ESSENTIALISM HAS BEEN described as an essence which categorises race, gender and personality. Professor Siobhán Mullally notes that a commitment to the ideal of ‘separate spheres’, based on the complementarity of male and female roles alongside the presumption of natural sexual differences between women and men is given legal recognition in the language of Article 41.2.1.
Traditional gender roles also serve as prescriptive claims about how girls and women should act. Thus, it may be claimed that all females are naturally better at care work. This type of claim may be followed by the claim that females should be the primary caretakers. Some men and women, however, prefer to work full-time in the home. Their choices need to be fully respected by us all.
Caring and domestic work
Despite the very welcome involvement of men in the care role, women continue to do the bulk of caring and domestic work. Data from the 2011 Census reveals that 61 per cent of carers are women. They provide 66 per cent of all care hours, while 86 per cent of childcare is carried out by women.
Care obligations, however, may limit the individual’s active participation in Irish society at the social, cultural and economic level. Successful entrepreneur Sarah Níc Lochlain has argued that if we want more women to become entrepreneurs and help rebuild the economy, then a national childcare scheme is needed.
Care provision is not a gender-specific issue. The need for ‘Cradle to Grave’ care provision is an issue for all human beings: male and female. Professor Kathleen Lynch said:
No human being, no matter how rich or powerful, can survive from birth without care and attention; many would die at different points in their lives, if seriously ill or in an accident, without care.
Significantly, in February 2013 the Constitutional Convention voted overwhelmingly to radically alter the “Women in Home” Clause in the Irish Constitution, rendering it more gender inclusive in its language and orientation. 97 per cent also supported more Government action to increase participation of women in public and political life.
If these recommendations are adopted and implemented they would foster a more positive environment for women and men who are carers to operate without constraint, realising their full potential as active citizens. The provision of complete care provision is necessary for a sustainable society and economy. Furthermore, increasing entrepreneurship is currently a critical policy concern. To achieve optimal outcomes, a comprehensive care system needs to be integral to ‘entrepreneurial ecosystems’ as business and government seek to embed enterprise and entrepreneurship across Irish society.
Women need to be present and active on issues that affect them and their families. These issues include child, elder care and reproductive health. Above all, women need to be present when economic-related decisions, such as banking, finance, are made because these decisions can have a profound impact on their lives.
Power-sharing and decision-making
The Beijing Conference (1995) recommended that the international community and civil society, including non-governmental organisations and the private sector, act to reduce inequality between men and women in power-sharing and decision-making. Last year, along with other groups, the 5050 Group campaigned successfully for the introduction of legislation to increase the number of women on the ballot paper at general elections in the Republic of Ireland.
Last year, the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, signed that legislation – the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act – into law. The Act ensures that women comprise 30 per cent of party candidates in the next general election. The figure will increase to 40 per cent seven years thereafter.
More women elected to the Oireachtas, while not a solution for our socio-economic ills, is likely to promote gender-sensitised care and family policies. Policy and practice models drawn from the Northern European context could be particularly useful. These models may facilitate greater choice for both men and women as they seek to reconcile the competing demands of work and family life.
Margaret O’Keefe is a lecturer in Community Development at Cork Institute of Technology. Both Margaret O’Keefe and Collette Finn are members of the 5050 Group – an organisation that are looking to achieve gender parity in Irish politics by the year 2020.