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 under-represented 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.
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One of the first benefits was that more women were able to access the labour market thanks to the abolition of an outdated marriage bar for women in public service jobs.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.
Ireland adopted gender mainstreaming as a principle during the late 1990s and early 2000s and a European Commission requirement meant Irish projects supported by EU funds had to promote equal opportunities.
The Irish government extended this requirement to cover all state funded projects and gender mainstreaming is now fully integrated into Ireland’s policy-making processes.
Gender equality across the EU is measured by the Gender Equality Index, a tool published by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE).
The Index uses a points system to measure equality progress under various topics, with 100 representing full equality, and the 2020 edition shows an EU overall tally of 67.9 points out of 100.
It also highlights that the EU’s progress on gender equality is still slow, with the Index score improving on average by just 1 point every 2 years. At this rate, it will take over 60 years to reach gender equality.
Ireland ranks above the EU average with 72.2 points and its Index score shows Irish gender inequalities are most pronounced in the domain of power, where the points tally is 55.8.
Ireland scores well when it comes to tackling inequality in health (91.3), ranking fifth in the EU, and ranking eighth when it comes to money (86.5). However, the 2020 index shows progress has stalled somewhat in both these areas.
Since 2010, Ireland’s score has improved most in the domain of power (+ 18.6 points), increasing its ranking by two places. Ireland’s rankings have also improved in the domains of work and time (by one place).
Employment and education
The Commission’s 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 few decades.
Employment rates in the EU since 2005 (and before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic) remained systematically higher for men than women. In 2019, 79% of men were employed compared to only 67.3% of women
However, progress has been made in securing better education and training for women. This has been achieved through equal treatment legislation, integrating a 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 were 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 2020 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 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 supports women to find jobs in new sectors with skills shortages that are emerging in Europe’s evolving green and digital economies.
- The European Commission has proposed measures on pay transparency to ensure equal pay for equal work.
- 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 has presented the European Skills Agenda and put forward a proposal for a Council recommendation on vocational education and training. These measures are aimed at addressing gender balance in traditionally male or female dominated professions as well as gender stereotypes and gender gaps in education and training.
The Commission’s Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 was launched in March 2020, just as Covid-19 was starting to spread rapidly across the EU.
The first report on the strategy, published in March 2021, highlights how the pandemic amplified existing gender-based violence against women, confirming long-standing research findings that the risk of domestic violence tends to increase in times of crisis.
Lockdown measures played a demonstrable role in a significant increase in reports of domestic violence and an increase in gender-based violence overall.
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 EU is leading the fight to end gender based violence, both in Europe and across the world.
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 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).
- In February 2021, the Commission launched a public consultation as part of a process to make a new legislative proposal to prevent and combat gender-based violence against women and domestic violence.
- The Commission stepped up the fight against gender-based violence in June 2020 by adopting its first-ever EU victims’ rights strategy.
- The Commission will present a recommendation on the prevention of harmful practices, including FGM, forced abortion, forced sterilisation, early and forced marriage and so-called ‘honour-related violence'.
- An EU network on the prevention of gender-based violence and domestic violence will be launched.
- In December 2020 the Commission adopted the Digital Services Act, which clarifies the responsibilities of online platforms, and so contributes to making the internet safer for women,
- Eurostat is working towards an EU survey on gender-based violence, to be carried out by national statistical institutes with results expected in 2023. Accurate data on the problem is key to developing efficient and effective policy and legal responses and to assess trends and progress.
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 22.7 points since 2005, but it’s still just 55.8 points out of a possible 100. However, while it’s the area in which Ireland has most room for improvement in gender equality, the country is among the better performing counties in the EU, ranking tenth.
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 2020. This share has increased by 10 percentage points since 2010, when women accounted for about 24 percent of members in national parliaments.
The European Commission proposed legislative action in 2012 to guarantee representation of both sexes amounting to at least 40% of directors on boards of publicly listed companies.
Although the proposal has not yet been adopted, women have made great progress in this area of decision-making. The number of countries in which women account for at least one third of boards grew to eight in 2020, although in Ireland the figure is below average at 27%.
However, a third of board members of the Irish Central Bank are women, and Ireland scores well when it comes to gender equality on the boards of research funding organisations (48%) and public broadcasting organisations (50%).
The European Commission’s 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.
- In November 2020, the Commission and the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy jointly adopted the Gender action plan III for 2021-2025, which sets out an ambitious agenda for gender equality and women’s empowerment in all EU external action.