Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A letter to my daughter

By Jennifer O'Connell

Dear daughter: I wanted to write you a note of apology for the ways in which my generation has so dismally failed yours. Right now - through your four year-old eyes - the world is an uncomplicated place.

When you grow up, you confidently assert, you’re going to be an astronaut, an artist, or a washing machine lady. You love your little brother, but mainly you pity him because of his gender. "One day, you’ll be big like me," you tell him. "But you’ll never be as big as me.

"And" - you sigh sadly, "you’ll still be a boy." You are, indisputably, the chief executive of the playroom, the chief operations officer and the board of management.



Trying to convey to you right now that the world might not always work like this would be like trying to explain string theory.

We had a conversation once about a country called Saudi Arabia where women are not allowed to drive cars.

You stared at me, saucer-eyed. ‘‘But who won’t let them?" you demanded to know, incredulous at the concept of that omnipotent being - a ‘Mummy’ - being told what to do by anyone.

By the time you’re in your teens, you’ll have realised that life is a bit more complicated than that.

You’ll have encountered the concept of feminism, but if you’re anything like today’s generation of teenagers - loud and confident and surging ahead - you will quickly conclude that it has nothing to offer you.





Eighteen years from now, when you’re probably embarking on a career, you might start to notice a few things that jar with your determinedly feminocentric view of the world.

You might observe that it’s invariably your female colleagues with children who have to rush off out of the office at 5pm, or who take time off when their children are sick, or who work part time.

You will have female bosses, but - I’d bet - still not at the top echelons of the organisation.

Even if women have begun to catch up, I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that in your mother’s time, 70 per cent of managerial roles were held by men - because, generally, being a manager requires someone to work full time, and unless they find some way for men to have babies by the time you grow up, that’s not going to change.

The concept of paternity leave might not be such an outlandishly alien one; but I bet for every week a new Dad takes off work when a baby’s born, his partner will still take four or five months.

Same sex couples will be having or adopting babies together and doing their bit to challenge the stereotype, but in most families, as it is now, it’ll be the woman whose career goes on the back burner.

If things have changed at all, you might watch TV programmes documenting the start of the Great Depression - or, say, Reeling in the Years for 2010 - and find yourself wondering where all the women were.

You’ll look at the TV programmes of men rushing importantly out of bank headquarters and government buildings, and you’ll ask yourself ‘Where were all the women bankers?’

You’ll look at archive footage of panels on quaint-seeming current affairs shows earnestly discussing the Anglo fallout (let’s assume for our purposes here that you won’t still be looking at current TV programmes discussing the Anglo fallout) and you’ll wonder what the women of the country thought about the decision to pass on thousands of euro worth of banking debt to you, and your brother, and all your friends, when you probably each had less than €1 saved up in your porcelain piggy banks.

You’ll definitely have had a few female presidents in your lifetime; you might even have had a female taoisigh - a Joan Burton, or a Lucinda Creighton - but it’s safe to assume men will still make up the majority of those in power.

Even with the dramatic advances in life expectancy, you’re unlikely to live to see gender equality in the Dáil - the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) calculates that could take 370 years.

The male politicians will, of course still be insisting this is a product of women’s ‘choices’ or a question of their ‘priorities’.

Given that recent figures in Britain suggest the gender pay gap there at management level is going to take 57 years to close - and here it’s at a staggering 17 per cent - you’re likely to notice at some point that you’re being paid less than the men in your organisation to do the same job.

The EU will hopefully be tackling this on your behalf - only this week, the French government announced plans to penalise companies that pay female workers less than men, as part of a package of pension reform. But given the state of the economy we have bequeathed you, I think it’s fair to assume that equal pay is not going to be top of any agenda here, any time soon.

As Susan McKay of the NWCI points out: ‘‘In 2007, the Irish government launched a National Women’s Strategy, claiming it would present a ‘shining light to the world’.

"Last year, they took an axe to its funds, claiming that with prisoners to house, garda overtime to pay, and asylum seekers to feed, they just couldn’t afford it."

If you have children of your own at some point, you’ll find it mostly stops being about choice - and becomes about the lack of it.

The lack of choice of affordable childcare; the lack of choice to go part time; the lack of choice of flexible career opportunities.

So this is my way of saying sorry in anticipation.

I’m sorry that we will have achieved so little on your behalf - other than a personal debt of God-knows-how manythousand-euro in the name of our government and a mortgage you might have to help us pay off.

My mother’s generation made the world an infinitely better place to be a woman in; you, I’m ashamed to concede, probably won’t be able to say the same about mine. If anything, we have limited your choices and contracted your freedom.

But I can say with some confidence I speak for many mothers and fathers when I tell you this: we are seething with anger about what our generation has done to yours.

We are fuming. And if we could just find someone to mind you for an hour, we’d probably even storm the Dáil.

If your future self will take a piece of advice from me - and if she’s anything like your present self, she won’t - it’s this: emigrate. Right now, I reckon the best thing I can do to make things up to you is to start teaching you Chinese.

A version of this column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on September 19, 2010.

@twitter/offmessagejen

2 comments:

  1. Hmmm, What a very sad & dismal picture you paint, however, true!

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  2. Jaysis! Just came across this. Brilliant but depressing.

    Terrible to think that the previous generation made so much progress, despite generally have a weak starting point: much lower chance of making secondary or third level, and forced to leave civil service jobs until a few decades ago. Yet, we seem to have hit a wall.

    Now, girls top the Leaving Cert results, get into great colleague courses, but 15 years later they've been overtaken for all the reasons you outline (i.e. not because men suddenly become brilliant in their late 20s).

    Still we have to do our best to keep progress on track or there's no hope - and our daughters would find that hardest of all to accept.

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