Speech at a reception on International Women’s Day
Áras an Uachtaráin, Friday, 8th March, 2019
I am delighted to welcome you all here on a day that is now one of the most important annual events in the calendar of Áras an Uachtaráin. The United Nations’ theme for International Women's Day 2019 is BalanceforBetter; a call to action towards the achievement of gender balance across the world.
The inequalities associated with gender are not acceptable and must be removed be it in terms of occupation, privilege or discourse.
These discriminations cannot, and should not, be justified or accepted on basis of culture or belief. I feel it necessary to repeat this point given the circumstances which still prevail in so many parts of our world.
We cannot wait for some evolution of an end to violence against women. It needs to end now.
Today Sabina and I are delighted to welcome women who have excelled in the area of science, be it in academia and research, fields in which women are so worryingly underrepresented both here in Ireland and in countries across the globe.
We welcome women as sources of the wisdom and science that goes beyond any calculation and that informs the daily practice and decisions of women. We celebrate the curiosity of women in all its aspects.
I am delighted to see so many of you here today, from third level institutions, research bodies, government organisations, voluntary organisations, charitable foundations and support groups and other areas where, as women, you are all breaking new ground paving the way for new generations of women who will follow you in using their talent and creativity in the pursuit of a better world.
I am also delighted that you represent such a broad spectrum of fields, your work dedicated to advancements in environmental, medical, social and technological areas, work that has so much to contribute to the crafting of an enhanced future for all our citizens.
Last year we celebrated the centenary of a significant milestone moment when, after decades of campaigning by suffragettes, a cohort of women were granted the right to vote in parliamentary elections. It was a key event in Irish history and an important step on our nation’s journey towards a full recognition of a woman’s right to participate equally in society, to have her voice heard and her views respected.
We have, since that significant outcome of struggle, taken many further steps on that journey towards full female participation, celebrated other victories as we continued the important work begun by the suffragettes so many years ago.
It is a journey, however, that is far from completion and, as the second decade of the twenty first century draws to a close, women in Ireland remain considerably underrepresented in politics, on state boards, at senior levels in Government bodies and in so many other areas of decision making and policy formation, and we must never forget that this representative dimension to participation, while crucial, is but part of a mosaic of equality awaiting the crafting.
We are not awaiting the allowance of the entry of women to a male-defined world.
The world of academia and research itself is also no stranger to a substantial gender disparity, in particular at its most senior levels. The fact that just 30% of scientific researchers worldwide are women must give us cause for concern.
Equally worrying is the fact that here in Ireland just 24% of professors in higher education are female, despite women making up half the overall workforce in the sector.
If women are not adequately, indeed fairly, represented in the various fields of scientific research we have a lesser source as to how we can ensure the fullness of the questions that need to be asked.
The importance of diversity and equal representation across all areas of decision making must not be understated. That female academics be considered an exceptional group among women is an inequity whose consequences are far reaching and profoundly detrimental to our society.
Not only is society being denied the intellectual contribution of so many intelligent and innovative women who should be, but are not, properly represented in the area of academic research, it is also being deprived of the many advantages gender diversity in research has to offer.
We know that numerous case studies have shown the benefit of considering gender in research, of how such consideration can lead to better and safer outcomes and products across a wide range of fields. That often-quoted phrase “women are not scaled down men” reminds us of the importance of considering sex or gender as variables in most areas of research, a consideration that has failed to be included on so many occasions.
Indeed, for so much of human history, the female perspective has not been documented, recognised or taken into account and academic research across many disciplines has traditionally treated males as representative of humans generally.
This, of course, is a dangerous mistake. Stanford University research published in 2017 showed how serious errors can occur when gender is not taken into account in medical research and co-author Londa Schiebinger has stressed the importance of including diversity in research teams in order to ensure a multiplicity of questions are asked, leading to new perspectives and directions that will enhance the outcomes of studies and explorations.
If we do not have such diversity how can we ensure that the different ways a heart attack affects men and women is taken into account when developing treatment and medication? How can we ensure that safety equipment is designed to suit both men and women? How can we ensure that safe levels of exposure to toxins are decided based on the different ways they are absorbed by men and women? How can we ensure that the world is a place that is equally safe and accommodating for its male and female members? The answer, of course, is that we cannot.
We know that women engaged in scientific and medical research are often driven and inspired by their experiences as women, that women frequently use that experience when choosing the area of research they wish to pursue and the questions they choose to ask. We also know that a female perspective can make a profound difference, even when researching issues that may seem entirely unrelated to gender.
There are many factors that are related to the underrepresentation of women in academia and research. These include the way work is defined, how it is structured, gender discrimination, lack of informal support systems for women, the prevalence of academic networking opportunities for men, the unfair impact of maternity leave on female academics and the limited child care options that are often available and that continue to be viewed as chiefly a female problem.
That obstacles and systematic barriers for women exist in this area has been recognised and steps are, thankfully, being taken to ensure more female voices are heard in what is a male dominated field.
The launch of the Gender Equality Action Plan for Higher Education Institutions is aimed at tackling disparity in the sector here in Ireland and the publication and adoption of the Plan acknowledges that diversity and wider representation in all fields leads to better decision-making and outcomes.
That is a welcome development, but there is quite a considerable ground to make up before we reach a situation where society will benefit from the full potential and talent of our female academics.
The achievement of equality and universal respect for rights is one of the great ethical challenges of our contemporary world. Today, on International Women’s Day we are presented with a valuable opportunity to not only reflect on the challenges that have been overcome by women seeking equal participation in society, but also the challenges that must still be vanquished if we are to become a truly inclusive society that respects the voices and contribution of all its members. It is a day when we all can renew our solidarity with each other on these challenges.
Today we drew courage from asking ourselves how less enriched the world would be without the work of pioneering and trail blazing female researchers and academics – women such as Marie Curie, Rachel Carson, Maria Goeppert Meyer, Gertrude Belle Elion, Barbara McClinton and the many other women who have refused to be restricted or constrained by being female, to have their talent and potential wasted, to deny society the benefit of their ground-breaking work? Here in Ireland we are very proud of women such as Phyllis Clinch, Eleanor Knott and Sheila Tinney, eminent women scientists who represented us so well on the international stage.
Your good selves from your diverse experiences are their successor, who will, I have every confidence, continue to fly the flag for women in academia and research and ensure that women become more and more visible in that environment.
Never, however, let us forget our successes and they are at the highest level. For example, how very honoured indeed we are in this country to know that the Electrical Support System which handled communications and data transfer between the Rosetta Orbiter and its Lander Philae while en route to and at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was designed and built in Ireland thanks to the innovative work and leadership of Susan McKenna Lawlor.
I am also pleased to see some familiar faces including Lydia Lynch to whom I presented a President of Ireland Future Research Leaders Awards in Áras an Uachtaráin last year.
You are all so very welcome here today. Sabina and I have always been energised to meet and join those who work for, and promote, equality and we are delighted to support campaigns for the rights of women. In more recent years it has been a joy and a privilege to gather, in Áras an Uachtaráin women and men who, through their actions and their words, are showing leadership in their pursuit of equality. Today is another such gathering, when we welcome women who are such important role models in our society.
As experts in your fields you too are breaking new ground paving the way for new generations of women who will follow you in aspiring to use their talent and creativity to pursue careers in academia and research, and in doing so they will be playing their unique role in crafting a better world.
Mar fhocal scoir, is mian liom buíochas a ghabháil libh go léir arís as teacht inniu. Guím gach rath oraibh go léir i bhur rogha réimse agus i bhur ghairm as seo amach, agus go n-éiríonn libh mar eiseamláirí spreagúla do mná óga i ngach réimse don tsochaí.
May I conclude by thanking you all, once again, for coming here today. I wish each and every one of you success in your chosen fields, in your future careers and in your role as inspirational role models for other young women in all areas of society.