Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster vows to 'remove at the roots' the barriers facing women in public life

Arlene Foster speaking during Queen's University's 'Reflections on Female Leadership' online event

DEPARTING DUP leader Arlene Foster has pledged to work to ensure the barriers facing women in public life are "removed at the roots".

But the first minister does not advocate affirmative action, arguing that women should not be selected for public roles on the basis of "quotas or mathematical formulas"

Mrs Foster was speaking yesterday during a Queen's University online event called 'Reflections on Female Leadership'.

She was joined at the invitation-only event by Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and interim civil service head Jenny Pyper.

Despite expectations, the first minister made no direct reference to her ousting by DUP colleagues less than a fortnight ago, which she has previously described as "brutal".

Mrs Foster, who revealed that her final year dissertation at Queen's looked at the barriers to women in politics, said she concluded then that the main impediments were "attitudinal – and that remains the case today".

She said progress had been made, pointing to three of Stormont's main parties having female leaders and the fact that there were now "more women than ever in the assembly and the executive".

The DUP leader, who recently sued over unfounded rumours about her marriage circulated online, said "one of the biggest obstacles" for women in public life is "constant social media trolling".

She said social media companies needed to recognise their responsibilities to women in public life who faced online harassment.

"What is not acceptable is for people around the table to mark out an opponent and then enlist the services of an anonymous online lynch mob to systematically target and harass women about their relationship status, their children, their partner, their appearance and the list goes on," she said.

Mrs Foster said she wanted to challenge the sense of "invincibility" that anonymity on social media gave people.

She said that since announcing her resignation, people had asked her "what's next for Arlene Foster?".

"Frankly, I'm not that sure at the moment but with every fibre of my being I will work to make sure the obstacles to women in public life are removed at the roots," she said.

Ms O'Neill said women in politics were "swimming upstream" against an undercurrent of misogyny and abuse.

She described some of the commentary around women in political leadership as "reprehensible".

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"Misogyny has been a constant presence in most women in political leadership's experience," the deputy first minister said.

"You constantly face the derogatory comments about your appearance, threats of physical and sexual violence."

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