The unfinished gender politics of the Good Friday Agreement… and its 20th anniversary celebrations.

by Dr. Maria-Adriana Deiana, Assistant Professor, Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction (IICRR) , School of Law and Government, Dublin City University.

With the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), April 2018 was a milestone, filled with numerous events and discussions about the legacy of the peace settlement and its future prospects, both on the island of Ireland and internationally. Given my research on gender and post-conflict transformation, I was invited to the U.S. to speak at an academic event to mark two decades since the signing of agreement. As speakers, we were asked to reflect on the GFA’s legacy in bringing an end to decades of political violence and building peace for Northern Ireland. My aim was to discuss the implications for women’s citizenship that emerged throughout the peace process, drawing upon my research and over a decade spent in Belfast.

GFA

Cover of the Sunday Business Post’s magazine commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The newspaper has been criticised for ‘airbrushing’ women, in particular Dr. Mo Mowlam, from the peace process.

I began my contribution by acknowledging and discussing the role of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) as co-architects of the agreement. At the same time, I pointed out that the peace process has been ambivalent in addressing women’s demands for inclusion, equality and social justice, remaining therefore incomplete. My talk was abruptly interrupted by another participant who rebuked my assessment for “being ungrateful”. He then took his turn and offered what, he felt, was the proper account of the conflict and of the peace negotiations’ complexities. The gist of his intervention suggested that gender is not relevant to understanding the conflict in Northern Ireland. This is because more men than women died during decades of political violence. While acknowledging that women have suffered in the conflict, it was implied that the extent of this suffering was mostly confined to losing or caring for family members caught-up in the conflict.

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Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition speaking outside Stormont following talks. Photo: Derek Speirs

 

I wish to dwell on this short-lived, yet telling, exchange to develop a reflection on the gender politics underpinning narratives of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as its 20th anniversary celebrations. Starting from the use of the word “ungrateful” to dismiss research that foregrounds women’s experiences and claims (how dare we critique the legacy of the peace process?), the arguments raised in response to my points offer a glaring example of a deep-seated reluctance to acknowledge that women and gender matter greatly in the politics of conflict and peace-making. To begin with, I was struck by the failure to even acknowledge evidence and research documenting the varied impact of conflict in women’s lives, such as the unequal economic and social hardship experienced by women in working-class and rural areas; women’s safety and gender based violence in relation to forms of paramilitary activity and sectarianism; the long-term effects of violence on health and well-being, and increasing caring responsibilities for women as a direct result of the conflict – for example, when family members were injured. Women’s (unequal) care and emotional labour, mentioned by my co-speaker, is  indeed a poignant example of the gendered legacy of the conflict!

What is more, obscured in such gender-blind narratives are the complex ways in which women, in their diversity, participated in the conflict and peace process. It has been documented that some women were actively involved in protests, marches and more overt forms of political activism. Others explicitly engaged in the conflict as combatants in republican/nationalist paramilitary groups, and through supportive/less visible roles in loyalist groups. Some women were involved in community groups and grass-roots organisations that emerged predominantly in working-class areas, as a response to the deficiencies of direct-rule government in dealing with the social and economic needs of communities fractured by conflict and deprivation. In some instances, these kinds of supporting networks would also extend across divided communities. Although conflicting views on the constitutional issues and on the identification with feminism remained, civic activism provided a crucial platform for women’s active engagement during the conflict.  When prospects for the peace settlement emerged in the late 90s, it offered a springboard for a more cohesive, and collective, albeit short-termed, mobilisation which led to the formation of the NIWC.

Not only do the arguments on gender’s irrelevance to understanding the complexities of the conflict suggest a partial view of its history, but this logic also sustains the tendency to dismiss women as full-fledged agents in the politics of the peace process. Beside my own experience at the international conference that prompted this reflection, this attitude has been on display during the GFA’s celebrations on occasions where women’s stake as co-architects in dealing with the legacy of conflict and building peace has been omitted or downplayed.

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Dr. Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, talking to the press after a visit to the Maze prison to speak with loyalist and republican prisoners in 1998, in a move described as ‘mad’ and ‘brave’. RTÉ News archives, www.rte.ie/archives/2018/0108/931726-m0-mowlam-visits-maze/

We should remember that when the Agreement was negotiated, women were unusually visible. Dr. Mo Mowlam, the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, played a tremendous role both in her personal and institutional capacity.  Liz O’Donnell, as junior Minister of Foreign Affairs, also contributed to the talks as a member of the Irish government delegation. Martha Pope, Senator George Mitchell’s chief of staff, coordinated the involvement of the US delegation, playing an important formal and informal role during the negotiations.

Crucially, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) participated in the multiparty negotiations through their elected representatives, Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar. As a cross-community party, the NIWC put an emphasis on maintaining the inclusive character of the negotiations process and in keeping open the lines of communication with civil society and political groups excluded from the talks. Particularly important was the Coalition’s achievement of a separate clause in the Agreement affirming the right of full and equal political participation for women. While we agree that the NIWC was not perfect and that not all women felt represented in their political stance, their contribution was remarkable on many levels. As Danielle Roberts has written, the coalition introduced the principles of inclusion, human rights and equality through their engagement in the negotiations. In the process they also had to find creative ways to navigate the hostile terrain of the male-dominated peace talks and establish working relationships with a wide array of actors. That women’s presence and contribution to the making of the GFA are dismissed in narratives of the peace agreement’s legacy is simply unacceptable.

What a reflection on the GFA’s 20th anniversary should also not downplay is that the aspirations for inclusion and equality included in the agreement have remained peripheral in the subsequent implementation and negotiation of the settlement. As I have argued elsewhere, the divisive nature of ethno-national politics has taken centre stage, also as a result of the power-sharing consociational formula deployed in the agreement.  Gender concerns have been relegated to the margins of the dominant political agenda and often left unaddressed. Numerous reports highlight the continued economic and social hardship experienced by women living in divided and interface communities, and the lack of social services and education for young people in these areas. Women have continued to express concerns around issues of safety, violence and ‘new’ forms of paramilitary activity. Community activists report a lack of attention to the persistence of entrenched gendered violence and discrimination. The fight for reproductive justice and bodily autonomy, challenged by conservative attitudes of major political parties,  also continues thanks to huge efforts by individual activists and groups such as Alliance for Choice. As both Claire Pierson and Kellie Turtle point out, while there have been some gains in the field of political representation and in the leadership of major NI parties, women have had limited access to key institutions and processes that focus on unresolved legacies of conflict and crucial contested issues, such as the parade commission and more recently the ‘Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition’ Commission.

Generally, women’s and feminist groups have expressed dissatisfaction with a peace process wherein women and women’s claims are too often side-lined in favour of matters that are deemed of more immediate interest, such as ‘community relations’, ethnonational identity and stability/re-establishment of institutions.  This marginalisation has been intensified in the recent political deadlock that led to the suspension of NI devolved institutions, as well as in discussion around the uncertainties over  Brexit. In October 2017, I attended a consultation to discuss the implications for women, peace and security in the current moment of political crisis and uncertainty. Organised by Yvonne Galligan and Fiona Buckley, as chairs of the Gender Politics specialist group of the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI), the meeting included NI activists, community development experts and interested academics. Participants expressed concerns over the unfinished gender equality politics of the peace process, as well as over the return of zero-sum positions spurred by controversies in NI local politics and  Brexit negotiations. Our discussion brought to the fore a sense that, yet again, a gender perspective and an attention to wider women’s concerns about the equality and rights agenda have been absent from political discussions over the future of the Agreement.

As fellow researchers and activists have argued, it is time that women’s contribution to building peace and their demands for social justice, equality and inclusion are fully acknowledged and taken seriously.  That 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement these complexities continue to be dismissed in discussions on the legacy and future of the peace process is why we insist that women’s and feminist critiques, in their diversity, are not only heard but amplified at every opportunity.

 

 

If you’d like to learn more about gender politics in Northern Ireland, take a look at Michelle Rouse’s piece here. For more pieces on the role of women and gender in conflict around the world, including such issues as sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers, women in conflict mediation, how women terrorists are portrayed by the media, and more,  see here.

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‘When you know better, you do better’: Tackling inequality in secondary schools

by Holly Foley, PhD candidate in Sociology at TCD, Project Co-ordinator at The Rising Tide Project and Junior Chambers Ireland ’10 Outstanding Young People’ 2017 nominee.

‘When you know better, you do better’ – Dr. Maya Angelou

 

Schools are the battleground where inequality can be eradicated and the students’ right to equality can be won. Society can judge its most vulnerable members with a very harsh eye. Nobody wishes to live in poverty, raise their children in poverty and be judged by their peers for the size of their TV, the food on their table and the clothes on their back. Let us imagine that we were all genuinely doing our best with the skills and knowledge that we had, however limited or however bountiful, but accepting that we were nonetheless doing our best. Maya Angelou bestowed many pearls of wisdom upon us, one of which resonates with me daily “When you know better, you do better”. It can be that simple. Schools bring our young people together to educate them; education in its many forms helps us do better.

There is a growing body of literature which explores the influence of school in the lives of young people. Now we know better, let us do better. Let our schools raise our young women and men up from their first steps on their educational journey until they march out the door, heads high armed with the knowledge and power to do better.  Sounds lofty? I am a realist, so let’s get practical. Our teachers must teach the curriculum, but in what environment, with what expectations and with how much awareness of “the hidden curriculum”?

Let us explore class inequality first. Research in an Irish context found that irrespective of social background and Leaving Cert grades, young people attending a school with a high concentration of working-class students were much less likely to go on to higher education than those who attended middle-class or socially mixed schools. In Ireland, students from middle-class schools were more likely than those from working-class schools to go on to some form of post-school education and training. It is not the bricks and mortar or the tables and chairs of the school that is creating such an obvious divide. Schools need to examine their culture.  Is everyone present because it is compulsory, or because they want to teach and learn and grow and do better? What is the belief system in the school? Do the teachers believe in their students? Do the students believe in themselves? Schools cannot control the messages students are getting in the media, in their neighbourhood or in their homes. They can, however, carefully craft the messages that students receive during their day of learning and they can encourage students to control how they receive positive and negative messages about themselves. What subjects are schools offering? Is the school offering a higher-level option to junior and senior cycle students? Schools which do not offer a European language and higher-level subjects to their students are sending a loaded, negative message to their students: these are not for you. Schools which do not offer and actively encourage students to study higher-level subjects are curbing the future life-chances of their students and need to hold themselves to a higher standard. What types of guidance does a school offer? Research tells us that working-class students and students from ethnic minorities are more heavily reliant on formal guidance in schools for making educational decisions. Does the school have a college-going culture? Are students exposed to different types of pathways? Visibility is crucial when planning post-school pathways. If a student does not know a certain career or profession exists, how can they pursue that pathway?  Simple answer: they cannot and so they do not. Instead they follow the familiar pathways that have been worn before them but, no more! Now they will know better and they will do better.

This leads us to the issue of gender inequality. Research suggests that male students achieve more success than female students in co-educational schools. Reasons for this include teachers calling on male students more frequently to answer questions, allow male students to speak over or ‘shout-down’ female students and dominate the discourse. Not only is this further reinforcing gender inequality in the classroom, but it internalises the power structure for females who carry this experience of subordination into higher education and the workplace. Are co-educational and single sex schools fighting gender bias in subject choice? There is a disservice being done to all students by not fostering a culture in which male and female students can actively engage in traditionally highly-gendered subjects.  If a school is not challenging gender bias in subject choices the message is clear to students from a very young age.  Students make distinctions between what is for them and not for them; thus, their pathways become gendered which is not in the best interests of the students, the school or wider society. Gender inequality damages everyone and stunts our growth as people and as a society.

I attended a single sex school, and I lament the wasted opportunities that a ‘better’ culture and a ‘better’ understanding of our agency in society could have created. There were approximately 700 young women in my school. Can you imagine the change 700 young women could make in the world if they were armed with the tools to tackle inequality in its various forms? Prescribed prose and poetry on the curriculum in my time did not speak to young working-class women and their place in the world, or the power they possess. Geography seemed a somewhat abstract subject, mountains, rivers,  and lakes unfamiliar from my own vantage point in a housing estate. And of course, the Leaving Certificate “points race”, a tall-tale of meritocracy, which in reality is run on a two-tier track and never the twain shall meet.

We do a disservice to our young students by not acknowledging the power to create change that they possess. One young person working in isolation to tackle inequality will undoubtedly face an unrelenting path. A school of 700 young people, hungry for more, has the power to create a tsunami of change in their community, to empower their peers to go forth and demand better. Schools must acknowledge their unique position in shaping these future agents of change. Over the course of a lifetime a school has daily access to young people, where they can empower them with the knowledge to create change, consistently reinforce these values and lift their aspirations to previously unimaginable heights.

Let us end on a reflection of the school as the ‘battleground’ where equality can be won. If a school makes it their mission to wage war on inequality, their students will carry this victory with them. Empowered and emboldened by this victory, students can assert their place in society and challenge inequality on a global stage with confidence and eloquence because these students will know better and these students will do better.

Austerity, women and health inequalities in the UK

by Amy Greer Murphy, Durham University

My PhD is part of a five year research project entitled ‘Local Health Inequalities in an Age of Austerity: The Stockton-on-Tees study’. It’s a mixed method case study exploring the localised impacts of austerity on health. My role is examining the experiences of women living in Stockton using qualitative research.

A few key terms

Austerity refers to attempts to reduce government deficits through spending cuts and sometimes tax increases. Across Europe, austerity was implemented in many countries, such as Greece and Ireland, as a precondition of receiving bailouts in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. In the UK, a major restructuring of the public sector and welfare system has been undertaken since 2010.

Neoliberalism refers to the application of free market principles to public policy. It has been enacted in the UK since Thatcher’s Conservative government came to power in the 1980s and has comprised of deregulation (e.g. of the banking and financial system), privatisation (e.g. of bus and rail services) and, more recently, austerity (e.g. extensive welfare reforms).

‘Health inequalities’ refer to disparities in life expectancy and years of health life (‘mortality’ and ‘morbidity’) within and across nations. There is a gradient in all countries – those with more socio-economic resources also have better health (Marmot, 2010). In the UK, health inequalities are widening since austerity began. Schrecker and Bambra (2015) have referred to the process of widening health inequalities and liberalised economic and social policies as a ‘neoliberal epidemic’.

Austerity and inequality in the UK

The UK is a large country, and one of great social contrasts. The contrasts that are relevant to my research are related to inequality of opportunity, resources, health, and the government policies, political decisions and historical legacies that bring these about. The North East has experienced a huge restructuring of its’ social landscape in recent decades. Mining, heavy industry and manufacturing have all but ceased to operate there. The jobs that once provided decent incomes and rooted people to their communities, providing clear routes through the lifecourse and class allegiances, have slipped away. In their place are zero hour contracts in care homes and nurseries, seasonal work in factories and as agency staff providing security in shopping centres.

Through this research process I have tried to understand what neoliberalism and austerity feel like if you’re not on the winning side of them, focussing on gender and class. I’ve then tried to see the wider connection to globalised economies and deregulated financial markets.

Stockton-on-Tees

One of the ways austerity is affecting places and people differently is through health. In Stockton-on-Tees, the gap in life expectancy for men is the largest in all of England, at 17.3 years, and one of the widest for women, at 11.4 (Public Health England, 2015). If you are a man born in one of the wealthier, typically less urbanised parts of Stockton you can expect, on average, to live 17.3 years longer, and more of those years in good health, than a man born just a short walk away, in a more built-up and less well-off part of town. You are also at a higher risk of cardio-vascular disease, obesity, cancer, mental health issues, suicide, alcoholism, to be more socially isolated, have a worse paying, precarious job or no job at all, and to be at the mercy of an increasingly retrenched welfare state for your income and livelihood. The picture for women is similar, but different in crucial ways I will explore later.

This, of course, isn’t the picture for everyone in Stockton; I don’t want to paint a doomsday caricature (Benefits Street, the Channel 4 show, made a noble attempt at that in 2014 with their ‘poverty porn’ foray into life on Kingston Road). Stockton is steeped in a proud industrial legacy, is surrounded by beautiful dales and hills, has a vibrant town centre, and is home to thousands of people of all kinds who are creating thriving and enduring communities. Undeniably, however, government policy is making the lives of an increasing number of its residents tougher.

The research topic

Women face a distinct set of risks under austerity, as their lives, choices and opportunities often play out differently. This led me to develop my research project, to be carried out with mothers from across the borough. I wanted to understand what the experiences are of being a woman living in a place like Stockton – what can they tell us about other similar places that have experienced stark deindustrialisation and withdrawal of resources and traditional routes to employment and social stability? What does it feel like to live through welfare reform, as a mother, with enough money or very little, in an area with lots of different inequalities?

The methods

The research design was informed by the work of Sociologists who have used their skills to bring to the academic and policy world narratives that are otherwise silenced – quite often the voices of women. Berverley Skeggs (1997), wrote about class and gender and respectability in an area of England not so far from Stockton, Ann Oakley (1979; 1993) spent years with mothers asking them what they thought about housework, women’s health and becoming a mother, and Arlie Hochschild (1989) delved into the lives of women trapped in the double- or triple-bind of work, caring for children and elderly relatives. The methods I used are similar to theirs, and ‘qualitative’, meaning they are designed to explore diverse social worlds and understand why certain groups of people or individuals make choices or live in certain ways, or why their lives are presented in a certain light. I had a methodology (system of methods) and sampling strategy (idea of why I wanted to contact, and why). Unlike some quantitative social research or scientific experiment, or the research wasn’t designed with representativeness or generalisability in mind.

I used ethnography, or participant observation; I spent 16 months at a women’s group where I gained friends and mentors and learned about being woman living on a low income in Stockton. I also interviewed 15 women, 14 of whom are mothers, from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds and from many different walks of life. I recruited participants through the local Sure Start centres, Twitter, Thrive, the anti-poverty charity I spent a lot of time at, and through snowball sampling (asking people I met if they could recommend someone, or pass on my details). I offered a voucher as a thank-you and recorded my interviews.

Some findings

Continuing austerity and the decline of opportunities: For respondents and their wider networks, there is a huge concern about the likely continuation of austerity and what that might mean for families and communities. We spoke about diminishing opportunity and prospects, the long-term decline of services, the quality and availability of housing and work in the area.

The desire to ‘just be a mam’: Respondents found their roles as mothers and carers increasingly devalued, with the expectation that caring work should be provided by the market and that they should seek formal work as a primary source of income. However, quality work is unavailable, childcare unaffordable, and an important source of identity formation, their role as carers and mothers, diminished under austerity.

Mental health: It became increasingly obvious as I spent more time in the field that the deterioration of participants’ mental health and sense of wellbeing was stark. Discussions of everyday struggles with depression, anxiety and serious bouts of post-natal depression were worryingly frequent. Furthermore, long-term physical health and chronic pain issues were part and parcel of life for many of the women I spent time with, symptoms of a lifetime of stress, poor quality housing and other inequalities (Mattheys et al. 2015).

Conclusion

Underpinning my research is the understanding that women, particularly mothers, face a set of distinct risks under austerity, through labour market changes, reliance on the welfare system and the public sector. They are employed in higher numbers in the public sector, and so more vulnerable to job losses there, and more likely to be underemployed or in low-paid work in ‘feminised’ sectors. They may also face maternity discrimination in their workplace, experience a large gender pay gap and are absent from the labour market for extended periods while they take care of young children. Women also make use of public sector services in high numbers, the very services being cut back during austerity. They rely on the welfare state for many reasons to a much larger extent than men. Welfare reforms like the benefit cap, bedroom tax and sanctions, closures of community centres and privatisation of Sure Starts and lone parent conditionality hit not just women in large numbers, but children and families too. This research is trying to illustrate how austerity is regressive and contributing to growing inequality, and how this group, like many all around the UK, are finding it a challenging time to live through.

References

  • Blyth, M. 2013. Austerity: the history of a dangerous idea. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Hochschild, A. 1989. The Second Shift: working parents and the revolution at home. Viking Penguin, New York.
  • Konzelmann, S., 2014. The political economics of austerity. Cambridge Journal of Economics 38 (4) pp. 701–741.
  • Marmot, M., Allen, J., Goldblatt, P., Boyce, T., McNeish, D., Grady, M., and Geddes, I. 2010. Fair society healthy lives. The Marmot review executive summary. The Marmot Review. UCL Institute of health equity, London.
  • Mattheys, K. Bambra, C. Kasim, A. Akhter, B. 2015. Inequalities in mental health and well-being in a time of austerity: Baseline findings from the Stockton-on-Tees cohort study. SSM -Population Health 2 Pp. 350–359.
  • Oakley, A. 1979. Becoming a mother. Martin Roberston and Company Ltd., Oxford.
  • Oakley, A. 1993. Essays on women, medicine and health. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
  • Public Health England, 2015. Stockton-on-Tees Health Profile 2015.
  • Robson, S., and Robinson., J., 2012. Findings and recommendations from interim case study: the impact of austerity measures upon women in the North East of England. The Women’s Resource Centre, London.
  • Rubery, J. and Rafferty, A. 2014. Gender, recession and austerity in the UK. In: Karamessini, M. and Rubery, J. 2014. Women and Austerity, the economic crisis and the future of gender equality. Routledge, Oxon. pp. 123-144.
  • Schrecker, T., and Bambra, C., 2015. How politics makes us sick: neoliberal epidemics. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
  • Skeggs, B., 1997. Formations of class and gender, Theory, Culture & Society. Sage Publications, London.

 

Mediating Violent Conflict: Where are the Women?

by Dr Catherine Turner

Durham Law School, Durham University.

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Former Irish President Mary Robinson (left) and Ethiopia’s Hiroute Guebre Sellasie, the UN’s only female lead mediators

In his December 2016 inauguration speech, the newly elected Secretary General of the United Nations (UN), former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guetterres, indicated that one of the priorities of his term in office would be conflict prevention. He emphasised the need to take more creative approaches to prevent the escalation of conflict, including notably a much stronger emphasis on the use of mediation and creative diplomacy. Prevention, it is said, is better than cure, particularly when conflicts such as Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and Israel/Palestine are proving so difficult to ‘cure’. The emphasis on mediation marks the culmination of a longer process of review within the UN of the ways it responds to violent conflict. A series of reports evaluating the UN’s peacebuilding architecture led to the 2016 adoption of the ‘Sustaining Peace Agenda’, marking a commitment to increased coherence across the organisation in co-ordinating peacebuilding activities.[1] Resolution 2282 (2016) emphasises ‘the importance of a comprehensive approach to sustaining peace, particularly through the prevention of conflict and addressing its root causes, […] and promoting […] inclusive dialogue and mediation…’

 This priority is also accompanied by a commitment by the new Secretary General to address a persistent problem within the UN – the need to ensure gender parity.

Resolution 2282 reaffirms the importance of women’s participation in peace and security, as well as stressing the importance of increasing women’s leadership and decision-making in relation to conflict prevention. The bringing together of these two priorities, namely an increased role for mediation in international peace and security and a commitment to increasing the participation of women in leadership roles within the UN, presents a good opportunity to consider the role of women in conflict mediation.

Of course, a commitment to increasing women’s participation in conflict prevention and peacebuilding is not new. Since the Security Council passed its landmark Resolution 1325 in 2000, the role of women in conflict resolution and peacebuilding has been on the Security Council agenda. The ‘Women, Peace and Security Agenda’ has consistently highlighted the underrepresentation of women in peacebuilding and a number of strategies have been implemented to try and redress this imbalance. There is a very significant body of work on the reasons that women should be included in peacebuilding. This work has highlighted the benefits of including women and has highlighted the different roles that women play within peacebuilding,[2] however it has largely overlooked the specific category of women in the role of mediator. This is despite clear policy commitments throughout the WPS resolutions that call for greater representation of women within high-level UN mediation teams.[3] And yet, despite over 10 years work on the WPS agenda, the number of women actively included in peace talks as mediators remains persistently low. Research shows that, of 31 UN-led mediation processes between 1991 and 2011, only 3 were led by women as the chief mediator. This translates into only 2.7 % of all chief mediators.[4] As a result in 2013 the Security Council passed resolution 2122 further requesting the Secretary General to support the appointments of women at senior levels as UN mediators and within the composition of UN mediation teams. By 2014 the UN had appointed two female lead mediators – the former Irish president Mary Robinson, and Hiroute Guebre Sellasie of Ethiopia – and women held a further 14% of senior UN mediation positions.[5] However this figure remains low in light of the Secretary General’s 2010 commitment to increasing the number of women appointed to lead UN peace processes.[6]

The very low statistics of women in the role of chief UN mediator creates an impression that women are simply not engaged in the mediation of violent conflict. Yet, in practice, we know this is not true.

In conflicted states across the globe women are actively involved in the mediation of violent conflict. The roles they play are increasingly being recognised through the creation of networks of women mediators such as those created by Nordic States, by African States, and in support of the peace process in Colombia. So why, when women are so active in mediation at the local level, do we not see more women in high level UN led processes? My research suggests a number of reasons for this apparent contradiction.

Responsibility for increasing the participation of women in mediation is divided across different departments within the UN. The appointment of high-level envoys or Special Representatives of the Secretary General – those we all recognise as the public face of UN-led mediation – lies with the Department of Political Affairs. The appointment of a mediator in this context refers specifically to the appointment of an individual by the Secretary General to pursue conflict diplomacy on his behalf. These are high-level political appointments and are almost exclusively at the discretion of the Secretary General himself. The Envoy will be the person responsible for convening the Track I – or state-level- talks. Women are very under-represented in these positions.

This focus on high-level talks and on the leadership role of international mediators can be contrasted with the approach taken by UN Women, the body tasked with working with member states to further the empowerment of women and support peacebuilding capacity within the State. At this level, mediation happens at a local level, within and between communities. It is at this level that women mediators are most strongly represented.[7] Women are regarded as bringing significant skills to mediation not only while official Track I processes are happening, but before and after those processes, in some cases enabling the process to take place. Through their roles as intermediaries women can create the conditions whereby talks are possible, for example by negotiating the cessation of hostilities to allow humanitarian access or opening channels for dialogue.[8]

The division of responsibility between the DPA and UN Women, both of which have very different operational mandates, creates a potential gap between mediation in local or national contexts and mediation that occurs at the international level. While women may demonstrate strong mediation skills and have considerable experience of mediating disputes, this experience does not result in inclusion in international mediation teams. There is a point at which women mediators tend to drop out of peace talks, and this is the point at which international actors become involved. At this stage, women are not considered to be ‘political’ enough to want to play a role in high-level mediation.

In these circumstances, women’s local experience is often overlooked in favour of bringing in international experts (who may also be women) to consult on the design and delivery of mediation processes. This means that not only do local women become marginalised in the process, but their insight into the conflict dynamics is also lost.

When women return to the process they return in the role of participants in the process—as a vulnerable group to be consulted rather than as the agents of change they have been. Further, the extent of women’s participation is also largely dependent on how willing the mediator is to include them,[9] leaving women inherently vulnerable to exclusion.

Of course not all women who engage in mediation at the community level will seek international opportunities. Similarly, there may be local gender dynamics that make it difficult for local women to step into political positions. But it is patronising to suggest that all women mediators are satisfied with working at the local level. Many have the skill, the experience and the ambition to play greater roles internationally. What is missing is a route to integrate them into formal processes.[10] While the role of Envoy will always be available only to a very small category of people, there is no reason that women should not play more prominent roles within high-level mediation teams.

There may be a very practical reason for the failure of women mediators to make the transition from local or national experience to international experience. It may simply be, for example, that they are not coming to the attention of the DPA at the time at which mediation teams are being selected. Member States therefore have a role to play in the career development and the nomination of women for inclusion within UN teams. If the DPA relies on nominations from Member States for identifying suitable candidates, then States can potentially support the work of both UN Women and the DPA by bridging the gap between the local and the global. This would include identifying women working as mediators within the community sector, the private sector as well as the Women’s sector, thereby casting the net much wider than traditional approaches. It would involve recognising the contribution that women mediators are already making to conflict resolution.

Taking a proactive approach to identifying women mediators, and ensuring that they benefit from the necessary career development opportunities at the national level, would be a big step towards a more coherent approach to ensuring that women’s contribution to mediation is made visible internationally.

Taking such an approach is consistent with the Sustaining Peace Agenda and speaks directly to the need for greater synergy between the relevant agencies responsible for sustaining peace and promoting gender parity.

[1] Resolution 2282 (2016)

[2] Anderlini, SN and J Tinman (2010) ‘What the Women Say: Participation and UNSCR 1325’ International Civil Society Action Network and Centre for International Studies; Paffenholz T et al. (2016) ‘Making Women Count- Not Just Counting Women: Assessing Women’s Inclusion and Influence on Peace Negotiations’ (Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative & UN Women)

[3] Resolution 1325 (2000); Resolution 1889 (2009); UN Strategic Framework on Women Peace and Security 2011-2020; Resolution 2122 (2013)

[4] UN Women (2012) Women’s Participation in Peace Processes: Connections Between Presence and Influence. New York. United Nations

[5] Statistics from the International Peace Institute, 2013

[6] UN, 2010 UN Doc A/65/35- S/2010/466

[7] Conciliation Resources (2013) ‘Women Building Peace’ Accord Insight 16

[8] United Nations Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2015) 54

[9] Global Study

[10] UN Women (2012) Women’s Participation in Peace Processes: Connections Between Presence and Influence. New York. United Nations

A woman’s place is in the kitchen?

The Rise of the Chef: The Skill of Cooking Becomes More Complicated

by Mary Farrell.

Women have always been involved with food: gathering food; growing food; processing food; cooking food; presenting food; feeding their families. This is something that is true across the world and throughout history. Yet in many societies, indeed most, women have tended to be poorly represented at higher-status activities associated with food. Think of the Michelin chefs, famous chefs, head chefs – do we automatically think of men? It is fascinating that, even in societies in which women are considered “liberated” from the restraints of traditional gender mores, and protected at work from the most egregious cases of gender discrimination, women are significantly under-represented as top chefs, and women’s writing about food has been typically relegated to the areas of domestic and family life. Even now, it seems that men’s involvement with food, whether in preparing it or writing about it in the public realm is seen as having more gravitas; as being, almost by definition, higher status. The question is why this is the case? How did it all get so confused? After all, women remain the predominant cooks in the domestic setting. In order to understand the particularity of this phenomenon we must look back through history in order to understand the curious state of affairs we now find ourselves in.

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Illustration by Rita Blair

The Creation of the ‘Le Chef’

It is during the 17th century we witness the emergence of the concept ‘The Chef’. Early chefs were members of the military and were exclusively men when, in the 17th century, the landed nobility began to rely on chefs to prepare food. The employment of a man in this capacity was seen as a sign of one’s status at that time[1]. As chefs began to take on more power in shaping the cultural and culinary world around them, they searched for ways to separate cuisine with a high social value, or haute cuisine, from the everyday, and little valued, cookery of women[2].

It is also at this time, the era of the Industrial Revolution, that we see the emergence of two distinct spheres, the domestic/private/feminine on the one hand, and the professional /public/masculine on the other. Prior to this, most women and men’s lives overlapped. Most work was carried out around the home where women were the primary food providers and caretakers while also taking part in home-based manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution relegated women to the private realm of household management, child rearing and religious education, as factories split the family unit. Working-class men worked in the mines, mills, and workshops and women remained in the home with the farm and family, creating the concept of “homemaker”. This division reinforced an already gendered world by identifying separate spheres, unequally weighted in favour of the masculine and the public. This dichotomy prevails to this day and continues to underpin our understanding of the public/private realms and the concepts of masculine and feminine.

This gendered division of the skill of cooking, aided by the rise of separate spheres for men and women, prevented women from participating in the growing restaurant industry in Europe (Ferguson 2004). Men controlled the means of professional legitimation such as authoring cookbooks, teaching at culinary schools, and exhibiting at culinary expositions thereby juxtaposing men in the role of ‘‘educator’’, and their women audience members as ‘‘students’’, helping to institutionalise the exclusion of women from professional cooking (Ferguson 2004).

The terms ‘chef’ and ‘cook’ are directly related to the separation of the public and the private sphere. The chef means “chef de cuisine” or “head of the kitchen” and related directly to the métier of food preparation in the professional public sphere. The term cook is understood more as much more working class, understood as being a nose-to-the-grindstone worker, a cog in a wheel. The chef is a professional who goes through proper training and rises in the ranks of a military system, a term historically associated with men, whereas the cook is self-taught, home-schooled, working by instinct and has historically been associated with women and the private sphere. A chef is granted higher public status and the freedom to be creative and imaginative with their food; a cook may only be responsible for following the chef’s recipes and produce food. In Ratatouille, Revel believes that the raw edible materials in the hands of “mothers” can lead to some fine “craftsmanship” but not great art, whereas the chefs have to transcend everyday methods to realise a grand cuisine which should be restricted only to professionals, who are undoubtedly men. When Colette asks Linguini “How many women do you see in this kitchen?” her response is illuminating,

“Because Haute Cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world…” People think haute cuisine is snooty, so the chef needs to be snooty”[3].

Colette reveals that cuisine is associated with high culture and the world of the professional man whereas cooking is associated with working class people and women’s work. This hierarchical stance creates binaries – art/craft, cultivated or educated professional cuisines /local cooking, and male chefs/female cooks. This dichotomous relationship is played out in the world of the professional chef, where women and men are judged according to their gendered understanding of the skill of cooking within our culture, to women’s disadvantage[4]. The most recent academic work researching women chefs found that females are overly represented at the cook level and underrepresented at the head chef level, questioning whether the gendered understanding of chef and cooks reveal a bias against women based on their gender and historic hierarchical structures[5].

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Illustration by Rita Blair

With the emergence of modern feminism, the predominant representations of the domestic are of oppression, entrapment, tyranny, enslavement; “captive wives and housebound mothers”. Women are portrayed as victims, subjects of male action and female biology, removing women’s agency and dismissing the domestic and the myriad of important actions that take place within this space. Betty Freidman argued in The Feminine Mystique that the domestic was contrary to the aims of feminism.  As a result, the relationship between the female, food and the domestic has long been identified as oppressive; a representation of powerlessness.  This has excluded the female in the domestic space from telling her story, who, while working within this private sphere was able to carve out her own area of power and independence. The greater intimacy, the very domesticity that is often seen to relegate women’s involvement with food to a “lower” level, also means that their cooking, writing and talk of food are rich with social context in the way that more formal involvement often is not, giving us abundant insight not just into their own and their family’s lives, but to social mores and historical context.

In recent years, food studies and third wave feminists have helped to open up the domestic space to further investigation, allowing us to recognise the significant lives of women in the domestic spheres. By conceptualising the kitchen as a space as opposed to a place, we can represent a site of multiple changing levels and degrees of freedom, self-awareness, subjectivity and agency.  Here, food studies uncover a relationship with food and the domestic that reveals “opportunities” to demonstrate creativity and skill, and accruing value within families and communities and increasing opportunities to express resistance and power; it permits a revision of the text to allow for more a “more nuanced, culturally inclusive consideration”, suggesting that the domestic sphere functioned as a space of freedom and power for women even as it constrained them in other ways[6].

My PhD key factors for the gender disparity in head chef positions in the  restaurant industry in Ireland. It has always fascinated me as to why, when women carry out cooking in the domestic setting, it is men who consistently feature as the top chefs in my industry. The rise of the chef has resulted in a complicated and misunderstood relationship for women and their relationship with the skill of cooking.  The rise of the chef, married with the separation of the two spheres – the public and private – seems to me a good place to begin the story for women chefs and the many challenges they may face through their careers.  Many challenges remain for women in this industry but by looking back at how it all began it helps me frame my research and develop it through the lens of feminist discourse.

 

References

[1] Trubek, A. (2000), Haute Cuisine: How the French Created the Culinary Profession, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[2] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[3] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[4] Swinbank, V. A. (2002). The Sexual Politics of Cooking: A Feminist Analysis of Culinary Hierarchy in Western Culture, The Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol 15, pp.464–494.

[5] Harris Deborah A. & Patti Giuffre, Patti A, (2015), Taking the Heat , Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen , Rutgers University Press

[6] Abarca, Meredith E. (2008), Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working Class Mexican and Mexican American Women. U.S.A: Library of Congress.

Maths: the same in every country?

by Rose Cook, PhD candidate at the Institute of Education, University College London.

Think women aren’t good at maths? Depends on where you’re a woman. 

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(We never miss a chance to quote Mean Girls here at Women Are Boring)

Do you know the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit? Can you interpret information from line graphs in news articles? Calculate how many wind turbines would be needed to produce a certain amount of energy (given the relevant information)?

These may seem like basic tasks, but if you are a woman living in the UK, Germany or Norway, the chances are you would struggle with them more than a comparable man. If you live in Poland, however, you might even outperform a male counterpart.

Why this variation in skills, and why does it appear in some countries and not others?

For some, these findings, from the 2011 international survey of adult skills, run by the OECD,  will confirm their existing beliefs. In spite of women being more academically successful than men, the perception that ‘women can’t do maths’ is widely held. A recent experiment [1] showed that both genders believe this to be true: both male and female subjects were more likely to select men to perform a mathematical task that, objectively, both genders fulfil equally well. In her successful book ‘The Female Brain’, Louann Brinzedine argued that women are ‘hard wired’ for communication and emotional connection, while men’s brains are oriented towards achievement, solitary work and analytical pursuits.

Another camp of social scientists argue that such narratives misrepresent the facts.  Janet Shibley Hyde and colleagues insist that, at least in the United States, men and women’s cognitive abilities are characterised by similarity rather than difference. Reviewing findings across many studies of gender differences on standardised mathematics tests, these authors found that ‘even for difficult items requiring substantial depth of knowledge, gender differences were still quite small’[2].

The fact that gender differences show up on an international survey of numeracy skills is a puzzling addition to an already contentious picture. Of course, not all maths tests are created equal. The difference may in some way reflect the way the survey conceptualises skills. Distinct from mathematical ability, applied numeracy skills are described as:

‘the ability to use, apply, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas’.[3]

Crucially, individuals who are ‘numerate’ should be able to apply these abilities to situations in everyday life. Perhaps these ‘everyday’ maths skills are more biased by gender than the measures used in other studies?

Numeracy: the ‘new literacy

I argue that we should take these gender differences seriously. More and more, jobs now require numeracy skills, both to perform basic tasks and to support ICT skills. Outside work, numeracy skills are increasingly required to make sense of the world around us. They help us to grasp concepts such as interest rates and inflation, which help us to deal with money. Moreover, according to the British Academy,

‘the ability to understand and interpret data is an essential feature of life in the 21st century: vital for the economy, for our society and for us as individuals. The ubiquity of statistics makes it vital that citizens, scientists and policy makers are fluent with numbers’.

The importance of numeracy has been recognised recently in the UK with the establishment of an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Maths and Numeracy, the National Numeracy charity, and initiatives such as Citizen Maths.

International variation

Particularly curious is the large variation across countries in the size of the gender difference. Figure 1, below, shows that, among adults aged between 16 and 65, the male advantage in applied numeracy skills is particularly large in Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, while it is virtually non-existent in Poland and Slovakia. The graph shows raw differences in average skill scores; although gaps reduce somewhat when controlling for age, family and immigration background and education, they remain.

Figure 1: Mean numeracy skills by gender, International Survey of Adult Skills, 2012

numeracy-graphic

Source: Author’s calculations using data from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). Survey and replicate weights are applied. Numeracy scores range from zero to 500. For more information on the survey, please see: http://www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/publications.htm

Any genetic component is unlikely to vary internationally [4], suggesting a substantial role for cultural, institutional or economic factors that vary across countries.

My PhD study

Given that the survey tests adults who have many experiences behind them, isolating the causes of gender differences and cross-country variation is far from simple. We are socialised into gendered preferences, motivations and skills from our earliest years [5]. We go on to make gendered choices in our educational lives, our careers and our leisure activities. All of these life domains contribute to the skills we end up with in adulthood. To some, a choice-based explanation is unproblematic; determining one’s own destiny is a core value in many contemporary societies. However, this side-steps the question of where preferences come from. Skill differences in adulthood may well reflect individuals’ choices; however, the choices themselves are likely to be influenced by a complex mixture of cultural, educational, economic and institutional factors; which vary in their salience across countries.

In my PhD study, I focus on education and labour market explanations. A key task for my research is disentangling why gender differences in numeracy skills are relatively large in countries typically considered ‘gender egalitarian’. For example, Scandinavian countries consistently top the rankings of  the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, and are held up as bastions of gender equality. Yet Norway, Sweden and Denmark show among the largest gender differences in adults’ applied numeracy skills. Poland, Slovakia and Spain are not known for being particularly progressive on gender equality, yet they show among the smallest differences.

School and skills

One possibility is that gender differences arise from what girls and boys are exposed to while they are at school. Despite a similar basic structure, education systems across the world differ in the extent to which subjects are optional or compulsory. For example, in the UK, mathematics was not compulsory in upper secondary education until recently; whereas in other countries this has long been the case. Where numerate subjects are not compulsory, they may be less valued, and this could have created more scope for gender to affect subject and career choices. There is also wide variation in the types of mathematics learning boys and girls are exposed to across countries, as well as between schools and classes within countries.

Work and skills

Another possibility is that differences in skills are related to the types of jobs that women and men pursue once they leave education. In the majority of countries in the study, occupational segregation is still widespread in spite of female’s superior performance in education, and is partly to blame for the continuing gender pay gap.  Gender occupational segregation is particularly rife in Scandinavian countries, although this has been improving in recent years [6]. Countries with strong gender segregation in jobs promote gender norms about what careers are appropriate and accessible for men and women. This is likely to drive the early choices that contribute to skills in adulthood. In contrast, in some countries gender segregation of jobs is less pronounced, which may set more egalitarian norms for skill development. Moreover, given the link between more demanding, highly skilled jobs and skill development in adulthood, concentration into lower paid, more routine jobs could affect the extent to which women are able to gain skills at work. In some countries’ labour markets, women may perceive weaker incentives to develop mathematical skills than their male counterparts, preferring more typically ‘feminine’ ones, such as communication and literacy skills.

In my view, skills gaps are among the hurdles we need to overcome in order to attain full economic equality between men and women. Using international comparisons, my research aims to locate gender differences in applied numeracy skills within a broader, institutional context.  This is important both to correct the assumption that differences are ‘fundamental’ or ‘natural’, and to design effectively-targeted policies to equalise skills. I use a variety of quantitative techniques in my research which isolate factors associated with gender differences at both the individual and country levels. This should broaden the discussion beyond the common focus on encouraging girls to make gender ‘atypical’ choices in education, which neglects both males and the broader social context in which skill differences develop. Moreover, while there is a large amount of research on gender and education, skills inequalities among adults are less often addressed. Yet they affect adults’ lives in profound ways [7]. I hope to show some of the ways in which skill differences among adults are not fixed by early experiences and biology, but malleable according to social context.

Sources:

[1] Reuben, E., Sapienza, P. and Zingales, L. (2014). ‘How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 (12), 4403-4408.

[2] Hyde, Janet S., et al. (2008) Gender similarities characterize math performance. Science 321 (5888) pp. 494-495 (p.495)

[3] OECD (2013) PIAAC Numeracy: A conceptual framework (p. 20) Paris: OECD.[4] http://www.statlit.org/pdf/1999-Steen-ASCD-Education-Leadership.pdf

[4] Penner, A.M. (2008) Gender differences in extreme mathematical achievement: An international perspective on biological, social, and societal factors. American Journal of Sociology 114 (supplement) S138–S170.

[5] Maccoby, E. E., and D’Andrade, R. G. (1966) The development of sex differences. Stanford University Press.

[6] Bettio F and Verashchagina A (2009) Gender Segregation in the Labour Market: Root Causes, Implications and Policy Responses in the EU. Brussels: European Commission.

[7] Carpentieri, J. C., Lister, J., Frumkin, L., & Carpentieri, J. (2010). Adult numeracy: a review of research. London: NRDC.

Science and the City: An interview with Laurie Winkless

Laurie Winkless is the writer of the recently published book ‘Science and the City’. Science and the City has already received fantastic reviews, with the book described as ‘fascinating, lucid and entertaining’, and ‘a wonderful source of fascinating information’. With a background in science research, Laurie now works in science communication (follow her on Twitter here). We met Laurie before the Irish launch of her book at the Science Gallery in Dublin at the end of August (The Science Gallery sold out of copies of Science and the City mere minutes after the launch ended!). Laurie was really kind and gave us a half-hour of her time during what has been a very busy month since her book was published. Read on to find out more about her book, her new-found love of London Underground tunnels, mealworms, jiggly atoms, the Mars Curiosity Rover, women in science,  gendered toys, and more!

Tom Lawson

Laurie and her book in one of Laurie’s beloved rail tunnels in London! Photo: Tom Lawson

Science and the City

Women Are Boring: Congratulations on the launch of the book! It’s getting a great reception! What is your favourite fact in the book?

Laurie Winkless: One thing I hadn’t realised before I started writing the book was that I am obsessed by tunnels! I get on the London Underground (the tube) pretty much every day, and I don’t tend to really think about it, but when I started hanging out with tunnel engineers I developed a real love and affection for tunnels. Somewhere deep inside me, there’s a train nerd! That is my favourite part of the ‘today’ science. As for the ‘tomorrow’ science, I’m excited about research around trying to reduce landfills by letting mealworms eat the plastic waste. This seems to be completely fine for the mealworms, and it gets rid of our non-biodegradable waste! I also spoke to an architect in Colombia who is using waste plastic to build houses. He melts down the plastic and turns it into what are almost lego blocks that clip together. The reuse of plastic is really interesting; we’re so silly with our use of plastic – it takes so long to biodegrade.

WAB: What inspired you to write the book?

LW: It’s been a combination of living in London, and my research background. I’ve lived in London for eleven years now and I think you get a bit obsessed with the city – even if you’re complaining about it, you’re still talking about it! Getting from A to B is a big thing for everyone in London, and that’s where my love of transport came from. My research background is in material science, which tends to be quite a practical, hands-on research area and is very applied to the real world. I kept coming across new technologies, building materials, battery technologies, the use of nanotechnology in food packaging, for example, and I thought ‘you know what? Maybe I can help people understand how cities work today, and also do some future-gazing’.

Thermoelectric energy harvesting

WAB: You’ve had a really cool career – you have a BSC in Physics with Astrophysics from Trinity College Dublin, an MSc in Space Science from University College London, you worked as a researcher at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory for seven years, and you work in science communication. Your pet topic is thermoelectric energy harvesting – tell us a bit about that.

LW: Thermoelectric materials are solid materials, with no moving parts, but they can transform heat into electricity. They can do it because they use these two separate properties of materials that overlap. Think of a hot cup of tea in a cold cup – eventually the cup will get warm and the tea will cool down, so the temperature equalises. With thermoelectric materials, if you can keep that temperature difference – keeping the hot end hot and the cold end cold – what you end up doing is you give energy to the atoms inside the material – which is what heat does all the time. Whether you realise it or not, we live in a universe of jiggling atoms. The higher the temperature is, the more atoms jiggle. That’s basically how we measure temperature – it’s how jiggly atoms are. So, an atom will only ever stop moving at absolute zero, which we can’t really reach. When you’re giving out hot and cold you’re getting all this heat energy; the atoms are jiggling like crazy! But in thermoelectric materials, that also spits out electrons, and a stream of electrons is electricity. If you strap loads of these thermoelectric materials together – for example a square of 64, 120, or 500 of these blocks of thermoelectric materials –  even though each one is only producing tiny amounts of electricity, you turn the waste heat into electricity.

WAB: What was your own research in this area on?

LW: My research was on the car industry in particular. It looked at how we can capture all of that waste heat in car exhausts, because car exhaust temperatures can be almost 500 degrees Celsius – that is energy that is not helping to move the car forward. It is wasting fuel. In fact, only about a third of the energy in fuel actually moves our car. Almost all of the rest is thrown away as heat. We were trying to design devices made with thermoelectric materials that we could strap on to car exhausts. Then you’d have the car exhaust hot, the air outside a bit cooler, and harness that temperature difference to have electricity being produced. We could then use that to do other things in the car, like run the radio or some of the electronics, so that fuel doesn’t need to be used for those things.

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The Mars Curiosity Rover, which is powered by thermoelectric materials. You can follow the Rover on Twitter here! Photo: NASA

WAB: Amazing! What else can thermoelectric materials be used for?

LW: There are lots of other ways you can use thermoelectric materials. The Mars Curiosity Rover is powered by a thermoelectric generator. It has a tiny piece of a plutonium on the inside. Because plutonium is radioactive, it naturally decays and produces heat, and then there’s all these fins around it so the outside is much cooler, and that powers the entire Rover! They’ve been using thermoelectric materials in the space industry for a long time – we’re just catching up on Earth now!

WAB: What do you think will be the next big application of thermoelectric materials?

LW: One thing that people are really interested in is power plants. Most electricity plants produce heat. A lot of them will burn fuel, usually coal or gas, which heats up an enormous tank of water. That tank of water turn to steam, the steam turns a turbine, and the turbine produces electricity. So actually, a generation of electricity is all about heat. There are lots of researchers who are now asking ‘can we capture some of the heat that we’re producing to make power plants more efficient?’. We want to move away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, but this is a good stop-gap in between: making fossil fuels a bit more efficient until we get to the point at which people realise the value of renewables.

Science – the natural option!

WAB: What inspired you to go into science?

LW: I’m quite a curious person. I always have been, and I always wanted to study science – I can’t remember when I first thought ‘I want to be a scientist.’ I like taking things apart, and trying to put them back together again – I used to do that and have bits left over and think ‘oh no, I haven’t done a good job!’ I’ve always enjoyed hands-on, practical work. I like using my hands and questioning the everyday, so science was a natural option for me!

WAB: Tell us about your career path, how did you go from working in a lab to science communication?

LW: My career path has felt more like random leaps around! I did science communication alongside my research, and I was always visiting school, fairs and festivals to talk to the public about science. I decided to take a break from the lab to try and develop communication skills and see if I was any good, and I got the book deal out of that! I really enjoy science communication, and I think that helps. You give more of yourself to something when you enjoy it. People engage with you more. I wanted the book to be authentically myself, because as a scientist, when you’re writing papers, you are often editing your personality out – and that’s an important thing, it has to be neutral. But when I’m not writing papers, I can show a bit more of my personality. I was very nervous about doing that, to be honest. I think it was easier to be logical and very neutral, and I was very anxious about writing the way I talk because I felt it was too informal. It’s scary!

WAB: It is scary! We were very nervous when we launched Women Are Boring, both about putting ourselves out there and wondering whether we’d be taken seriously.

LW: Exactly! You feel like there’s a nakedness, don’t you?

WAB: Its something you’re not used to really doing when you’re in an academic environment.

LW: Definitely. And I think, for sure, not everyone will enjoy it. But the book helped me get braver at being myself. One of the nicest compliments I’ve had about the book has been that it sounds like I’m sitting beside you on the sofa as you read the book. That’s a hugely positive and flattering thing for me. That was the hardest thing to do.

Women in STEM and the ‘leaky pipeline’

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WAB: What has your experience as a woman in science been like?

LW: I have to say, I’ve had very few negative experiences as a woman in science, and those negative experiences have almost never included my colleagues. I think a lot of my colleagues were completely gender-blind! I never felt treated any differently. The only time I did feel treated oddly was by ‘outsiders’, for want of a better word. For example, I had a situation in the lab once where we had a contractor in to install a high-voltage line for a piece of equipment that I had designed. My male colleague was in the lab with me, but it wasn’t his research project. The contractor just kept speaking to my male colleague – and my colleague was really embarrassed by this! It wasn’t his project, it wasn’t his thing. Eventually, my colleague said to the contractor ‘I really don’t know why you’re asking me this – she’s the boss.’ The contractor looked around at me and was shocked by this! Ordinarily I would be quite patient with things like that, but he got me on a bad day, and I said ‘if you could start speaking to my face, that would be great. I’d appreciate that.’ I then told him what we needed, when we needed it done by, and asked ‘do you think you can do it by this time? Because if you can’t, I can get someone else’. He was taken aback, but I shouldn’t have had to lower myself to that. But as I said, there have been so few moments like that, so experiences like that have really stood out. I’ve been lucky – others have been less lucky than I have.

WAB: What about the issue of keeping women in science? We know there’s a dearth of women in science once we get to a certain level in many areas.

LW: That is a big challenge. We’ve got a leaky pipeline. Like me, for example – I graduated with a STEM degree, I worked in research, and now I’ve stepped sideways from research into communication. But that decision wasn’t to do with me thinking that I couldn’t develop as a scientist – I just wanted to try this, to see if I was any good at it. However, many other women have left science careers at a similar time to me, or later, so we get to the point where we have very few female physics professors, for example. I think part of that is to do with how we can treat people as equally as possible. In an ideal world, things would be a meritocracy, but they so rarely are. That a bigger problem in STEM.

WAB: Absolutely. We attended the L’Oréal – UNESCO Women in Science awards in London in June, and one of the things we found really interesting was that many of the nominees, and those who were awarded fellowships, felt that an important thing about that funding is that it is flexible – they could use it towards childcare. Without that, they might have had to cut back on lab hours, for example. What do you think of that?

LW: In some research areas, a year out of research can be seen as career suicide. If you are a woman, and decide you want to have a child – which is a totally personal choice – you’re accepting the fact that you’re going to be a year out of the publications cycle, a year out of the grants cycle. That puts you back two or three years. You’re constantly on the back foot. We definitely need to be flexible around that kind of issue. But for those woman who don’t want to have children, there is also a problem that isn’t related to childcare. I don’t think its as simple as just being more flexible. I think the whole culture needs to change – which it is, slowly, but it needs to change faster!

let-toys-be-toys

Let Toys Be Toys!

WAB: What do you think we can do to encourage more women to go into STEM? Do you think we need to start encouraging girls quite early – is it too late by the time they’re going into university?

LW: I believe so. I volunteer for an organisation called ‘Let Toys Be Toys’, which I followed on Twitter for a long time before getting involved with them. The idea of the campaign is to stop the artificial gendering of toys. Why do we need pink aisles for girls, and blue for boys? Why can’t boys play with prams? Why do some girls think they’re weird if they play with garages? Its so silly. However different individuals are, those differences are not necessarily along gender lines – society projects much of it. By the time that children are six or seven years old, they already have independent thought. They already have their own ideas about things. If we’ve been telling them for the previous seven years that girls should play this way and boys should play that way, that will naturally influence their own view of themselves. I think the choices we make in our own homes with our children as just as important as the teachers and mentors they’re surrounded by in school and the wider educational world. I was never made to feel weird for my choice of toy. I was equally happy to play with a drill and to learn how to use hand tools as I was to play with My Little Ponies! Neither was ever questioned in any way. I felt confident enough to follow the things I enjoyed doing, rather than the things I felt I should be doing. I hope to have kids in the future, and that is something I’ll want to try really hard to pass on. I know it gave me the confidence to never question whether I could be a scientist. There was never a doubt in my mind that I could do that! I have my family to thank for a lot of that.

Inspirational women in science

WAB: Do you have any female scientist role models? Is there anyone who you think, if you were a young girl or a woman who is interested in science, would be really good to look at for inspiration? Apart from yourself, of course!

LW: I feel very privileged in that two of the endorsers on the back of my book are female physicists. One is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who is originally from Northern Ireland. She’s an astrophysics professors, and she also discovered pulsars, and quite famously didn’t get the Nobel prize for it. She is a legend! To have her read my book and write a really positive comment about it was a huge, amazing moment – I almost cried, I was so excited! She is someone I’ve always respected. She has sometimes been presented as a victim, but she doesn’t see herself that way at all. She’s also been the President of the Institute of Physics, and has done lots of incredible stuff during her career, she’s written remarkable papers, and she’s also a thoroughly decent human being!

Another would be Athene Donald, also a professor of physics. She writes a lot about gender and about being a woman in physics, in a way that I really admire. She talks about the fact that barriers exist, but she’s not weighed down by them. I think that’s a great lesson for a young female scientist – to know that its okay to talk about those barriers, and we should talk about them. I felt so lucky to have her write a quote for the book, it’s really amazing!

There’s also an engineer called Linda Miller, who works on the London Crossrail project. I’ve been hanging out a bit with people working on that project for the past while. Linda is SO cool – as I said, she works on the Crossrail project so is rebuilding the Thames tunnel, which is very exciting. Before that, she was a civil engineer rebuilding certain sections of the Space Launch Complex at Cape Canaveral in Florida, and prior to that she was a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Air Force! She’s had two incredible careers. She’s a brilliant communicator and a huge supporter of young women in engineering.

WAB: Are there any other science writers you recommend? We know you have further reading mentioned in your book, too.

LW: A writer I love is Mary Roach. She writes funny, popular science – I recommend everyone read Bonk, which is about the science of sex! Her and her husband had sex in an MRI machine as part of her research for the book, for example. She’s a legend! I love her too because she’s not a scientist but she takes science very seriously, and equally, she’s a brilliant storyteller. So she does that popular science interface really well. She’s very funny and very approachable, and I feel like we’re laughing together over a pint when I read her books. I love that. I’d love to aspire to that sort of work.

‘Look up!’

WAB: Back to your own book – what would you like the lasting result of the book to be? Would you like there to be something big that people take away from it?

LW: I really wanted the book to be a primer on how cities work. I went for breadth rather than depth, with enough detail so that people can get their teeth into it. My hope would be that this will be the kickstart for a lot of people to start thinking about science in a different way. That would be my ultimate dream – that it makes people think ‘I live in a city, and now I know how traffic lights work, where my water comes from, where my faeces go when I flush the loo! I’ve got a better understanding of the world around me, and now I’ll read the book she recommended at the back of her own book.’ I want it to be an entry point, to help people look at the world about differently and to realise that science and engineering has built everything around us. That would be an absolute dream! If I met someone in a few years who said ‘I read your book and that led me to do this, this and this’, I would cry! I’d be delighted! It’s a first book, and I saw first because I really want to write another one! I have an idea, but its very early stages. I’ve loved writing this book, as a project and as a process, and I hope my enthusiasm comes across.

WAB: Any final words to people as they walk around their cities?

LW: Look up! Look up when you look around your city and think about what you see. And also be a little bit more cynical about ridiculous reports about red wine both killing you and curing cancer! I hope the book makes people a tiny bit more scientific in their approach.

satc-laurie

Science and the City is published by Bloomsbury (ISBN9781472913227). You can buy it here from Amazon, or here from Bloomsbury. Go buy it for yourself, and for anyone you know with the tiniest interest in science. You never know who might be inspired, and who could be the next Jocelyn Bell Burnell or Laurie Winkless! 

L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards

By: Grace McDermott, Co-Founder of Women Are Boring.

The Awards:

Last week, Women Are Boring had the honour of attending the L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Awards. We had the chance to meet and learn about some of the women carrying out ground-breaking scientific research work in Ireland and the UK.

Approximately 30% of researchers in the world are women*, a statistic which is notoriously lower for women in the Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Women comprise  a mere 15% of the UK STEM workforce, and to this day only 3% of all Nobel prizes in the sciences have been awarded women. As such, it is no surprise that a recent study showed that some 23% of current female science students in the UK “won’t” or “aren’t sure” whether they will pursue a career in science.

The L’Oreal Women in Science Programme “recognizes the achievements and contributions of exceptional females across the globe, by awarding promising scientists with Fellowships to help further their research.” Founded eighteen years ago, on the premise that ‘the world needs science and science needs women’ over 2000 women from across the globe have been recognised  and received funding to further their research. 

Despite an uphill battle for female STEM researchers across the globe, this year’s awards saw a record number of applications, a feat which proves that female scientists are not going away anytime soon. Out of 400 applications, 40 were longlisted and 8 academics made it to the final nomination list, a selection that L’Oreal’s Scientific Director, Steve Shiel called “ impossibly difficult”. The 8  nominated candidates included female mathematicians, chemists, paleo-biologists, nuclear physicists and the list goes on. In the end, five fellowships were awarded. 

There were two things about the awards that really stood out as newsworthy. Firstly, it was the importance of the research the nominees presented, and the simultaneous significance of presenting such work to audiences who would have otherwise never engaged with it. Secondly, it was the urgent need for a reexamination of what the research community and its supporters, consider valid research costs.

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All of these women were impressive in their own right, taking on major issues that range from curing diseases, to perfecting wastewater treatments, or challenging accepted conceptions about how star clusters form. Shiel stated

“It’s hard to compare the work of paleobiologists to a medicinal scientist’s work but one thing was evident about all of the winners, and it was that they each had passion. They each had a palpable passion you could feel for what they did, but also this sense of curiosity and discovery.”

The importance of communication: 

Like any award ceremony, there was no shortage of deserving candidates, many of whom we intend to feature in the upcoming months, but one of the projects that stood out for us was Reham Bedawy, a short-listed PhD nominee who was working to support the early detection of Parkinson’s via a mobile phone app. If helping to diagnose life-threatening illness wasn’t enough, she was also able to clearly explain the operationalisation of her work and a seemingly complex disease to two social-science researchers (i.e. us!) who wouldn’t know the right end of a beaker. Her work is inarguably significant, regardless of whether or not a non-expert audience could understand it, but as a result of her interesting and translatable presentation, at least two new researchers who may have otherwise been completely unaware of Parkinson’s research, are now engaged and eager to learn more (follow Reham on Twitter here).

As a media researcher, I was surprised to find how much in common I had with a mathematician. As a large portion of my work focuses on the role of social media in revolutionary movements, I could draw parallels with some of the techno-focused aspects of her methodology. She made me consider how I may better leverage mobile apps for my own work, and above all she inspired me. Her presentation, like so many of the researchers’ presentations, exemplified the significance of not only individual female academics, but the power and influence of the collective. A room full of intelligent, motivated and successful women is something that is seldom seen and far less celebrated. As an aspiring academic, the presence and recognition of these accomplished women helped reignite my own confidence, and motivation to carry on with my work.

It made me think about what the world might look like if these women were splashed across our news headlines, Twitter feeds, or history books?

We need to redefine “direct research” costs:

Aside from inspiration, the awards led to a realization: supporting female academic achievement requires a redefinition of “direct research costs”. What we found particularly noteworthy about the awards was the fact that the winners were allowed to dictate the way in which there awards would be spent, sometimes in ways which are seemingly unconventional in the research community. Many of the past laureates spoke about the importance of using the awards to help facilitate childcare and family relocation to areas or institutions, which were crucial to the development of their work. Moreover, several nominees were pregnant, or brought their young children with them to the awards.

While all funding aimed at supporting equality in research is important, the seemingly non-direct costs of research careers are sometimes the most expensive and difficult to articulate. As such, the importance of funding opportunities which give female academics the power to control the use of their grants presents an equalizing potential that traditional research grants do not. The testimonies of an overwhelming number of past laureates attested to this.

Often, when we speak about female academic achievement the topic of motherhood is ignored. As the notion of motherhood so often consumes, and even stifles the narrative of women in the workplace, I often find myself intentionally discussing the achievements of female academics, or female professionals as an entirely separate entity from their roles as mothers or caretakers.  But these awards brought to the fore the importance of recognizing and funding female academics not only via direct research grants, but also by way of flexible and family-centric support. A recent article in the New York Times upheld this, finding that even seemingly gender-neutral family-friendly policies in many academic institutions tend to favor male academics.

These testimonies leave many open-ended questions, but highlight the need for a continued conversation on the meaning of gender equality and the importance of building female equity in the research space.

What is clear is that female academics experience a different professional reality than their male-counterparts. The awards, and each of the nominated women exemplified the importance of advocacy, not only in the context of each of our individual research work, but also in terms of our collective experiences.  

Gender Equality in Northern Ireland – in urgent need of a ‘Fresh Start’

by Michelle Rouse

Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday Agreement contains many references to equality and human rights, and one specific reference to the “full and equal participation of women in public life”. Women were also involved at important points in the negotiating process, leading many to believe that the Agreement could significantly transform women’s roles in Northern Ireland. Michelle Rouse argues, however, that in the 18 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, parties to the process have failed to capitalise on that potential and in its absence a particularly negative legal and political discourse on gender now dominates Northern Ireland.

There is nothing new under the sun, or so the idiom goes at least, and the gender dynamics which lurk beneath the surface of the Northern Irish peace process would certainly appear to support this assessment. It is an enduring truth that women remain the most historically marginalised and excluded group across all conflicts and all jurisdictions. It is equally true that women and men will experience conflict in different ways and will have very different needs in the post-conflict period. Feminist analysis of conflict suggests that applying a gender lens to how specific issues of human rights, security and political participation are framed in peace agreements may provide an effective litmus test for how women’s specific needs will be addressed in the post-conflict system. In other words, we need to give specific attention to the issue of gender if we are to fully understand the ways in which women are served or underserved by the Good Friday Agreement and the current system in Northern Ireland.  This piece shines a spotlight on a significant failing of Northern Ireland’s world renowned peace process – namely, that it has systematically failed to address the post-conflict needs of women.

‘Northern Ireland’s world renowned peace process…has systematically failed to address the post-conflict needs of women.’

StormontGeneral

Stormont, Belfast – the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

How are Human Rights and Gender Equality spelled out in the Good Friday Agreement?

The Good Friday Agreement affirms “the right of equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity’.  This “duty” is located within the Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity Section of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). This was enacted in legislation by Section 75 of the subsequent 1998 Northern Ireland Act.  The section 75 duty was exalted by many as ‘unique and world leading’, earning the impressive moniker of the ‘single most extensive positive duty imposed in the UK’.

The statutory equality duty has not delivered in respect of gendered inequality: reasons why

The available evidence however, overwhelmingly indicates that the statutory equality duty has not reduced gendered inequality. Conversely, problems with implementation may have actually compounded discrimination and inequality for the most marginalised women.

Critiques of the duty cite ‘institutional resistance’ as a key impediment. Theories range from the benign, attributing this to an inherently conservative civil service resistant to innovation; to the more malign, suggestive of tolerance for the promotion of equality further down the food chain but resistant to implementation at the top.

‘Available evidence…overwhelmingly indicates that the statutory equality duty has not delivered in respect of gendered inequality.’

Budgets:

Certainly when it comes to the ‘big’ decisions, there is ample evidence of a systematic failure to subject policy to full impact assessment. For instance, the Investment strategy for Northern Ireland and the Budget have not once, in 18 years, been subject to a proper Equality Impact Assessment process. Instead, a bespoke ‘high level impact assessment’ has been crafted to cover this. The Equality Commission has emphatically rejected the use of high level impact assessment, but without enforcement powers it can do little about it. What is beyond dispute is the stark fact that no significant budget decisions have been re-profiled or adjusted as a result of identified gender impacts.

Intersectionality:

Section 75 has also been critiqued on the basis of a failure to be responsive to intersectionality of discrimination in the lives of women in general, and in particular, its failure to acknowledge the distinct interplay of gender, religious belief and political opinion which exists in NI.

Evidence of a worsening situation in terms of the intersectionality of women’s inequality can be determined from the statistics of housing need in North Belfast. The women who are most impacted by social housing inequalities are statistically more likely to be lone parents, have less disposable income and less control over family income. They constitute the ‘low paid and unofficial labour market’.

Catholics represented 73% of those on waiting lists, but only 35.7% of those awarded accommodation, whereas Protestant applicants constituted 26.2% of the waiting lists but represented 64% of those offered accommodation. The stark nature of these statistics has been significant enough to draw the attention of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

There have been suggestions that NGOs and Women’s Groups too, may be consciously avoiding combining religious and political inequalities in reports and lobbying as a tactical approach to their own survival.  If groups are seen to be divisive, overtly political or departing from the narrative of ‘balance, their funding and broad based appeal could be put in jeopardy.

‘Section 75 has failed to be responsive to intersectionality of discrimination in the lives of women in general, and in particular, to acknowledge the distinct interplay of gender, religious belief and political opinion which exists in Northern Ireland.’

Ireland-Capitals

For those who may not be familiar with it, this map shows Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Security

Issues of security, while central to any peace agreement, are not typically dealt with in a way that takes account of the particular post-conflict threats to women’s security. The application of a gender lens to issues of women’s security in post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland is very revealing.

Physical Security

Arguably, one of the most pressing risks to women’s physical security and integrity is intimate partner violence (IPV). Mc Williams and Ni Aoláin note that IPV can actually increase in the post-conflict setting and may take on particular features as a result of access to legal and illegal weaponry. This means that policy responses to intimate partner violence in post-conflict institutional arrangements must be robust and created for the specific context which they will address.

The ‘Tackling Sexual Violence and Abuse Regional Strategy‘, however, failed at the most basic level to acknowledge the transitional context it was created for, and the particularities of the problem it ostensibly seeks to address. It further failed to identify and situate government-related responses within a human rights framework of state obligations. The effect of which, according to McWilliams and Ni Aoláin was to make individuals ‘pleaders for protection’ rather than bearers of rights and status.

The Strategy’s approach to domestic violence as ‘irrespective of gender’ has led to the capture of other forms of abuse which can occur in the domestic setting.  This composite approach has obscured the unequal power dynamics in intimate partner relationships, which form the kernel of the problem.

‘The “Tackling Sexual Violence and Abuse Regional Strategy”…failed at the most basic level to acknowledge the transitional context it was created for…’

Legal Security

Feminist analysis also recommends that the reform of substantive law, i.e. the law defining rights and duties, must also involve the reform of law enforcement. In conflicts which have featured an ethnic divide, scholars recommend that agreements must examine compositional issues including gender requirements.

The Good Friday Agreement established an Independent Commission on Policing. Compositional data illustrated that 8% of the RUC (the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s police force from 1922 to 2001) identified as Catholic and 13% as female. Female officers were over represented in the part-time reserve and underrepresented at senior levels. The Equal Opportunities Commission did advocate that a gender quota should be included, but this advice was disregarded. The Police Act 2000 which followed made provision for 50/50 Catholic/Protestant recruitment quotas, but committed only to a ‘gender action plan’.

The distinction in the two approaches taken to create compositional change could hardly be starker. The religious element was considered so politically important that it necessitated the immediate introduction of quotas, in order to make massive change occur rapidly. The issue of gender representation however was not similarly regarded, in spite of the UK’s obligations under CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women)]. The Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women also noted its concern about the failure to introduce ‘temporary special measures to address the under representation of women in decision-making positions in the public and private sectors as well as in political life.’

Ulster PM Blair/Ahern sign
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998. www.bbc.co.uk/history/events/good_friday_agreement

Economic Security

The Montreal principles on women’s rights hold that economic, social and cultural rights have a particular significance for women and further acknowledge that women’s pre-disposition to socio-economic deprivation is worsened in conflict and post- conflict settings. As such, women clearly have the most to gain from the articulation of socio-economic rights within any Bill of Rights.

The creation of legally enforceable economic and social rights would go right to the core of pervasive structural inequalities, which subordinate women as ‘lesser’. Justiciable rights, i.e. rights which are subject to trail in a court of law, have the potential to be truly redistributive. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission recommended the inclusion of legally enforceable socio-economic rights in a Bill of Rights, a position supported by over 90% of those polled by Millward Brown Ulster. The Northern Ireland Office however determined that the conferral of socio- economic rights in Northern Ireland would give rise to unjustified inequality across the UK. The current British Government’s commitment to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act bodes ill for rights enhancement, and indeed it  suggests that regression on existing civil and political rights is more likely.

Political Participation

In contrast to its myriad of provisions and technical devices aimed at ensuring representation of the different political traditions, the agreement contains no provisions which would give effect to women’s ‘full and equal participation’.

As a consequence, women have remained largely marginalised from participation in public life and in particular remain excluded from positions of power and influence in Northern Ireland.

Notwithstanding recent Assembly election results which saw the number of women elected rise from 19.4% to 28%, an increase of almost 50%, the Northern Ireland Assembly lags well behind other devolved legislatures which polled on the same day. Women comprise 48% of the incoming Welsh Assembly and 35% of the incoming Scottish Parliament. The absence of legal quotas from the framework agreement has been a defining structural inhibitor which has resulted in a ‘catch 22’ situation; unless more women are elected to the Assembly, it is unlikely to generate a more inclusive political agenda.

‘Women have remained largely marginalised from participation in public life and in particular remain excluded from positions of power and influence in Northern Ireland.’


Acknowledging then the paucity of female representation in the political institutions and public life here in general, the concept of a Civic Forum provided an unparalleled opportunity to ensure that women could impact on the decision making process. It was envisaged that representatives from a wide range of sectors, including the women’s sector, would sit alongside the NI Assembly, working as a consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural matters.

The Civic Forum was suspended in 2002 with the devolved institutions. Unlike the other institutions provided for by the GFA, the Civic Forum was never re-activated. The recent ‘Fresh Start” Agreement makes provision for a ‘compact civic panel’ of 6 members. Appointed directly by the First and deputy First Ministers they will be tasked ‘to consider specific issues relevant to the Programme for Government’. This circumscribed ‘intermediary’ model is far removed from the model of participative governance envisaged by the GFA. Compelling evidence of exclusion of women from the decision-making process within the civil service is illustrated by the profile of the North’s most senior civil servants – the Permanent Secretaries (who head Stormont’s departments) are exclusively male.

‘Women’s demand for equal status has been largely sidelined by politicians and civil servants, who continue to prioritise central power issues.’

While power sharing and consociational arrangements undoubtedly provide stability in transitions from violent conflict, the Northern Ireland experience suggests they may also constrain deeper aspects of political transformation. Women’s demand for equal status has been largely sidelined by politicians and civil servants, who continue to prioritise central power issues. Since the Good Friday Agreement there have been a succession of further negotiations and agreements: Weston Park in 2001, St Andrews in 2006, Hillsborough Castle in 2010, Stormont House in 2015, and a Fresh Start in 2016.  Each of these Agreements has been precipitated by a political crisis arising from outstanding commitments and/or allegations of default by one side or another. Issues have included the impasse over the transfer of policing and justice powers, allegations of armed group activity and problems arising within the complex power-sharing architecture. Ongoing default however in respect of key equality and human rights provisions has not, of itself, been regarded as sufficiently important to precipitate a crisis within the Stormont body politic.

On the contrary, in each successive negotiation since 1998 there has been a steadily declining focus on equality and human rights provisions.  At each successive stage of the implementation process, the process itself has become more exclusive and the agenda too has narrowed considerably, largely at the expense of those measures with inherent transformative potential. Human rights elements have been consistently eroded and power issues aggrandised.

‘…Eighteen years on from 1998, the promise of ‘full and equal participation of women’ may be even more elusive now than it was then.’

The Stormont House Agreement last January –  collapsed all of the outstanding Good Friday Agreement commitments in respect of Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity into one catch –all, generic paragraph. Unsurprisingly, this attrition has coincided with the absence of a specific voice for women at most of the negotiations which have followed the Good Friday Agreement.  The continued absence of this specific voice suggests that eighteen years on from 1998, the promise of ‘full and equal participation of women’ may be even more elusive now than it was then.’

For more on women’s participation in peace processes, and consociational and power-sharing peace agreements, read Tajma Kapic’s piece on women’s political participation in post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina