The EU and Irish women
Irish women have more rights today than their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers ever had, but while significant progress has been made full gender equality has yet to be achieved.
Across Europe women still earn less than men, suffer disproportionally from gender-based violence, and are underrepresented in positions of power.
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 have improved 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, many challenges remain and the European Commission’s Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 will help Ireland move closer towards achieving its goal of being a nation of equals.
Gender Equality in Ireland
Irish gender equality legislation was first introduced in the 1970s after Ireland became a member of what was then the European Economic Community (EEC).
One of the first benefits was that more women were able to access the labour market thanks to the abolition of an outdated marriage bar for women in public service jobs.
Being part of the European Union has helped Ireland develop its gender equality legislation through gender mainstreaming, where equality is integrated into all policies and major initiatives.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, a National Development Plan, partly funded by European Structural Funds (ESF), saw Ireland adopting gender mainstreaming as a principle.
A European Commission requirement also meant Irish projects supported by EU funds had to promote equal opportunities. The Irish government later extended this requirement to cover all state funded projects.
Gender mainstreaming was fully integrated into Ireland’s policy-making process through the National Development Plan 2000–2006, Ireland’s multi-annual investment strategy.
The Index uses a points system to measure equality progress under various topics, with 100 representing full equality, and the 2019 edition shows an EU overall tally of 67.4 points out of 100.
It also reveals that progress towards effective equality is far too slow with the EU's score for gender equality up just 5.4 points since 2005, and only 1.2 since 2015.
Ireland ranks above the EU average with 71.3 points, but the Index score for Ireland shows gender inequalities are most pronounced in the domain of power, where the points tally is 53.4.
However, Ireland scores well when it comes to tackling inequality in health (90.9) and money (85.5).
Between 2005 and 2017, Ireland’s overall score increased by 9.4 points (+ 1.8 points since 2015), showing faster progress towards gender equality than other EU Member States.
Employment and Education
The European Commission’s new Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 aims to improve employment prospects for women through promoting equal economic independence, closing the gender pay gap and advancing gender balance in decision making.
Although there is much work to do in these areas, the EU has made significant progress in gender equality over the last decades.
The EU employment rate for women reached an all-time high of 66.4% in 2017, and progress has been made in securing better education and training.
This has been achieved through equal treatment legislation, integrating gender perspective to all other policies and the introduction of specific measures for the advancement of women.
In 1973, when Ireland joined the then EEC, there were 287,800 Irish women in employment, representing 27% of the total workforce. By 2014 the figure had more than doubled to 55.9% and in 2018 there was more than 804,700 women in the labour market, a participation rate of 77.2%.
More Irish women also now go on to third level education. In 2019, a total of 47% of all Irish adults participated in third level education and more than half of them were women (51%).
However, it’s a different story for women when they graduate. Across the EU men earn on average almost 15% more than women and only 8% of CEO's of the EU's largest companies are women.
The European Commission’s Education and Training Monitor publication from 2019 acknowledges that Ireland is striving for better gender balance in higher education, both among staff and students, particularly in STEM subjects.
It is estimated that women make up just 25% of Irish people working in STEM-related jobs but Ireland’s Action Plan for Education 2019 includes measures for increasing the number of women in STEM education.
When it comes to teaching in Ireland, women dominate the profession in primary to upper secondary level, filling 80% of roles. However, they are less well represented among university teachers, holding 44% of positions.
- The Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 recognises that gender equality is essential for an innovative, competitive and thriving European economy.
- It will support women to find jobs in new sectors with skills shortages that are emerging in Europe’s evolving green and digital economies.
- A public consultation on pay transparency will help develop binding measures by the end of 2020 aimed at narrowing the gender pay gap.
- The Commission will enforce the Work-Life Balance Directive and other EU laws to close gender gaps and tackle discrimination in the labour market.
- Gender equality progress in Member States will be monitored more closely through the European Semester, particularly when it comes to the labour market, social inclusion and education.
- Women as investors and entrepreneurs will be supported through Horizon Europe's European Innovation Council and through the InvestEU programme.
- The digital gender gap will be addressed in the updated Digital Education Action Plan.
- The Commission will present the Updated Skills Agenda for Europe and a proposal for a Council recommendation on vocational education and training. This is aimed at addressing gender balance in traditionally male or female dominated professions as well as gender stereotypes and gender gaps in education and training.
Gender based violence
Women in Ireland, across the EU and indeed the world continue to be targets of gender-based violence, stereotyping and hate speech.
One in three women in the EU have experienced physical or sexual violence, over half (55%) have been sexually harassed and 23% have experienced violence at the hands of a partner.
At least 500,000 women living in the EU have undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and one in 10 has experienced cyber harassment since the age of 15.
Women are also victims of trafficking, forced marriages and femicide but in recent years some EU Member States have experienced a backlash against gender equality and women’s rights.
The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – the ‘Istanbul Convention’ – is the benchmark for international standards in this field.
The EU signed the Convention in 2017, and concluding the EU’s accession is a key priority for the Commission.
The European Commission’s Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 includes a number of key actions aimed at bringing freedom from gender-based violence and gender stereotypes.
- Finalise accession of the EU to the Istanbul Convention and, if that’s not possible, propose measures in 2021 to achieve the same objectives.
- Add violence against women to the list of harmonised EU crimes and propose new measures to prevent and combat specific forms of gender-based violence, including sexual harassment, abuse of women and female genital mutilation (FGM).
- Present a Commission Recommendation on the prevention of harmful practices, including FGM, forced abortion, forced sterilisation, early and forced marriage and so-called ‘honour-related violence'.
- Launch an EU network on the prevention of gender-based violence and domestic violence.
- Propose a Digital Services Act to address illegal and harmful online content.
- Improve available data through a comprehensive new EU survey on gender-based violence against women, to be published in 2023.
Women in power
The EIGE Gender Equality Index shows that Ireland still has work to do to ensure women have equality when it comes to political, economic and social power.
Progress has been made and Ireland’s index score has increased by 21.3 points since 2005, but it’s still just 53.4 points out of a possible 100, and it’s the area in which Ireland scores lowest in the EU.
Ireland introduced a legislative candidate quota of 30% in 2012, supporting a rise in the share of women in parliament.
The General Election in February 2020 saw 36 women (22.5%) elected out of a total of 160 TDs in Dáil Éireann. However, that’s still below the EU average.
Women held 32% of seats in national parliaments in the EU in 2019. This share has increased since 2003, when women accounted for about one-fifth (21%) of members in national parliaments.
The highest shares of female members in national parliaments were recorded in Sweden (48%) and Finland (47%), ahead of Belgium and Spain (both 42%).
At the opposite end of the scale, women account for less than one-fifth of the national parliament members in Hungary (12%), Malta (15%), Cyprus (18%), Croatia and Romania (both slightly under 20%).
According to the Gender Equality Index, progress in economic decision-making is driven by the share of women on the board of the central bank.
The 2019 index put Ireland’s share at 30% while the share of women on the boards of the largest publicly listed companies was 18%.
Ireland’s index score when it comes to social power is the second highest in the EU at 74.5.
Women comprise half of all board members of research-funding organisations and publicly owned broadcasting organisations, but only 17% of board members of the highest decision-making bodies of national Olympic sports organisations.
But it’s not just in Ireland where women are underrepresented when it comes to power. More than 6.7 million people hold a managerial position throughout the European Union, but only 2.5 million (37%) of them are female.
In 2019 women accounted for a little over one quarter of board members of publicly listed companies in the EU (28%), and for less than one fifth of senior executives (18%).
The European Commission’s new Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 includes key actions aimed at ensuring women are better represented in positions of power.
- Push for the adoption of the 2012 proposal for a Directive on improving the gender balance on corporate boards, which set the aim of a minimum of 40% of female non-executive members on company boards.
- Promote the participation of women as voters and candidates in the 2024 European Parliament elections.
- Adopt measures to improve gender balance at all levels of European Parliament and Council management and in leadership positions.
- Reach gender parity (50%) at all levels of European Commission management by the end of 2024 and increase efforts towards reaching a larger share of female managers in EU agencies.
- Develop and implement strategies to increase the number of women in decision-making positions in politics and policy making once the Directive on improving the gender balance on corporate boards is adopted by Member States.
- Launch the third Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment in External Relations (GAP III).