What Robinson really said

In this week’s article, Mary reacts to criticism Mary Robinson received in 2005 for her remarks about women who opt out of the workforce to care for their children, and offers an insight into feminism in Ireland ten years ago. 

What Robinson really said

1st December, 2005

Mary Robinson’s “copping out” remarks have been given an interesting perspective by the two ESRI studies published this week. Each is revealing in its own different way about the relative positions of men and women in both the home and the workplace.

In the letters columns of this newspaper and elsewhere, Mrs Robinson has been excoriated for something that in fact she did not say. She has been accused of condemning women who opt out of the workforce to care full-time for their children as “copping out”. What she actually said was something far more subtle. Her target was complacency. She defined “copping out” not as women leaving paid employment to have children per se, but rather as women “not seeking to have society adjust to let them continue to fulfil their potential”. This, she argued, leads us back to the “old problem” of too few women at levels of influence within society. With such power in the hands of men for so long, she pointed out, issues such as gender-based violence and the horrific extent of rape in places such as Darfur, Liberia and Rwanda have not been sufficiently highlighted.

Here in Ireland, we only have to look at the recent figures from Women’s Aid that over one-third of women victims of domestic violence are being turned away from refuges because of overcrowding and lack of funding. Mrs Robinson’s remarks can usefully be perceived as a wake-up call to women in Ireland, particularly younger women: “A lot is taken for granted – there is a tendency to let things slide and not tackle issues such as violence against women or the hidden barriers that remain to women’s progress,” she said in the same interview with Róisín Ingle. It is these younger women who are the study of ESRI’s study, Degrees of Equality – Gender Pay Differentials Among Recent Graduates. Its findings show that young women are as much victims of discrimination as their older counterparts ever were.

Looking at graduates three years into the workforce, the study concludes that women earn on average 11 per cent less than their male counterparts – €590 per week as compared to €660 for men. Women also receive fewer bonuses and fewer training and promotion opportunities than men. For women with undergraduate diplomas, the pay gap widens to 20 per cent. This is in spite of the fact that women generally secure better exam results than men – 74 per cent of women achieved honours grades, compared to 68 per cent of males.

Many of the traditional reasons for women being less well paid than men do not apply to this particular group. Most of the women involved have not yet left the workforce to have children and so have not experienced the drop in pay and opportunity which this often entails. The explanation appears instead to lie in simple, straightforward discrimination. The other ESRI study published this week gives an insight into the respective workloads of men and women in the home. Called the Time Use In Ireland 2005 Survey Report, it shows us that here again, women come off worse. On weekdays, for instance, 71 per cent of men do no cooking or food preparation and 81 per cent do no cleaning. The pattern at weekends is similar.

By contrast, two thirds of women cook and clean, with the result that they have significantly less leisure time at their disposal than men. With women continuing to shoulder the bulk of cooking, cleaning and caring for children within the home, as well as holding down a job (for which they get paid less than their male colleagues), on wonder how can anyone view this grim picture with complacency. Part of the reason might lie in the fact that it’s not fashionable to be a feminist any more.

Feminism has always meant many things to many people. Lately is has become caricatured as a simplistic and irrelevant ideology which glorifies women’s role in the workplace at the expense of those who choose full-time care of their children. However, always at the heart of feminism was the struggle to end discrimination, to provide equal opportunities for women and to redistribute the power within society on a more equitable basis. The current categorisation of feminism as a kind of prescriptive and condemnatory philosophy which says “homemaker bad, working woman good” is an absurd reduction of a campaign which continues to be just as necessary now as it was in the 1960s and the 1970s.

Women today may have more choices, but for many, the options remain unfairly limited. It continues to be vital that women campaign for structures and systems that reflect our (and society’s) competing needs for us to fulfil our roles both within the family and in the wider community.

This column has been republished by the MRJF with the kind permission of The Irish Times.