Nobody likes gender quotas

This piece was originally published in Siren. It’s somewhat out of date, but with the debate about gender quotas swirling in Ireland again I thought I’d give it another run out. 

Women are grossly disadvantaged in Irish politics, both in the houses of government and on ballot
papers. Fact. Although we can observe a surge in the strength and popularity of grassroots feminism,
as evidenced by the rise of activist and lobbying groups and publications, the change has not extended
to the Houses of Government. 15% of public representatives are female and the absence of progress on
certain issues reflects that shortfall. A social change has occured, but a political change has not.

Mary O' Rourke is one of the most prominent anti-quotas voices in Ireland. A few years ago, in a debate on the issue, I asked her a question about the entrenched sexism in the constitution. Her response: "The constitution?? Sure, no one heeds that!"

Mary O’ Rourke is one of the most prominent anti-quotas voices in Ireland. A few years ago, in a debate on the issue, I asked her a question about the entrenched sexism in the constitution. Her response: “The constitution?? Sure, no one heeds that!”

Finally, with the Labour-backed quotas legislation, this issue is getting some attention in the Oireachtas.
However, the proposal for a gender quota of 30% has been received critically by both men and women.
Some are, to put in bluntly, disgusting sexists. However, many are on the side of the angels; they agree
with the end but have doubts about the means. They believe that introducing a quota demeans the
achievement of women who succeed to political office. Furthermore, they hold the reasonable view
that representation shouldn’t be dependent on sameness. Women shouldn’t only represent women, men
shouldn’t only represent men, gays shouldn’t only represent gays, black people shouldn’t only represent
black people.

This method of representation, by someone like yourself, is known as “descriptive representation” and is
key to the positive discrimination debate. Is it a good thing? All other things being equal, probably not. In
a gender, race, sexuality, age, and class blind world we would vote purely based on policy, be represented
by those who held our views and trust in their ability to understand our experience. We’re all opposed to
quotas on a universal level, in that we wish they were redundant.

However, equality has not been achieved, and we shouldn’t let our discussion of representation be
derailed by an unrealistic vision of a gender-blind world.Women do not have the same opportunities as
men in Irish politics. They are less likely to get nominated, they are less likely to get elected, they are
less likely to rise to high ministries once they are elected. Those are demeaning and offensive truths, but
they are truths nonetheless. While it wounds my pride as a woman to acknowledge them, my pride is
less important than meaningful change in our political system and so, like many feminists, I grudgingly
support the quotas legislation.

How significant is the change to the political system? Voting for women is not just symbolic gestures
and quotas do far more than enhance opportunity for a small proportion of women. Greater female
representation will transform the nature of our political system. The overwhelming masculine bias
facilitates group-think, it perpetuates old-boy politics, it undermines progress on issues which primarily
affect women and it harms the body politic overall.

This magazine will be published on the twenty-year anniversary of the infamous X-Case. Twenty years
on, we are still waiting for legislation on the court’s ruling that a threat of suicide is justification for
abortion. This is an affront to the woman we know only as X who was attacked by the Irish state in
1992, and continues to be betrayed by the same state. It’s an affront to all of us. Whatever our stances
on abortion, we must agree that an issue of such vast moral and social importance deserves discussion.
Furthermore, when our courts establish something as a right, in a functioning state the legislature would

accept the accruing responsibilty. Instead, for twenty years we have seen overwhelming legislative apathy
and reliance on Irish solutions to Irish problems. The cost to twenty years worth of vulnerable women is

It’s also been twenty years since legislation was introduced on human trafficking and prostitution.
The current legislation is intended to protect the plain people of Ireland from the evils of iniquity, so
it prohibits the solicitation or sale of sex outdoors. Of course, in 1992 there was no popular use of the
internet. In twenty years we have seen a vast growth in the sex industry. Women are trafficked, coerced
into prostitution and horrifically abused. They are kept in apartments while their bodies are sold online. In
the unlikely event of a garda raid, the women are arrested while the buyers are sent quietly on their way.
New legislation is vital, as has been highlighted by the Turn off the Red Light movement. Why hasn’t it
been introduced? Once again, apathy, ignorance and the absence of strong female voices.

Despite the horrifying proportion of women affected by sexual assault, we have yet to introduce
meaningful and effective processes to reduce its occurrence – providing better sexual education to young
men, reducing the stigma surrounding rape so that victims can come forward and, crucially, facilitating
greater prosecution and conviction rates in the courts. In the DPP’s annual report this year it was found
that in the vast majority of rape allegations brought forward, a decision was made not to prosecute. This
systemic failing essentially grants impunity to rapists, and negates the ability of the law to deter sexual
assault. Instead, women pay a tax to try to avoid rape. We shouldn’t wear short skirts, we shouldn’t drink
too much, we shouldn’t walk alone at night. These restrictions of freedom are acts of oppression against
the female population, and it’s time that legislators recognised them as such.

Descriptive representation is important because these are lived experiences. Nominal equality has, more
or less, been achieved in the West. The inequality that persists is insidious, it’s invisible unless you look
closely, and you can only fully know it when you live with it day in day out, and are worn down by it
over time. The majority of the Dáil is white, male and middle-class and can’t reasonably be expected to
look outside that bracket without a diversity of voices and experiences to promote more sensitive and
innovative thought.

Voting for women puts people in the Dáil who know the experience of pregnancy, who know the fear
that comes with walking alone at night, who have experienced the petty exclusions – not being invited
for pints or a golf game – and the severe exclusions – not having their family lives facilitated by their
employers and not being paid as much as their male counterparts. If you’ve experienced these things it’s
very difficult to shut them out of your consciousness, or to allow discussion of those issues to be shut out
of the political system. A critical mass of female voices will change our political culture.

However, we’re currently faced with the infuriating dilemma of voting for women or policy. In the
U.S., a liberal woman can’t reasonably be expected to vote for the virulent intolerance of a Bachmann
or Palin just because they’re women. Closer to home, we’re lucky to get more than one woman on
a constituency’s ballot paper and so many Irish women must choose between candidates who don’t
represent their ideals and ones who don’t understand their experience, or at least haven’t done anything to
suggest that they do.

Ultimately, policy has to decide our votes, identity politics can’t overwhelm general representation. I
can’t bring myself to give first preference to a right-wing, homophobic, non-secular woman. Quotas
will give women the option of voting for both the party they want and for a woman, which is a dramatic
increase in democratic choice.

There is a collective responsibility for change through quotas, but also an individual responsibility to
support female candidates as legitimate, whatever their political beliefs. To resist our cruel inclination to
undermine female candidates not through reasonable debate, but through attacks on their hair, clothes,
and voices. Dana and Mary Davis weren’t less intelligent than all the other presidential candidates,
they were just treated like they were. When women and men consistently slur and undervalue female
candidates, when we allow female candidates to consistently hover around the bottom of polls we give
parties an incentive to maintain their patriarchal nomination practices.

The voting method I try to uphold is that when their policies are of equal value, I prioritise female
candidates over male. Essentially, a Labour woman comes ahead of a Labour man, a Fine Gael woman
comes ahead of a Fianna Fail man, Dana comes ahead of Gay Mitchell.

One voter giving a slightly higher preference won’t change the course of a national election. But each
additional vote, each additional transfer is a statement of belief in female candidates. When we back the
woman rather than the winner it strikes at the mockery, the insults and the dismissal with which female
candidates are so often met. And maybe that will change something.


To crack the glass ceiling you don’t need a sharp stick, you need a sharp suit

Yesterday I had drinks and dinner with a group of remarkable feminists. Came away feeling really energised, with plans for a radical feminist book club and a new world order.

Minutes later I saw this add in Charing Cross tube station.

Sharp suitText:

To crack the glass ceiling you don’t need a sharp stick , you need a sharp suit

But can the right threads really help you stitch up the competition? Without a doubt. Looking confident, successful and ahead of the game – while every inch a woman – really is half the battle. And it’s the half where Wardrobe can help. 

Wardrobe is a time saving one stop store where you’ll find nothing but the cream of Italian designer suits, dresses, coats, knitwear, shoes, bags, belts and jewellery. 

Everything in Wardrobe is hand-picked by founder Susie Faux on trips to the dozen Italian houses that have earned her respect. 

You’ll find the edgy chic pieces Wardrobe is famous for in fabrics such as you have never laid hands on before. 

You’ll find a degree of tailoring excellence rarely found in women’s clothes. You’ll find outfits not only the right size (8-18) but the right proportions. Plus, if needed, the attention of two in-house tailors to go the extra centimetre.

So take a long look in the mirror and ask yourself: could the wrong packaging be limiting your potential?

Even a reluctant ‘maybe’ suggests it’s time to browse in Wardrobe.

While there, why not engage one of Wardrobe’s warm and perceptive stylists in conversation?

Once she has a feel for your likes, dislikes and lifestyle needs, she’ll short-cut you to several real possibilities.

In no time at all you’ll be in a fitting room with an armful of pieces that will change not only how other people see you, but how you see yourself.

Observing a client go through this process for the first time is like watching the sun come out. And the glass ceiling dissolves.  

You know what? I think I will drop into Wardrobe and speak to one of their warm and perceptive stylists. I’ll tell her the following:

My likes: court shoes, distinctive colours, well-cut blazers .

My dislikes: synthetic materials, blocky shoulders, navy.

My lifestyle needs: to be treated as equal to men, socially and economically,  to be judged on my work and not on my clothing or appearance, to be paid as much as a men for the same work as men, to have the same opportunity for promotion as men even if I have the temerity to have children, to go to work confident that I won’t be subjected to sexism or sexual harassment, to have female role models in any industry in which I work, to maintain my self-esteem in a society that consistently tries to take it from me by telling me that my body, my “wrong packaging” is limiting my potential. A society fuelled by corporate greed which tells me that I should take a long hard look at myself in the mirror, recognise my inadequacy and then spend hundreds of pounds trying to buy my way back to a level playing field. What silly women we’ve been, spending all these year’s campaigning for the vote and equal pay and political representation and places in boardrooms. All along we’ve been blind to the fact that the glass ceiling is SOLUBLE. And all it takes is the cream of Italian design.

Now, where’s my armful of magic suits?

What to do with Andrej Pejic?

Like so many others, I’m a bit baffled by Andrej Pejic. The twenty-year old male model was ranked 98th in FHM’s “100 Sexiest Women in the World 2011”. This week he has made headlines as the chest for a push-up bra advertising campaign in the Netherlands.

See, I obviously detest the fashion industry shaping norms of female beauty that are unattainable for the vast majority of women and so have created an epidemic of self-loathing. I’m definitely furious with H&M for their computer generated models. Or model, rather, since they seem to have just replicated the same body with several different ethnicities. Do the Pejic ads have a similar effect? I mean, I definitely have a girl crush on those arms. However, given the little issues of female bone construction and muscle to fat ratio those arms are definitely unattainable. And I probably shouldn’t feel that I want a dude’s arms in the first place…right?

Or should I? Obviously the other end of this lollipop is that there’s very little I love more than transgression of gender boundaries. When it’s going in the other direction, as with Gaga/Jo Calderone I admire androgyny as a social
statement. I love the androgyny of the female tuxedo, particularly as pioneered by Yves Saint Lauren and Helmut Newton.

Should the rules change when we’re talking about the arguably greater restrictions that gender places upon men’s appearances? Is this a valuable exploration of norms by the fashion industry? Is it art? Is it just a publicity statement? Or is it just, as H&M would say, about showing off the clothes as effectively as possible? And is that okay?

As I say, I’m baffled.

The Ego and John Waters

I watched ‘The Help’ last night, in which the main character, an aspiring journalist, is told to write about what shocks her. In contrast, in the last week, established Irish journalists have clearly been instructed to just write what shocks.

I had started to breathe normally again after my Delaney-induced rage, when this afternoon I read John Waters in the Irish Times. It’s always a blow when the Times runs these things too; it’s worse if your best friend talks about you behind your back than if the girl/guy you hated anyway does it.

However, if anything can be said for Delaney, it’s that he made no effort to hide his ignorance. Waters, on the other hand, falls into the old trap of believing that intelligence is measured by word length. It’s ironic really. The premise of his argument is that “our public discussions are remarkably restricted where it comes to pursuing comprehension of political events” and yet in most sentences he uses more syllables than I’ve eaten hot dinners. Take the following:

Political correctness and other unwritten strictures debar the possibility of deeper understandings concerning the state of the collective psyche and the archetypal yearnings that impinge on collective representation of individual democratic choices.

What Waters wants us to believe is that the point he’s making here is too esoteric and obscure for our feeble minds to handle. In reality, his sentence means nothing. He’s trying to disguise that like every other jaded and unimaginative hack he’s writing about political correctness gone MAD!

You know what? I like political correctness. If that’s the term you want to use for my not being told in the national newspapers that all of my life goals are invalid. Because it’s not about being an exceptional woman, Waters tells us. Rather, we should learn to be good at “being women in a public world ordered to male responses.” We have to lower the tone of our voices, to take the colour out of our wardrobes and the emotion out of our responses. Otherwise, as with Mary Davis and Dana, people will know within ten seconds that we lack the basic “masculine” qualities essential to leadership.

What are those qualities? According to Waters, what we want is that our patres patriae “be wise yet genial, dependable and restrained, strongly empathetic but frank, prudent but unafraid, stoical but unfanatical, tough yet patient, thoughtful but not incontinent of speech…we feel safer with leaders who quietly require that we postpone gratification and commit ourselves to sacrifice for our own long-term good. These are the father values erased from our surface culture by 40 years of aggressive feminist agitation.”

Call me crazy, but over the last 40 years (and particularly the Celtic Tiger/Fianna Fáil years) our political fathers have been seriously short of dependability, restraint, empathy, and prudence. They were particularly poor at delaying any kind of gratification at all. Hence the corruption, the abuse, the cover-ups, the discrimination and the economic collapse.

In fact, throughout the political shambles of the last 21 years, our two Presidents unfalteringly upheld the dignity of their office, placing Ireland among the great nations of the world with their devotion to Human Rights and tolerance. In doing so they transformed the presidency from a old-folks home for the doddery grandfathers of Irish politics, to a dynamic institution, capable of shaping the ideals and morals of the nation.

Consider Mary Robinson’s visit to Somalia in 1992, when she so memorably cried during a press conference.  The overwhelming power of that moment came precisely from her emotion, her lack of restraint, her femininity. To suggest that as a people we have abandoned the values they upheld is an affront to their legacy. To suggest, as Waters does, that they aren’t exceptional women is laughable. What’s more, it paints a pretty hopeless picture for the rest of us.

Still, as restrictive and offensive it is to cast women as shrill, flighty and unceasingly maternal, Waters also does a great disservice to men. He points out that emotional restraint “is among the male qualities feminism has most energetically sought to disparage.” That’s because repression is as damaging for men as it is for women.

Men shouldn’t be forced in roles like hunter-gather, wrestler and firm, distant father. We shouldn’t insist that they be stoic, uncompromisingly masculine and look like they’re good in a scrum. Sometimes, as Mary Robinson shows us, the only appropriate reaction to a situation is to cry. Sometimes it’s to laugh hysterically, or to dance (Hugh Grant in Love Actually, anyone?), or to otherwise express the strongest sadness, joy, or love. That’s what humans do. It’s what our leaders, sometimes, should do. And it’s certainly something that men should be free to do.

So, Mr. Waters, in the interests of facilitating deeper individual understandings, liberated from the repressive collective super-structures of gender expectation, please desist from condensing the conscience of leadership into restrictive orthodoxies.

In simpler terms, since you’re so keen to comprehend, get some manners and some sense.