This election may herald an all-female First and Deputy First Minister team. But, writes Elaine Crory in response to an article published by The Newsletter last week, this doesn’t change the situation facing many women
Last week, the Newsletter’s Deputy Editor Ben Lowry, opined that there are clearly no longer any barriers facing women in politics. He doesn’t seem to have a great deal of evidence for this assertion, relying heavily on the fact that a number of parties in the UK have women leaders, sharing anecdotes about prominent men and interspersing it all with large photos of prominent women politicians from Northern Ireland. “You know who these women are”, the argument seems to go, “so what are you complaining about?”
Sure it couldn’t be that Lowry has sexist blinkers on, after all he declares himself “open to the idea that women, at their best..also bring a blend of qualities that make them outstanding leaders”. He’s open to considering the possibility that women just might be able to be leaders. What more could we want? The fact that this was stated reveals a great deal regarding the writer’s starting point. He writes of the incremental increase in the numbers of women MPs and the ascent of a small handful of those women into positions of power, as though that ought to be enough to satisfy roughly half the population.
Another doubly sexist whopper is the assertion that “some people” (the only one he cites is, wait for it, a man) believe that women make better doctors and newspaper executives than men, because we can be empathetic. Ah yes, because men are unfeeling androids and their unbiased, uncomplicated views must be why we can rely on their opinions of women’s abilities, but can’t expect them to be kind or soft when called for.
Yet, in the very same article, he tells us that the problem boils down to women “find politics a sexist arena” (it isn’t sexist, of course, them silly women just think it is) and do not put themselves forward for selection. Hobbling ourselves by refusing to go for the big jobs, it must be all our own fault! Obviously, the ingrained sexism that creeps into our lives from when we are small children, the same sexism that means that deputy editors of long-established newspapers can seriously claim that women possess empathy while men do not, and that at our very best we may be able to be leaders, has nothing to do with it. Of course, also, most of the women he lists as competent leaders (Theresa May, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel) are not exactly paragons of feminism or champions of women’s issues. Most have gotten to where they are partially by adapting successfully to the ‘Man’s world’ that is politics, by pushing for policy that harms women and children the most, by climbing to the top and kicking the ladder away behind them.
The fact that politics is particularly harsh towards women in many ways – mocking appearance seems to be the go-to for many, as though the perceived lack of sex appeal of a woman leader is a damning indictment of her ability to lead. Just last week when Michelle O’Neill became Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland, she was a “mother of two” or a “former teenage mother”; Theresa May had to fend off assumptions about her ability to lead based on the fact that she is not a mother – because no matter her parental status, a woman will be judged on it in a way men simply are not – let’s not forget that Arlene Foster was reminded by her own party colleague Edwin Poots that her first duty was as a wife and mother. I wonder if anyone reminded Ian Paisley of his familial duties.
And let’s not forget that sexism exists outside the world of politics, too, and that fact bleeds in to anyone’s career decisions. Women who are mothers are more likely to take on the greater burden of child rearing and housekeeping, even when they work outside the home. Council meetings, committee meetings and assembly debates often run late, and childcare is expensive. Women still suffer in their careers when they choose to have children in a way that men do not, and of course there is the gender pay gap too.
Research released last week shows that children as young as six years old have already internalised the idea that boys are more talented than girls. Everything they encounter – from television, to clothes, to toys – backs this assumption up, and continues to pile it on throughout adulthood and beyond. Is it any wonder that they sometimes lack the confidence to put themselves forward to stand for a political party?
Since the first woman was elected to parliament in 1918 until today, there have been exactly as many woman MPs in total as there are men MPs returned in 2015 alone. Our own DUP did not field any women for those 2015 Westminster elections. The Northern Ireland Assembly doesn’t fare much better; last year four out of eighteen constituencies did not return a single woman candidate*. It might be improving, slowly, but with the upcoming election being fought for fewer seats, it might be about to get worse.
Sadly, I don’t think these numbers will sway Ben Lowry’s views, because it seems as though he already knows them. The issue is deeper than the numbers, it’s the sexist attitude that allows a man to look at these dismal outcomes and blithely say “that’s enough, sexism is finished”. We cannot allow the bar to be set as low as this, and we won’t.
*Figures courtesy of research compiled by Danielle Roberts, PhD Candidate