Representation in Ireland

The EU and Irish women


Gender equality image
There’s no doubt that Irish women have more rights than their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers, but gender equality in Ireland has yet to be achieved in many areas.

Men still dominate the workplace and are the main decision-makers in business and politics while women often find themselves lagging behind when it comes to equal opportunities and income.

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, gaps still exist.

The European Union is the driving force behind several pieces of important Irish legislation that are narrowing those gaps, 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.

However, challenges remain in fields such as violence against women, reconciling work and family life and gender balance in decision-making and positions of power.

Progress is continuing and the European Commission’s Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality 2016-2019 will help promote equality between women and men through key actions to be implemented in five priority areas.


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

See below for more information on the following subjects:


European Commission statistics published in 2016 show that Ireland's gender pay gap has started to fall back a little again, from 14.4% in 2012 to 13.9% in 2014 - it was 12.6% in 2009 and 2008. The average gender pay gap in the EU stands at 16.7% (2014).

The gender overall earnings gap, which takes into account disadvantages women face in terms of lower hourly earnings, working fewer hours and lower employment rates due to caring for children or relatives, stood at 34.7%.


Time spent in unpaid work by gender

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.

In 1973, there were 287,800 Irish women in employment, representing 27% of the total employed.

In the years following accession to the European Community the figures began to improve rapidly. By 1997 the employment rate for women of working age was 42% and by 2007 it was more than 60%.

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 and 5.4% by summer 2017.

Although the situation for women in employment is improving, inequalities remain. Women are far less likely to be covered by occupational pensions than men and they also make up the majority of part-time workers in Ireland.

In some cases women also 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.


Under its Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality the European Commission will:

  • Carry out an assessment of the Equal Pay Principle Directive to improve its implementation and enforcement;
  • Consider sanctions to improve the deterrent effect of the prohibition of pay discrimination;
  • Look to improve the efficient and effective functioning of equality bodies to facilitate access to justice for victims of discrimination;
  • Support Member States in their efforts to ensure equal pay and address the root causes of the gender pay, earnings and pension gaps through the European Semester.


Career advancement

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 show women still face many difficulties when it comes to career advancement to decision-making positions in both the public and private sectors.

Women are seriously under-represented when it comes to the boards of management of Ireland’s top businesses too. Irish women make up just 13.2% of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in Ireland, significantly below the EU average of 21.2%.


Table showing representation of women and men on boards in EU member states

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 dominate 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.


Under its Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality the European Commission will:

  • Modernise the current EU legal framework to ensure better enforcement and legislation in the areas of leave and flexible working arrangements;
  • Continue monitoring and supporting Member States in attaining the Barcelona targets on childcare;
  • Support Member States in their efforts to increase female labour-market participation, and closely monitor national reform measures under the European Semester in line with employment guidelines;
  • Support companies in their efforts to increase female labour market participation by facilitating Diversity Charter platforms;
  • Use the Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs to support measures enhancing digital skills among women and girls and promoting female employment in the ICT sector.


Former European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, says the advancement of equal opportunities for women and men in Ireland over the past half century has been transformational, and the success of women in higher education bears testimony to this.

She was speaking in her role as chair of a Higher Education Authority (HEA) expert group tasked with reviewing gender equality in Irish education institutions.

The expert group’s report published in 2016 found that despite better educational outcomes for women compared to men, significant gender inequality remains in higher education as well as across wider society.

The report pointed out that as far back as 2001, the European Commission had concluded that the under-representation of women threatened the goals of science in achieving excellence, as well as being wasteful and unjust.

However, women continue to be vastly under-represented in top positions within the higher education sector as well as in top academic decision-making positions across Europe.

The HEA report found that numerous cultural and structural factors mean women face a number of barriers, not experienced by men, to progression in Irish higher education institutions (HEIs).The HEA expert group also concluded that gender equality would only be achieved when the most talented women and men are employed at all levels in Irish HEIs, in both academic and non-academic roles.


Infographic on women in third level education institutes in Ireland

Representation on HEI governance and management structures also needs to be gender balanced, according to the report.

The European Commission’s Education and Training Monitor publication from 2015 states that fewer women (5.7%) are early school leavers compared to men (8%) while more females (58.6%) than males (45.1%) go on to third level education in Ireland.

However, women face barriers when returning to education as access to full-time childcare remains limited and expensive in Ireland.


Under its Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality the European Commission will:

  • Support activities to raise awareness of educational and vocational training choices for women;
  • Promote gender equality in all levels and types of education, including in relation to gendered study subject choices and careers;
  • Use existing policy cooperation tools and funding instruments to foster gender equality in line with priorities set out in the Education and Training 2020 framework.




Infographic - women in politics
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).

Ireland 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.

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% for the next one.

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.

Irishwoman Catherine Day was Secretary General of the European Commission for almost a decade, from November 2005 to September 2015. She is now Special Adviser for Strategic issues regarding the Multi Annual Financial Framework.

The European Commission database on women and men in decision-making includes a section that covers the gender balance amongst politicians at European, national and regional level.


Gender-based violence

Statistics on domestic and sexual violence from national and international surveys tend to shock those who are not familiar with them.

In a 2014 study entitled 'Violence against women: An EU-wide survey' by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), it was reported that 14% of women in Ireland have experienced physical violence by a partner since age 15.


Map showing levels of gender-based violence in the EU

Six per cent of Irish women have experienced sexual violence by a current or former partner while 31% of women have experienced psychological violence by a partner.

And 12% of Irish respondents in the FRA study had experienced stalking (including cyber stalking).

In 2015, there were 16,375 incidents of domestic violence against women disclosed during 12,041 contacts with Women's Aid Direct Services.

The National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Ireland, Cosc, published the country’s Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence 2016-2021 in January 2016.

The strategy envisages a range of actions to be implemented by State, voluntary and community sector organisations aimed at preventing and responding to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

Combating gender-based violence and protecting and supporting victims is also a priority of the European Commission and it’s included in its Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality 2016-2019.


Under its Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality the European Commission will:



Promoting gender equality is a fundamental EU value and the European Commission’s Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality 2016-2019 is the main driver in making it a reality.

Progress made during the Commission’s 2010-2015 Strategy for Equality Between Women and Men now needs to developed further to narrow the gender gaps that still exist.

Improvements in recent years can be witnessed, for example, by the highest employment rate ever recorded for women (64 % in 2014) and their increasing participation in economic decision-making.

However, this upward trend is offset by persistent inequality in other areas, such as in terms of pay and earnings.

Member States, the European Parliament and a wide range of stakeholders have all contributed to the current Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality, including through a public consultation which attracted almost 5,000 replies.

An overwhelming majority (94 %) of the organisations that replied consider the priorities laid out in the current strategy are still valid for future engagement.

Europeans feel strongly about promoting gender equality: three quarters of respondents of a recent Eurobarometer survey (76%) think that tackling inequality between men and women should be an EU priority.

And around nine in ten (91%) agree that tackling inequality between men and women is necessary to creating a fairer society.

Ireland has some work to do to meet the objectives of the Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality.

There have been improvements, such as the introduction of two weeks paid paternity leave, but we’re lagging behind when it comes provision of affordable childcare and the number of female decision-makers in business and politics.