IN THE PAST fortnight, two significant contributions to Irish political discourse were made.
One was a column appearing in the Irish Times by Dr Eddie Molloy about the importance of organisational culture. The other was the repeated claims about what, and indeed who, should and shouldn’t be targeted in the next Budget. Neither phenomena have been understood in connection with each other, which is rather unfortunate, given that they are intimately bound by the idea of homogeneity in decision-making and some people’s capacity to make possible harmful or detrimental decisions on behalf of others.
Let me begin with the issue of organisational culture. Many of the failures of governance at public bodies, banks, and certainly in government departments, are to a large extent attributable to dysfunctional organisational cultures. Indeed, the ‘groupthink’, cronyism, lack of accountability and fear of critical questioning characterising Irish economico-political life are largely to blame for the disastrous financial mess we now find ourselves in, and the horrendous impact it is having on our living standards and general well-being.
What is interesting though, is that mainstream discussions of ‘groupthink’ – now quite a fashionable word – are devoid of any deeper analysis of the agents involved in thinking uncritically, uniformly, and often self-interestedly. Rarely is the linkage made between the homogeneity of the very people in decision-making positions, and the decisions they actually make. Is it really that surprising that decision-making bodies made up entirely of a small segment of Irish society – white, middle-to-upper-class, middle-aged and male – should result in conformism? The issue is not so much that members of this particular group can’t think critically, can’t be innovative, and can’t question, but rather that a uniformity of people in positions of power tends to result in uniformity of decision-making.
The research on women’s under-representation in politics, business and economic governance clearly shows us that lack of diversity in boards or parliaments correlates with lack of diversity in decision-making. For instance, there is a large body of work on the impact a ‘critical mass’ of women representatives has on policy, but also on the way in which politics is conducted. Studies on devolved parliaments show us that as the numbers of women have increased, the tone and style of political debate have become less adversarial and more constructive.
Also, policy priorities tend to change, with women having a significant impact upon social welfare provisions, such as childcare. This fact is hardly earth shattering given that women are still predominantly the primary carers for children in our societies. Importantly, though, it highlights a self-evident truth: different people have different priorities and concerns.The overwhelming presence of only one strand of Irish society in decision-making positions is not good
The crux of the matter is this: women and men, migrants and non-migrants, young people, old people, working-class people, upper-class people, disabled people, non-disabled people, lone parents, children, married people, people in civil partnerships, and the plethora of other diverse human beings forming this society – we all have differing life experiences, experiences that mean we bring with us different priorities and ways of looking at the world. The overwhelming presence of only one particular strata of Irish society in decision-making positions, though – be it in politics, the Civil Service, or banking – means that only one particular set of life experiences feeds into the decisions beings made.
That is not to say that the traditionally privileged group in question can’t stray outside of itself, to introduce women-friendly or youth-friendly policies, for example. It does mean that the systems and organisations historically propagated by and for only this very narrow strata of human being – of a certain class, sex, age, and ethnic background (in politics, even from certain families and professions) – maintain a culture that does not incorporate in equal measure the priorities of the rest of society.
This much is captured by the admittedly rare, but all the more important, analyses undertaken on the differing effects of economic policies on specific segments of Irish society. Research by Tasc, for example, on Budget 2011
shows us that cuts and tax hikes were imposed disproportionately on certain members of society. Their study found that people on lower income lost proportionally more than people on higher income, while lone parents lost 5 per cent of income compared to 3 per cent of income lost under the same budget measures for other households. Given that both of these groups – people on low incomes and lone parents – are made up largely by women, it is clear that women have been disproportionately affected by Budget 2011.The people excluded from decision-making are disproportionately bearing the brunt of austerity
In light of indications that inequality is on the increase in Ireland, we should ask ourselves why it should be acceptable that certain members of our society are more adversely affected by economic policies than others. We should additionally question why it is precisely the very people who are largely excluded from the decision-making structures of this country, who are also disproportionally bearing the brunt of austerity.
Finally, we should question why there is such scant information available on the differing impacts of economic measures on certain sections of society. Is this deliberate – an obfuscation of the unjust meting out of austerity? Is government worried that collation and publication of such information might draw attention to the privileging of certain groups over others?
The propensity for economic policies favouring or disadvantaging certain sections of society is a problem that is, of course, not just limited to the Irish context. Indeed, international best practice in Australia and Canada, for example, tries to mitigate such effects through the publication of shadow gender budgets alongside traditional budgets, and the provision of gender impact analyses or equality audits.
In its programme for government,
the current administration sets out is commitment to “forging a new Ireland that is built on fairness and equal citizenship”. In this spirit of equality and fairness, one would hope that the government will do its utmost to ensure its economic policies are gender and equality proofed, thereby avoiding the kind of disadvantaging of specific sections of society we have seen hitherto. Recognising that one’s position excludes the alternative life experiences of others is one step toward understanding the significance of the linkages between homogenous decision-making and exclusionary cultures on the one hand, and the capacity to make decisions on behalf of others (often with detrimental effects) on the other.
In the end, the answer to truly bringing about “fairness and equal citizenship” lies in the redistribution of power among the diversity and plurality that is our society. At the very least, though, we can demand to know how economic policies affect us differently.Dr. Clara Fischer holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy and feminist theory, and is a co-ordinator of the Irish Feminist Network. The network is currently inviting expressions of interest for a campaign on the introduction of equality audits and gender budgets. Email: email@example.com
Cross-posted from The Journal, 16th July 2012
On 19th May 2012, the Irish Feminist Network held its first ever conference. The rationale behind the conference consisted of the need to document the current resurgence in feminist activism in Ireland, while also situating this resurgence within the wider context of the history and potential future of Irish feminist movements. The conference was themed “Feminist Activism in Ireland: Past, Present and Future.” In order to do this broad topic justice, we structured the conference in terms of successive feminist ‘waves’ in Ireland, and were fortunate to have an amazing line-up of speakers
. There were panels on the first, second and third waves of feminist activism, and keynote addresses by prominent politician, Mary Lou McDonald, and women’s migrant rights activist, Salome Mbugua from AkiDwA.
A lot of thought went into organising the logistics of the conference. With a non-existent budget for an event of this size (140 attendants), the IFN nonetheless sought to make the day as pleasant (from a logistical point of view) an experience as possible. The co-ordinators were aware of the need for childcare to allow single parents to attend, and wanted to be maximally inclusive. We further wished to avoid huge corporate entities that quite often exploit women’s labour, hence our choice of the Sean O’Casey Community Centre
as the ideal venue for the conference. The centre has a crèche, and they were happy to open it for us on the day. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough up-take for this facility in the end.
In order to promote the conference, the IFN undertook its most intensive media campaign to date. Articles were written
, endless invitations sent out via email and Facebook, press releases formulated, radio interviews recorded
, and supportive journalists broached to include us in their work
. All of these efforts paid off, as tickets sold out
the night before the big day. At 15Euro a head (including lunch, coffee in the morning, and childcare), we wanted the cost of a ticket to be affordable. Even at that, though, the IFN followed the suggestion of a wise supporter and introduced a sponsorship scheme to allow those who could not afford a ticket to still attend owing to the generosity of anonymous sponsors.
The conference was opened with a poetry reading by acclaimed poet, Catherine Phil MacCarthy,
who really set the tone and atmosphere for the rest of the day. We then heard inspiring stories and first-hand experiences of feminist activists of the first, second and third waves. The final session on the future of feminist activism in Ireland allowed for smaller group discussion, with thematic groups on topics such as feminism and gendered economic inequality, feminism and reproductive rights, and feminism and the university. Each of these thematic groups was asked to discuss ‘what lessons can be learnt from previous feminist activism?’, ‘how do these impact the current situation?’, and ‘what practical measures can we adopt/pursue for the future?’. The concrete proposals for action emerging from these groups can be read in full below, and include actions such as increased education around abortion (feminism and reproductive rights group), gender auditing of university staff (feminism and the university group), protesting on the streets against economic inequality (feminism and gendered economic inequality group), creating space for dialogue between different voices (feminism and migrant women’s rights), and the challenging of heteronormativity and gender roles in schools (feminism and young people).
While registering, conference attendants were given coloured cards on which to write what a feminist future meant to them. We then put these cards up on a pin board for people to read during the lunch break. The answers have been really creative and inspiring, and for the following two months we uploaded an image
of one card per day for people to view on Facebook or Twitter. This has been a great way to promote supporters’ views on their feminist futures, and to continue the dialogue on what kind of feminist futures we hope to achieve.
All in all, we had a fantastic experience putting together this conference, and have thoroughly enjoyed the conversations that have developed therefrom. We know that there is always room for improvement, and taking your feed-back under consideration, we hope to bring you an even bigger and better conference in the future. For those of you who missed it, we will be uploading videos of the day on this site, so stay tuned! For those of you who were there, many thanks for making it a really fun and intellectually stimulating day! ClaraIFN Co-ordinator
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There’s definitely a time and a place for a video released as an attempt by the EU Commission to get more girls into science. The time for “Science: It’s A Girl Thing” a 53-second cringe featuring overly-sexualised minors strutting around in safety goggles and minidresses , salivating over how bubbling flasks and chemical formulas always lead to neon make-up is never, and the place is nowhere. By Naomi Elster
As one blogger
put it "The EU Commission may as well have put a lipstick on a string, and filmed 18 year old models doing a belly crawl after it from the nail parlour (or wherever they would normally be) to the lab bench." I’ve never seen a video so ill-received – a barrage of response videos have appeared on YouTube, and Twitter and Facebook are awash with criticisms, from both official sources, such as Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science), Nature (the most prestigious science journal), and most of my friends – fiercely intelligent female scientists who I have studied and worked with and learnt from are rightfully angry. As one friend put it “It’s nice to know Marie Curie slowly irradiated herself to death so we could watch a bunch of fashion models play with molecular models while not wearing lab coats.” (Marie Curie was the scientist who discovered radiation, paving the way for a number of important developments including chemotherapy).
The ad is inappropriate on a number of levels. A feminist friend once commented, "advertising is one of our worst enemies." She is correct, but we have the right to expect better from the taxpayer-funded EU Commission. The ad trivialises science and the important work that scientists do; it is insulting to women; and it is far too over-sexualised for something that the EU is aiming at minors (the target audience is 13-18 year old girls).
In advertising, women are by default stick-thin, scantily clad and without depth, intelligence or character. The women in “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!” fit the bill perfectly, but I would have expected better from the EU Commission, which should be trying to tackle negative stereotypes such as these. To make matters worse, the Commission defended the video, saying it wanted to "speak [women’s] language to get their attention." The language of women? The person or persons who devised this ad clearly have a blinding ignorance of science that is second only to their ignorance of women. "When I think woman, I think pink!" We are not simpletons and you cannot interest our entire gender in something by showing us lipstick.
The overtly sexist way in which women are used in advertising is bad enough. But for the EU to stoop to this where the women featured in this video are meant to be representatives of successful female scientists is an attack on women and gender equality, whether meant that way or not.
Science is hard work, and female researchers are intelligent and independent. We have degrees. Many of us have MSc's and the majority of female researchers have doctorates or are working towards them. We work hard to get answers to complicated problems. We mean business and do not spend our days giggling over lipstick and pulling ridiculous faces at chemical formulas, doing catwalk struts around the lab to coquettishly peer over our sunglasses at a male colleague. To take a group of women who have achieved success through their own hard work, on their own merits and their own terms and reduce them into anorexic sex kittens who gasp and giggle over colourful explosions and lipstick is appalling. Maybe it would be funny if gender equality in science were real, but it is not. I can only speak for biomedical science, but women outnumber men at every stage apart from at the most senior levels, which are still male-dominated. The problem is not that we need more women at entry level.
Commenting on the campaign the EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said, “We want to overturn clichés and show women and girls, and boys too, that science is not about old men in white coats".
Admirable sentiments, but to trivialise science with lipstick is extremely insulting to the female scientists – or, as we think of ourselves, “scientists” who do difficult and valuable work every day. I am investigating new ways to treat aggressive breast cancers that do not respond well to drugs. It’s an important project but I accept that it will be relatively thankless. When we are ill we will thank a doctor for prescribing a drug and thank a pharmacist for dispensing it whilst giving little thought to the team of scientists who worked tirelessly to develop and refine it. I’m happy to do it because I want cancer treatments to be better, but I would appreciate it if the EU would not release condescending ad campaigns that could be read as “female scientists only care about cosmetics.” The work we do is very important and this advertisement is positively insulting.
The focus must be on getting the right people into science rather than getting more people into science. I am very proud to be one of several researchers featured in a video
made by the Irish Cancer Society late last year. Most of the featured researchers are female, and although we are not strutting our stuff in skimpy dresses and heels that would be positively dangerous in a lab, I think we look pretty good. But far more importantly, we know what we're talking about, care about our research, and we are doing work that is interesting and important. This is the kind of approach that the EU should be taking – showing that it is possible to be respected as a female researcher, and that you have a breadth of opportunities open to you to do interesting and important work, if that’s what you want from life.
If you want to get women into science, make a video about science. Don’t patronise my profession or my gender. Don’t use public money to pay for a video which not only over-sexualises young women, insults female scientists and alienates people to the point where the official video is removed just days after it is posted.
The EU Commission has removed the video, but between the way that women were portrayed, young women were over-sexualised, female scientists were positively ridiculed and public money was wasted on the video, the lack of even a public apology or any sign of abashment from the Commission is perhaps the real political story here.Naomi Elster holds a 1st class Honours degree in Pharmacology and is currently researching for a PhD at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, supported by the Irish Cancer Society. She blogs at http://nothingmentionednothinggained.wordpress.com/