Monday, 8 March 2021
International Women's Day: Statements
It is great to be here on International Women's Day. The theme of this year's International Women's Day is choosing to challenge. That is something that can resonate with all of us, men or women. We must challenge the status quo, policy, gender balance, inequality, sexism and misogyny.Yet, as a woman, I do not want to focus on those gendered issues, and I do not want to be defined by my ability to challenge them. I do not want that for my daughters, Poppy and Heidi, nor do I want it for my sons, Charlie and George, to grow up believing that women and girls have continually to prove themselves and keep challenging those glass ceilings and walls that restrict them.
Recently I did an interview for International Women's Day with one of my local newspapers, the Tullamore Tribune. The interview went through my childhood, early life, education and my life in politics. I was asked if I had ever felt any of it was especially challenging as a woman and I had to think. I could not say I particularly felt challenged because of my gender during many of the different things I have done throughout my life, from studying, working in all sorts of jobs or even life in academia. I could easily say, however, that politics has been the most challenging thing I have done because of my gender, and entering Government seems to have opened up a whole new level of challenge. It is not just the demands of the job, the public-facing aspect of it and managing the expectations; that is all doable. The most challenging element is probably learning to deal with the nastiness that now seems endemic among some in our society. While all of this applies to both male and female politicians, the personalisation towards females, in particular, is concerning, and my Government colleague, Senator Lisa Chambers, has spoken eloquently about this in the past.
In some respects, we have to become less human as we grow that thick skin deemed necessary to be a politician. We become desensitised to the spite and, essentially, normalise this malevolent behaviour towards politicians. To me, that is a really sad state of affairs because of all the traits we should have in our politicians, humanity should be right up there. Someone said to me once that it goes with the territory and no one forced me to enter politics, which basically means we all have to put with it and politicians are fair game. Should that be acceptable? Should anyone have to put up with such abuse as part of their job? I think not.
For me, at the moment, however, I feel I am strong enough to put with it but the same cannot be said for others. There are also ramifications, for example, for my children and for my elderly parents, who get upset when they see abuse aimed at their daughter. I am sure that may well be the same for other politicians, too, and their families, and that is upsetting. What perhaps is most damaging of all is that it can be so off-putting for women, in particular, to consider entering politics in the first place. This is besides all the other barriers we all know exist to female participation in politics.
It is well accepted now that every organisation, political or otherwise, functions better with more gender balance and more gender equality. Political parties now have quotas for female candidates in general elections, and there have been calls for the same in local elections. Quite simply, despite what anyone might think of this, if we do not have sufficient numbers of female candidates actually running in elections, then we will never have sufficient numbers in office, because women in politics are amazing. There are some incredible female voices here in the Seanad across all parties and Independents, not least my own Green Party colleagues, Senators Pauline O'Reilly and Róisín Garvey - two formidable women indeed. The importance of female leadership contributions cannot be overstated. Every parliament and organisation will fail to reap the benefits by not having a gender-balanced membership.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the gender balance in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine when I joined last summer. Of the 3,800 or so people working in the Department, nearly 1,800 are female, which is not far short of 50%. More to the point, they are excellent colleagues working, as I have discovered, at all levels from senior management to clerical and across all areas such as administrative, inspectorate, veterinary, laboratory and professional services. These people are really talented women.
However, beyond my Department, the agriculture sector is still heavily dominated by men. One only has to look at the membership of the executive committees of the main farming organisations to see just how gross an imbalance there is in them. In fact, it was a pleasure for me to meet recently with a relatively new farming organisation called Talamh Beo and it was so refreshing to see more women than men on the Zoom call, and that is important. When I think about the many wonderful female farmers I know, they are innovative, have made changes to their farms, have taken risks and have diversified. They have challenged the status quo, and those are exactly the characteristics we need in the farmers of the future.The most challenging aspect of being a politician for me, and for other women I know, is being a mother. My decision to enter politics five years ago has taken a toll on my family life. Of that, there is no doubt. There are sacrifices to be made and precious moments must be missed but, for me, the support of my husband, Mark, and my mother, Jeannie, has allowed me to pursue this path. It simply could not have happened without their help.
I greatly admire any woman who has managed to have a successful political career while at the same time rearing a family and, it is to be hoped, managing to have some spare time along the way. The current President of the European Commission, Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, comes to mind as a woman who is very much in charge of her brief, yet she is also a mother of seven and has juggled a prolific political career with family life, particularly when her children were young. Who has not admired Mary O'Rourke, a five-time Minister, a Deputy for nearly 25 years and also a Senator? Mary always speaks fondly of the essential support she received from her late husband, Enda, during her political career.
Yes, sisters are doing it for themselves but, behind every great woman lies what is perhaps the single greatest ingredient for success: a great man, a great partner, a great family or great friends. On this International Women's Day, I want to celebrate that and to thank those who make it possible for women to be the best they can be because that best can simply be better than all the rest.