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The EU and Irish women
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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 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 leave 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 the 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.

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Visiting an employment agencyEuropean Commission statistics show that Irish women earn, on average, 14.4 per cent less than men. The average across the EU is 16.4 per cent (2012).

There are around 975,000 women currently active in Ireland’s labour market. Of these, over 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 per cent of the workforce. By the time we joined the European Community in 1973, there were 287,800 Irish women in employment out of a total labour force of 1,132,000, representing 25.4 per cent of the total workforce.

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

The EU set a target rate for female employment of 60 per cent 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 per cent.

However, during the economic crisis the figure dropped significantly and had fallen to 56 per cent by 2011. The rate for the European Union as a whole was 62.4 per cent in 2012.

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 law.

Table showing employment rate of men and women in Ireland and in the EU as a whole



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

This percentage grew to 58 per cent by 1979 and to 61 per cent by 1989. In 1998, women in Ireland were earning 66 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent.

Graph showing Principal Economic Status of Women in Ireland in 2011



Compared to their male counterparts Irish women work fewer hours, earn less money and are inadequately represented in business, the Oireachtais 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 per cent when it comes to the top ten per cent of earners.

Women still face difficulties when it comes to career advancementWomen are seriously under-represented when it comes to the boards of management of Ireland’s top businesses too. Irish women make up just 8.7 per cent of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in Ireland, significantly below the EU average of 15.8 per cent.

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

Female representation on State boards is much better, at 34 per cent, but that figure has remained static over the past five years.

Irish women account for 6.5 per cent of executive directors in Ireland’s top companies and 10.3 per cent of non-executive directors. Both figures are well below the respective EU averages of 10.2 per cent and 16.8 per cent.

This is despite the fact that, according to Eurobarometer figures, 96 per cent of the Irish population believe that given equal competences, women should be equally represented in positions of leadership in companies.

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 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 2010 was just 8.4 per cent, much lower than the male rate of 12.6 per cent. In 2011 men accounted for nearly five-sixths of third-level graduates in engineering, manufacturing and construction and 57 per cent of graduates in science, while women accounted for 82 per cent of graduates in health and welfare, 74 per cent in education and 63 per cent in arts and humanities.

Ireland has the highest proportion of young people who have successfully completed third-level education in the EU according to figures from the statistical office Eurostat.

Across the 27 EU member states in 2012, 35.8 per cent of 30-34 year-olds had completed third level education. However, the figures for Ireland are 51.1 per cent.

Throughout the EU, on average, a higher proportion of women aged 30-34 have completed third level education than men – 40 per cent compared with 31pc. In Ireland, the gender disparity is even higher for this age group, as almost 58 per cent of Irish women have completed third-level education compared to 44 per cent of men.



Politics is another area where Irish women aren’t adequately represented. Just 27 of the country's 166 top elected representatives are female, even though women account for half the population.

That’s just 16 per cent of TDs, and Ireland ranks 24th of the 28 EU Member States when it comes to the percentage of female political representation. The figures are better in the Seanad, with 30 per cent women senators, higher than the European average of 24 per cent for Member Sates that have upper houses.

Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn visiting Medtronics in Galway in 2013The Irish Government has introduced measures to try and rectify the gender imbalance in the Dáil. Political parties will be required to include a quota of at least 30 per cent female candidates at the next general election, and that figure rises to 40 per cent for the one after that.

However, when it comes to the EU, Irish women fare somewhat better.

Following the European elections of May 2014, 55% of Ireland's new MEPs, or 6 out of the total of 11, are women. This is well above the EU average of 37 per cent in the new European Parliament (elected May 2014).

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 is Máire Geoghegan Quinn who is head of Research, Innovation and Science.

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

And the European Commission's top ranking official is Secretary General, Catherine Day.



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 of 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 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 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 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. The 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 to be held each 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: 01/07/2014  |Top