Time to break the bias

An Cailín Rua

PERCEPTION GAPS A recent poll shone a fascinating light on perceptions of gender equality in Ireland.

An Cailín Rua
Anne Marie Flynn

Happy International Women’s Day!
It may surprise readers – as it did me – to learn that International Women’s Day is not a recent initiative. The very first official National Woman’s Day was held in New York in 1909, followed by the first International Women’s Day across Europe in March 1911, where over a million women attended rallies.
The New York event was designed to unite suffragists and socialists, whose agendas and goals had often been at odds, and on the day, women were told: “It is true that a woman’s duty is centred in her home and motherhood … [but] home should mean the whole country, and not be confined to three or four rooms or a city or a state.” It took until 1975 for the United Nations General assembly to formally recognise March 8 as International Women’s Day. That’s a long time to be talking about gender equality.
The theme for this year’s IWD is ‘Break the Bias’, which feels like going back to basics, in a way. It is about acknowledging the deliberate or unconscious societal biases that make it challenging for women to progress, and about actively challenging these, while celebrating women’s achievements and increasing their visibility.
But do we still need an International Women’s Day? Doesn’t gender equality already exist, for the most part? Isn’t it tokenistic, meaningless, condescending, even? What’s even the point of it?

A recent poll carried out by Kantar as part of the Permanent TSB Reflecting Ireland series shone a fascinating light on perceptions of gender equality in Ireland.
At an overall level, when compared to other issues affecting the population such as economic concerns, housing and health, it ranked lowest in importance.
But what was really striking was the significant gap in perceptions between men and women. Women, for example, were over twice as likely as men to feel that the onus is on them to care more for their children.
More women felt they were doing more household chores in the home than men did. More women expressed frustration at the challenge of balancing work and family, versus men. Significantly more women than men felt during Covid that gender roles had reverted to more traditional ones within the home.
This pattern continued throughout when women and men were asked about the workplace. And so on and so forth – the lived experiences of men and women differed vastly.
It would take a brave man or woman to claim that women are regarded or treated as equal across the board, or that no damaging discrimination or bias exists. So perhaps the idea of an International Women’s Day is tokenistic, when we need to be addressing patriarchal and restrictive structures at a practical level every day.
 In fact, as we celebrate women’s achievements, there is a danger of almost endorsing the glorification of their successes, particularly in the professional sphere, as being achieved in spite of the barriers that exist, instead of doing anything meaningful to break those barriers down and create better access.
And there is also the scourge of commercial interests piggybacking on IWD – offering discounts or creating pink cocktails is tokenism at its most cynical and does nothing to advance the conversations that really need to be had.
Ultimately, in a world where women are seriously under-represented at pretty much every decision-making table, where their achievements are barely recognised (name a street in your town named after a woman?), where their work in the home or as carers is rarely quantified, let alone recompensed, and where women can never be assured of their safety anytime, anywhere, International Women’s Day is not going to solve our problems.
But that does not mean it’s not a day to stop and reflect upon these things, and to highlight the issues that exist – even if we are ourselves feel we are not personally affected. It does not mean that women should not gather together and acknowledge our shared experiences, good and bad, and recognise our differences and achievements.
It certainly does not mean that men are not invited to the conversation – quite the opposite! Every man knows at least one woman, and gender equality benefits everyone – socially, politically and economically.
And with the way things are, don’t we all deserve a bit of a celebration?