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The EU and Irish women

Equality between genders is one of the fundamental principles of EU law and legislation for equal rights between women and men has existed since the very early days of the European Community.

In fact the basic principle of equal pay for equal work was included in the Treaty of Rome back in 1957 and while great strides have been made in fostering equality between women and men, gender gaps still exist.

The European Union is behind several pieces of important legislation that have been introduced in Ireland and throughout Europe to narrow the gap, covering areas like equal treatment when applying for a job, equal treatment at work, protection of pregnant workers, protection of breastfeeding mothers and rights to maternity and parental leave.

But more needs to be done, and not just around equal pay. Challenges remain in fields such as violence against women, reconciling work and family life and gender balance in decision making and positions of power.

Here in Ireland the rights of women have improved greatly since we first joined the then EEC in 1973, but the goal of full equality remains a work in progress.

Progress is continuing and the European Commission Strategy for Equality between Women and Men is helping ensure gender equality is promoted in all EU polices.


Visiting an employment agencyEuropean Commission statistics published in 2014 show Ireland's gender pay gap is increasing. It was 14.4% in 2012 compared with 13.9% in 2010 and 12.6% in 2009 and 2008. The average EU gender pay gap stands at 16.1% (2014).

There are now over 975,000 women active in Ireland’s labour market and of these around 500,000 have children, meaning they have caring responsibilities.

Despite the pay gap, the situation for Irish working women has improved radically since Ireland joined the then EEC in 1973.

More women can now access the labour market, thanks to the abolition of the marriage bar for women in public service jobs, and stronger equality legislation from the EU.

Back in 1961 the population of Ireland was 2.8 million and women accounted for just 26.4% of the workforce. By the time we joined the European Community in 1973, there were 287,800 Irish women in employment, representing 27% of the total employed.

In the years following accession the figures began to improve rapidly. In 1987 the employment rate for women of working age was 35% and by the following decade it was up to 42%. The EU average the same year, 1997, was 51.1%.

The EU set a target rate for female employment of 60% by 2010, and Ireland had exceeded that figure by 2007. By 2008 there were 921,600 women in employment in Ireland (compared to 1,186,900 men) with an employment rate of 60.5%.

However, during the economic crisis the figure dropped significantly, falling to 55.2% by 2012. In 2014 the rate increased slightly to 55.9%.

The female unemployment rate was as low as 4% during Ireland’s boom years but it more than doubled during the crisis to 8.3% in 2009 and rose to a peak of 11.4% in 2013 before falling back to 9.9% in 2014.

CSO figures for 2013 showed that one in five women aged 20-24 were unemployed in 2013.

Although the situation for women in employment is improving, inequalities remain. In some cases women suffer direct discrimination where they’re simply treated less favourably than men. Or they may be treated unfairly due to a policy or practice that’s not designed to discriminate, but still results in unequal treatment.

However, it’s worth remembering that any discrimination, regardless of whether it’s deliberate or not, is banned under EU legislation.

Table showing labour market participation rates in Ireland and the EU



In 1969, just four years before Ireland joined the EEC, the average industrial earnings for women as a percentage of male earnings was 47%.

This percentage grew to 58% by 1979 and to 61% by 1989. By 1998 women in Ireland were earning 66% of male earnings, although they did work slightly fewer hours than their male counterparts.

In 2003 the EU Council made recommendations on the implementation of employment policies and urged Member States to address underlying factors causing the pay gap.

By 2006 Irish women's hourly earnings had climbed to around 86% of men’s, despite the fact that they are more likely to have a third-level qualification.


Women's earnings as a % of men's














In 2009, men in Ireland had an average income of €34,317 while the average for women was €25,103, or 73.1% of men’s income. By 2011, when the figures are adjusted to take account of the average hours per week spent in paid employment, women’s average hourly income was about 94% of men’s.

Research in 2014 from the Economic and Social Research Institute and the Equality Authority on the economic impact of Irish budgets between 2009-2013 found that women in relationships fared worse than their male partners.

Households where both partners work were hit with an average 12% drop in disposable income but women suffered worse with an average decrease of 14%.

A key driver of the difference was a reduction in Child Benefit, typically received by mothers. Public-sector pay changes and social welfare reductions also had a stronger effect on women than men.



Compared to their male counterparts Irish women work fewer hours, earn less money and are inadequately represented in business, the Oireachtas and in local and regional authorities.

Statistics suggest women still face many difficulties when it comes to career advancement in both the public and private sectors. In Ireland the gender pay gap is around four per cent for the bottom ten per cent of earners, but this figure jumps to 24.6% when it comes to the top ten per cent of earners.

Women still face difficulties when it comes to career advancementWomen are seriously underrepresented when it comes to the boards of management of Ireland’s top businesses too. Irish women make up just 10.5% of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in Ireland, significantly below the EU average of 18.6 per cent.

And according to European Commission statistics published in October 2013, there are no women board chairs or CEOs in any the top publically listed companies in the ISEQ20 index.

Female representation on Irish State boards is much better, at 36.2%. The Irish Government set a target of 40% in 1993, when the figure was just 15%.

In October 2013 MEPs backed a European Commission proposal to ensure gender balance on boards for publicly-listed companies. The measure calls on Europe’s top firms to ensure at least 40 per cent of their non-executive board members are female. Listed companies will have until 2020 to reach the target while public ones will need to do so by 2018.

Throughout Europe sectorial divisions also continue. Male workers predominate in their traditional sectors like construction, utility services, communication and manufacturing.

Women are dominant in health and education and also outnumber men in the wholesale and retail trades as well as other service related industries.

In Ireland workers in the health and education sectors are more likely to be women than men, while the opposite is true for workers in agriculture and transport.



Female studentWhen it comes to education in Ireland, men tend to leave school earlier and as a result, women are generally more highly qualified. Female students outnumber males in business, administration and law but it’s still very much a man’s world when it comes to the top jobs in these sectors.

The early school leavers rate among women aged 18-24 in 2012 was just 8.2%, significantly lower than the male rate of 11.2%. In 2013 more girls than boys sat higher level papers in the Leaving Certificate exams in English, French, Irish, Biology, Chemistry, Art and Music.

The vast majority (85%) of graduates in engineering, manufacturing and construction in 2012 were male while over three-quarters of graduates in the education, health and welfare sectors were female.

Women are more likely to have a third-level qualification, with over half (55.3%) of women aged 25-34 having a third-level qualification in 2013 compared to just 42.7% of men in this age group.



Politics is another area where Irish women aren’t adequately represented. Following the 2016 general election, the share of women TDs in Dáil Éireann rose to 22% (from 16.3% in the previous Dáil). Women accounted for only 20.5% of local authorities and just over a third of the membership of Vocational Education Committees.

The average female representation in national parliaments in the EU was 27.5% in 2013.

The Irish Government has introduced measures to try and rectify the gender imbalance in the Dáil. Political parties were required to include a quota of at least 30% female candidates at the 2016 general election, and that figure rises to 40 per cent for the one after that.

Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn visiting Medtronics in Galway in 2013Ireland exceeds the EU average of 37% when it comes to female representation in the European Parliament. Six of the 11 (55%) Irish MEPs are women.

With regard to the European Commission, nine out of a total of 28 commissioners are women. Ireland’s first, and so far only, female commissioner was Máire Geoghegan Quinn who was head of Research, Innovation and Science from 2010-2014.

Another Irish woman, former Irish Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, was appointed European Ombudsman in September 2013.



The European Commission’s Strategy for Equality between Women and Men 2010-2015 is the European Union’s comprehensive framework for promoting gender equality into all its policies. The five priority areas of the Strategy are:

  1. Equal economic independence for women and men; 
  2. Equal pay for work of equal value; 
  3. Equality in decision-making;
  4. Dignity, integrity and ending gender violence; 
  5. Promoting gender equality beyond the EU.

The Strategy adopted in 2010 contains 24 key actions aimed at promoting these priority areas and significant results have already been achieved. Here are some of the achievements so far.

  • In May 2011, the Commission adopted a package of proposals aiming at strengthening the rights of victims of crime, including victims of domestic violence and stalking.
  • In November 2012, the Commission adopted a proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on improving the gender balance among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges. The aim is to increase the number of women on corporate boards by setting a minimum target of 40 per cent.
  • In March 2013, the Commission launched a series of activities to support the fight against female genital mutilation and to uphold the rights of women who are victims of violence.
  • Under the Europe 2020 Strategy, the Commission has monitored closely the national policies adopted to improve gender equality in the labour market and boost the social inclusion of women. The availability of childcare services is crucial in helping women in employment. A European Council in Barcelona set what is known as the ‘Barcelona target’ which urges Member States to provide childcare access to at least 90 per cent of children between three and the mandatory school age and at least 33 per cent of children aged under three.
  • In 2011 the European Commission established the European Equal Pay Day which is now held every year to increase awareness of the fact that a wage gap between women and men still exists and as a reminder of how much longer women need to work than men to earn the same.
  • To support equal pay initiatives at the workplace, the Commission started the ‘Equality Pays Off’ project in 2012. This project supports companies in their efforts to tackle the gender pay gap by providing training for companies and by organising exchanges of good practices on actions aiming to foster gender equality. 


Last update: 08/03/2016  |Top