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Women just want their fair share of the top positions

By Fionola Meredith

Published 17/04/2015

Mary Beard
Mary Beard

There aren't enough powerful women. Nowhere near enough. Not in politics, not in public life in general. Here in Northern Ireland, women simply aren't in the game, whether economically, socially or judicially. The complacent bottoms occupying those influential seats of power are overwhelmingly male. Pin-stripes rule. Female rears get barely a look-in. They - and their owners - don't seem to count.

Look closer, and the pathetic picture really comes into sharp focus. Only one in four of the Northern Ireland candidates in the forthcoming Westminster vote are women, which is a woeful figure, but still a small improvement on the Assembly, where women make up a mere fifth of MLAs. It's a dire situation in the area of public appointments too, with only 33% going to women. Still fewer - 19%, if you want to be precise - sit as chairs of public bodies. In the Northern Ireland workforce, much the same applies: just 37% of managers, directors and senior officials are women.

And there's no sign of anything changing. Earlier in the week, this paper reported that there is not a single woman on the PSNI's top command team, and that less than 30% of police officers are female. New recruits weren't passing the fitness test, though apparently the rules have been changed now. That surprised me, because I regularly see corpulent male cops, guts busting out over their utility belts, queuing up in cafes for their takeaway fries. They don't look too fit to me. So what gives?

I don't blame women - heck, I wouldn't blame anyone - for not wanting to go into politics here. I certainly wouldn't do it. Who would actually choose to expose themselves to the absurd macho posturing, gurning and harrumphing that passes for political discourse in this place? For the most part, it would be like trying to reason with a gang - or rather, a series of competing gangs - of stupid, indulged and aggressive little boys, who spend their time having pointless battles over who can yell the loudest or pee the furthest. No thanks. I have better things to do with my life.

But the fact that women are so badly under-represented, not just in politics but in every other area of seniority in public and working life as well, suggests that the problem is a much deeper-rooted one than a reasonable aversion to political immaturity. The classicist Mary Beard is frequently reviled in the most disgusting ways when she airs her views on television, mostly by scared and hostile men: they don't like it up 'em, to borrow a phrase from Dad's Army. She put her finger on the very nub of the difficulty in a perceptive article for the London Review of Books.

It's a question of authority, she said. In an ignoble tradition which stretches right back to ancient times, women's words are trivialised, dismissed, ridiculed. If they stray from their socially approved domains of cosmetics, weight loss and childcare, and start engaging in big-boy public discourse, they are told they are speaking shrilly, stridently, whingeing and whining. Or else they're assumed to be a bit thick, often by men whose IQ is well south of their own. (There's nothing quite so depressing as an ignorant bloke, bristling with self-importance, explaining how you've got it all wrong, pet, and how he will put you right. I speak from long experience.)

"It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don't hear a voice that connotes authority," said Beard, "or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it".

Worse still, many women have not learned how to hear authority in their own voices. Too often, they hold back from speaking out and claiming their right to be heard, choked by self-doubt and a crippling lack of confidence. Sadly, a few women, if they do get hold of a little power, misuse it, becoming bullies and tyrants in their own right. I have experience of that too.

Let's not buy into the guff about women being natural negotiators and peace-builders, brimming with consensual, non-confrontational problem-solving abilities, or any other of those tired old myths and shibboleths. That's not why they should be occupying more positions of power. Some of the most bitter, nasty troglodytes I have ever met have been female. No, women don't deserve power because they're nicer. They deserve power because they make up half the population. All we should be asking for is our fair share.

Belfast Telegraph

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