaught on Irish families is a crime against both sexes, so too are needless, antagonistic gender wars.

Sadly, the one place where the greatest changes can be made - Leinster House - is the biggest male bastion of them all.

Irish Independent

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