It would seem that 2017 is to be an overdue year of reckoning in terms of gender equality in the workplace. Finally, we are just beginning to pull back the curtain on treatment of women in work, over both decades and continents. The value of women in terms of the labour market is becoming abundantly clear and the span of the issue is immense.
The irony of this unprecedented exposure is that the World Economic Forum has just released a report indicating that the gender gap is actually widening this year, for the first time since it began its Global Gender Gap Report in 2006. Prior to 2017, progress was being made, albeit slowly. At the current rate of change, it would take 217 years for gender equality to be reached, and Ireland ranks eighth on the global list for workplace equality.
Examples of the problems women face, and have been facing, have been spilling out of Irish media outlets as much as global ones. Two weeks ago, it emerged that the former artistic director of the Gate Theatre, Michael Colgan, has been accused by seven women of sexual harassment and bullying. Colgan’s apology for his behaviour was rejected by one of his accusers, Grace Dyas, as “pathetic.” Indeed, it does seem to collapse in on itself somewhat. He begins saying that he is “deeply distressed” at the damage he caused but then goes on to say that “My behaviour should not be equated with sexual crimes . . . we are living in a climate where to be accused is now enough to be deemed guilty”. He acknowledges only that his behaviour was “politically incorrect.”
If it’s true that he didn’t realise the magnitude of his actions, now definitely seems like the time to try. Basic dignity and respect is an obvious workplace requirement for any employee, especially any senior member of staff. It may not be a requirement that every staff member chooses to honour, particularly when in a position of power, but the fact that one is not an anomaly in this sense is no excuse for contributing to a threatening and uncomfortable work environment when called out on it. A genuine apology is always welcome but this one seems to take advantage of a fine opportunity to escape criticism by virtue of saying sorry, whilst also serving as a way for Colgan to put his own spin on the situation.
Unfortunately for Colgan, it’s becoming less and less acceptable to mumble something about political correctness gone mad like it’s a magic spell that will make the consequences of your actions go away.
Having said that, an apology, even if it was sincere, was never going to render justice and Colgan’s verbal wriggling is hardly relevant in any debate about fair work relations at this point. It’s simply too late. Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys’, actions are far more notable. She has called together the heads of eight prominent theatres and the Arts Council to discuss how to make work environments in the arts community more safe and equitable. She intends to introduce workshops and training days that place particular emphasis on bullying and sexual harassment. Trinity College have also confirmed that they will be reviewing Colgan’s honorary doctorate when the Gate Theatre’s independent investigation on the matter is completed.
Not everyone takes the subject as seriously, however. On RTÉ’s Drivetime, Mary Mitchell O’Connor said that women in the Dáil are often interrupted while speaking, or simply ignored. She also noted that “macho behaviour” often leads to women in particular being shouted down. When asked by TV3 News if he considers Leinster House a safe work environment, Leo Varadkar said that he believes it is but also corroborated Mitchell O’Connor’s point that it can embody something of a macho culture.
Alas, his comment morphed into yet another occasion for the very type of mudslinging that takes place in the Dáil under fire in the first place by only blaming certain elements of the opposition. He said that it’s “largely by the men and women of Sinn Fein, rather than men specifically.” Shortly before making these comments, Varadkar had encouraged those who have been bullied at work to come forward and had been adamant that there would be “no tolerance” for workplace bullying. For someone who wants “that message to go out very clearly,” he certainly has confused the issue.
These are just two prominent examples of a far-reaching problem. An ESRI report on ‘Bullying in the Workplace’ conducted in 2007 stated that 10.7% of women were at risk of being bullied at work in comparison to 5.8% of men. In a previous article I talked about how women often feel pushed out of the workplace because of the uneven distribution of domestic and care work, as well as an outdated system of maternity and paternity leave compounded by the expense of childcare. Angela Smith, the CEO for Dress for Success, an organisation currently running an Equal Pay campaign, pointed out that, with the way the gender pay gap currently stands, at 14%, women are essentially working for free from 10th of November until the end of the year. Add to this that one is almost twice as likely to be bullied in work, based on gender, and the picture painted for women in work is pretty grim.
As mentioned, this year is evidently the slowest for women’s advancement since 2006 but with national and global discussions finally beginning to focus on the state of gender relations in the labour market, perhaps it’s not too much to hope that we can boost the rate of advancement for next year and the year after that, and the year after that. That can only be achieved unless those involved, particularly those in government, engage with the issue instead of fobbing it off.
Hopefully the World Economic Forum’s prediction that equality won’t be reached until 2234 will be a warning that is heeded, and an opportunity for real change.