In the past few years, gender inequality has become a matter of urgent action in NUI Galway, in response to the legal action taken by women academic staff in the University.
The heart of the matter was the persistent inequality and pervasive differential in women’s access to opportunities and outcomes.
With the growing attention on gender inequality, there was an attempt to consider more seriously the ramifications of this inequality at all levels. A trend emerged of focusing on remedies to proactively “level the playing field”.
In the rush to deal with the obvious inequalities of opportunity – in representation, outcomes and in pay – the impact of the interweaving of racial, ethnic and class inequalities together with gender, which shapes the lived experiences of women as human beings, was inevitably largely hidden and ignored.
The Athena Swan awards emerged as a template to evaluate the progress by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in 2014. The various levels of award are prized certificates attesting the depth and extent of an institution’s commitment to eradicating gender inequality. With the advent of Athena Swan, an Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion infrastructure evolved across the Irish university landscape.
Despite these positive developments, an exclusively gender focused process ignores the issues arising as a result of the interplay between gender and non-gender driven inequalities, an interplay that serves to exacerbate systemic inequalities.
The singular focus of the charter in fact incentivises the aspiring institutions to homogenise women and reduce the problem to one that only considers the categories of male and female in the aggregate.
This process of homogenisation fails to serve the very women who are at the greatest risk of gender inequality, those who have been marginalised by multiple drivers of inequality and who do not have the power, or voice, to resist being lost in a process that is focused solely on gender.
In particular, women in minority ethnic groups and immigrant women of colour remain largely voiceless, confined to the background institutional noise in this statistical process of homogenisation.
There is something innately contradictory in this aggregated, incentive-based, approach to equality. With this approach, the equality distinction is achieved and celebrated with respect to gender while at the same time the intersectional potential for discrimination of minority ethnic communities and people of colour has been ignored and they continue to languish without voice or appropriate representation and with unequal opportunities, and poorer outcomes.
The Covid-19 crisis unravelled these undercurrents in the most open way. The differential impact on the marginalised sections of women, and marginalised people of colour and ethnic minorities in general, highlights the travesty of such homogenisation processes.
Consider the case of unpaid care work, which is unequally borne by women and represents yet another gender-based inequality that has received inadequate attention both in theory and policy responses. There has been a discussion on the unpaid care work burden on women during the Covid pandemic and measures to compensate for the adverse impact that the burden may have on their career.
Ironically, it appears that a global pandemic was required to put a spotlight on the issue that feminist scholars have been talking about for the past 40 years (see for instance Folbre (1981), Miles (1983), Elson (1991), UNDP (1995)).
The unpaid care burden has always existed for women, impacting negatively on their career advancement and general empowerment. In fact, these socially constructed gendered responsibilities in a patriarchal society lie right at the core of unequal opportunities and outcomes for women.
Without deeper probing of the underlying power asymmetries that are embedded in the structures and processes sustaining and perpetuating gender inequality, the incentive-based approach to equality remains rather as a “tool of patriarchy”, á la Audrey Lorde, and as opposed to something that might inspire fundamental change.