“You can’t be what you can’t see,” is a phrase we hear time and time again. Should it be taken literally? No, of course not. There are thousands of examples throughout history of people being the first to do something. But if from a young age a girl believes that she does not have the right or ability to occupy a male-dominated space, be it in politics or business or life, then that belief will start to hold them back. They will start to alter their ambitions to fit into the space they believe they are allowed to occupy.
A study in the United States found that while an equal number of girls and boys at the age of seven aspired to become president, by the time they reached the age of fifteen, that number remained the same for boys but it plummeted by 50 per cent for girls.
The numbers in Ireland reflect this. The Markievicz Survey, a recent survey undertaken for the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation to understand girls’ ambitions, aspirations and interest in leadership roles with a focus on politics and public service, found that 2 per cent of girls aspire to be politicians but on the other end of the scale, the highest proportion wanted to be teachers (16 per cent).
It makes sense. Teaching is traditionally seen as a “female role”, and that shows in the numbers. Almost nine out of every 10 (87%) teachers at primary level and more than seven in 10 (71%) at post-primary level in Ireland are female according to EU figures. With all of those examples of female teachers, it is no wonder that girls aspire to be teachers too.
Meanwhile, just 22 per cent of TDs in Ireland are female. We have never had a female Taoiseach. The current generation of kids in school now won’t even remember the two formidable female presidents we had. With all of that in mind, it would be difficult for girls to find role models in Irish politics. Yet a huge majority of girls in the study (87 per cent) want to see more female ministers.
How can we improve so that both girls and boys can aspire to be whatever they want in life, without societal norms holding them back? More role models across every industry is key.
This is already happening in sport, thanks in no small part to the fantastic 20 X 20 initiative which aims to create a cultural shift in our perception of girls and women in sport. By the end of next year, it is targeting a 20 per cent increase in media coverage of women in sport, 20 per cent more female participation at player, coach, referee or administration level, and 20 per cent more attendance at women’s sporting events.
20 X 20 is a commitment to changing sport for the better by next year. We could also change politics for the better next year. By May at the latest, we will have a general election. The youth of Ireland have called for more female ministers. The powers that be should listen to them. Irish political parties must commit to gender balanced cabinets in the next government. It will set the tone for the entire country, and not just in politics but across business also. You can’t be what you can’t see.
Photo: Senator Catherine Ardagh and colleagues at a Fianna Fáil think-in (Facebook).
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