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SINÉAD PENTONY- Women still second fiddle at work.

International Women’s Day (March 8th) provides us with an opportunity to reflect on issues relating to gender equality and to take stock on where progress has been made and the challenges that remain to be overcome. This is the first of two articles which assesses progress and challenges associated with women and the economy.

Ireland is ranked eighth out of 142 countries and fourth out of the EU28 in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report for 2014. The Global Gender Gap Index, developed by the World Economic Forum, is a useful framework for capturing the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities. The Index benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, educational and health criteria. It looks at economic-participation and economic-opportunity deviation; educational-attainment deviation; health and survival deviation and political-empowerment deviation.

Gender equality should be one of the cornerstones of any modern society, with gender-equality policies ensuring women and men enjoy the same opportunities, rights and obligations in all areas of life. Everyone, regardless of gender, has the right to work and support themselves, to balance career and family life, and to live without the fear of abuse or violence. Gender equality implies not only equal distribution between men and women in all domains of society. It is also about quality, ensuring that the most useful knowledge and experience of both men and women are used to promote progress in all aspects of society.

Ireland scores high in the areas of educational attainment in the Index.  For example, just over 55% of women aged between 25 and 34 have a third-level qualification compared to 43% of men. There is clearly a need to improve the participation rates of men in third-level education. However, despite advances in educational attainment, traditional and stereotypical career expectations for girls and boys still need to be addressed. These inform subject and career choices. Gender segregation in the uptake of specific subjects, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics is still a major challenge that has yet to be overcome. Not only are girls and young women a minority of students in these fields, qualified women are more likely than men to leave these professions.

In health and survival Ireland also performs very well.  However, it’s important to highlight that there are serious shortcomings in the area of women’s reproductive rights. These can only be addressed through a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution (Article 40.3.3).    

Ireland appears to perform very well in the area of political empowerment. However, a closer look at specific indicators shows that our score in this area is skewed by the fact that we have had two women presidents, who are classed as ‘heads of state’, in the last 50 years. Ireland’s ranking for the participation of women in parliament and ministerial and position is 92 and 82 out of 142 countries, respectively.   

Women TDs currently make up 16% of the Dáil which is an abysmal level of representation of women in politics.  However, the introduction of gender-quota legislation requiring 30% of party candidates to be women in the forthcoming general election will increase the number of women being elected. This legislation should be extended to local elections because this is the arena where most politicians start their political careers, and women local representatives still only account for little more than one in five out of all City and County Councillors.

In economic participation and opportunity, Ireland performs well relative to other countries. However, again on closer inspection, the participation of women in the labour force has stagnated, the gender pay gap is widening and we still have too few women in senior positions in the public and private sectors and on boards of directors. Economic independence is a prerequisite for enabling both women and men to exercise control over their lives and to make genuine choices, so it is worth taking a closer look at women and men in relation to economic indicators.

Working in paid employment is the main route to achieving economic independence for women. In Ireland, the employment rate for men is almost 71% and 60% for women (Eurostat, 2013). The EU average is 74% for men and almost 63% for women. The European employment rate target is 75% for both women and men. The employment rate for men in Ireland has fallen from over 80% in 2003 to the current level, while the employment rate for women was just below 60% in the same period.

As the employment situation continues to improve the employment rate for men looks likely to recover quickly, however the same cannot be said for women, as their employment rate has not exceeded 65% in the last 10 years.  This means particular attention needs to be given to the labour market participation of women. This must also take account of the fact that women work part-time more than men. Women account for over 75% of part-time workers.

Women also work in less valued jobs and sectors that pay less. A significant gender pay gap must also be addressed. Women earn less than men and the gender pay gap currently stands at over 14% and is widening.  This is despite women being better qualified.

The lack of high quality, affordable childcare is the major barrier to employment for many women, as the majority of women have primary responsibility for their children. Women are also more likely to be engaged in unpaid work in the home or as carers. In the majority of households, family responsibilities are not shared equally. This limits opportunities to work outside the home and diminishes economic independence and has a knock-on effect in in later life, as only 16% of those who receive the full contributory pension are women, due to lower labour force participation.

The provision of affordable, high-quality childcare would clearly have the biggest immediate impact in creating the conditions for increasing women’s access to the labour market and the opportunities for economic independence. The high cost of early care and education services to parents in Ireland reflects the lack of public investment. According to the OECD, Ireland invests only 0.4% GDP annually in early care and education services, compared to the OECD average of 0.7% GDP.  Internationally, 1% of GDP is regarded as a benchmark for the level of investment required for a high-quality system of early care and education, a level achieved in New Zealand and the Nordic countries.

Gender equality is more important now than ever as we strive to recover from the economic crisis. Along with the fulfilment of an obvious moral obligation, gender equality offers economic advantages through the efficient use of the skills of all the population. While adjusting policy to meet standards of equality may yield short-term expenses, the long-term benefits to society on both an ethical and economic level would be unparallelled.

The rights of women have improved greatly but the goal of full equality remains a work in progress. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the National Women’s Council of Ireland recently hosted a joint conference, ‘A Woman’s Place is in the World’, to highlight the need for the State to keep the protection of women’s human rights and the achievement of equality between women and men in Ireland as a top policy priority.

Consultation on a new National Women’s Strategy is getting underway and it should serve to renew and reinvigorate our commitment to gender equality. Unfortunately, the government is currently continuing to support gender inequalities through budgetary and policy decisions. The article in the next edition will identify a comprehensive set of policy measures that will facilitate the full participation of women in the economy and create the conditions for economic independence. •