Thursday 23 November 2017

Sinead Kissane: Gender quotas seem so wrong - but they might just be right

Minister of State for Tourism and Sport Patrick O'Donovan
Minister of State for Tourism and Sport Patrick O'Donovan
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Pat Kenny was at the end of his interview with Joan Burton on Newstalk on Monday when he seemed to salivate at the soundbite he was about to deliver.

They were discussing the Minister of State for Sport Patrick O'Donovan's plans to introduce a 30pc gender quota for sports bodies. Pat read a few texts from listeners before he paused. This seemed to be the moment he was waiting for.

"I'd hate to be the token man in any area of life," Pat Kenny wooed, in that velvet, here's-looking-at-you-kid sort of way. "As I'm sure, Gillian (the texter), you'd hate to be the token woman. So beware of political correctness." Pat was right. Gender quotas are ghastly. Gender quotas are as discriminatory as the problem they're trying to fix. Why should women get a leg-up? What about meritocracy? Why is O'Donovan playing to the gallery with this rash idea? Does he actually think it will entice more girls into playing sport? But what about the men?

Because who knows what will become of sport if boards must put up with 30 per cent females. Because there has never, ever, ever been problems with the running of sport here with men at the top.

Look at the wisdom shown earlier this year when our most successful high-performance boxing coach was allowed leave in an Olympic year. And surely a quota of women will lead to some kind of international scandal. Because the media has never waited at Dublin airport for a Board man who caused a scandal at an Olympics. No, never.

Sports bodies have done some great work but the reaction to O'Donovan's proposal of a gender quota has been more informative than the poorly thought-out idea itself.

The word 'meritocracy' has never enjoyed as much airing because of the mistrust and fear a quota system creates. Some latch onto meritocracy as if we 100 per cent know that every single job has always gone to the most qualified and suitable individual in the past.

While some delude themselves into believing meritocracy solely exists, most of us continue to cod ourselves into assuming gender quotas could not possibly be a credible solution to closing the gender gap.

In the interest of progression happening "organically" for women, some seem content for this to happen at a snail's pace. Do we wait for the world to change or do we change it ourselves?

It's only 90 years this week since women were allowed vote in this country so women are operating from a few paces behind men. We all know this. We all nod and agree that something needs to be done. Yet when the nuclear option is mentioned in the form of gender quotas which would help accelerate more women into positions, it got slapped down with so much ridicule in some places that it didn't even merit a discussion, only derision.

It is lazy to assume that what worked for men should work for women when it comes to closing the gender gap. A gender quota isn't a fight for the moral high ground or a tantrum for attention. A gender quota would give women representation and a systematic entry point into governance because, in my experience, sometimes women need to be coaxed into positions they previously wouldn't have gone for.

O'Donovan has pitched this all wrong. He should have consulted sports bodies first. He should look to introduce a smaller, more attainable quota (for women and men) which should increase gradually but be ultimately temporary. The whole point is to normalise, to show more women that working at board level of a sports organisation is a viable option for them. And why not take a leap of faith here and imagine there might actually be skilled women suitable for these positions? Imagine!

By Tuesday morning, Pat Kenny's soundbite had been spliced into a promo ad for his show: Pat Kenny, the man who would hate to be the token man, in any area of his life. Change the dial, and until very recently, there were two other male presenters in a similar age category in mid-morning slots on national talk radio shows.

Diversity is alive and kicking in Ireland, isn't it?

When Pat added he was sure the female texter would not like to be a token woman, I wondered how long more are women content to have middle-aged men speak on their behalf from national airwaves to board-room level just because That's The Way It's Always Been.

Gender quotas might seem so wrong. But they might just be right.

Irish Independent

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