Society has made progress on equality at work but pace of change is glacial

Women have come a long way since the marriage bar but still have a long way to go

Back in the early 1960s, women made up 25 per cent of the workforce and earned less than half of what men did

Back in the early 1960s, women made up 25 per cent of the workforce and earned less than half of what men did


If, as former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright asserted, “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”, then there must also be a special place on this good earth for those who do. Step forward Eilish Hardiman , one of the heroes of the Irish Times series on working women. The chief executive of Tallaght hospital looks back in sorrow and in anger at how Ireland treated her mother, a triple-qualified nurse who, when she married, was obliged by the marriage bar to leave her job as a neonatal intensive-care nurse. This was unjust, and it also meant, Hardiman notes, the loss and waste of great skills.

‘Right thing’
Hardiman now retains a creche at the hospital even though it is a headache and barely breaks even, because she looks at the women on her staff, 65 per cent of her workforce, and sees what it means to them to be able to visit their children at lunchtime and know they are safe, well-cared for and close. It is “the right thing to do,” she says, so she does it. Hardiman strives for a “culture of flexibility” in the workplace and is beginning to see a slow trickle of men as well as women applying for time out for family reasons. What we need, she says, is for the Government to support non-commercial childcare facilities, and for “more women in decision-making roles to create policies that will help women”.

Step forward Josephine Feehily, chairwoman of the Revenue Commission, the author of a gender equality policy for the Civil Service and a woman “haunted by under-representation”. A long-distance view of the Civil Service would show a workforce which is gender-balanced. But move in closer and you see women still concentrated heavily at the lowest-paid levels, while men dominate the highest positions.

Recognising that public policymaking should be carried out by a diversity of decision-makers, Feehily has pursued a policy of setting targets “to increase female participation, female ambition” and then examining the barriers which stand in the way. This has meant enabling women to overtake some of the cohort of men who had blithely assumed that by dint of just being there they were on a conveyor belt to the top.

Feehily expresses her admiration for the new law which will remove State funding from political parties that fail to select at least 30 per cent female candidates for election. As with all attempts to change the status of women in Ireland, this was introduced after years of struggle by feminists, with much scorn and ridicule endured along the way.

M versus F
Back in the early 1960s, women made up 25 per cent of the workforce and earned less than half of what men did. Irene Rooney, now 78, who worked as a young, single woman for Aer Lingus, comments that she quickly realised the clerks with “F” after their name got less than those with “M”. A victim of the marriage bar, she poignantly remembers that “in the morning your husband is getting up and going out to work and it would be lovely for you to have a place to go for the day”.

Today 56 per cent of women are employed outside of the home, and the gender pay gap has narrowed, though it still stands at a reprehensible 13 per cent. As Jennifer O’Connell shrewdly notes, 40 years since the abolition of the marriage bar many women now have the opportunity to pursue a career but choice doesn’t come into it – they simply cannot afford to do otherwise. (Many lone parents, the overwhelming majority of whom are women, still struggle to survive economically, whether in paid work or out of it.)

Sociology lecturer Mary Murphy describes the persistence of “occupational segregation” with women “bunched” into a narrow range of occupation types which are poorly paid. She identifies six key areas where this occurs: clerical, sales, health, personal services, childcare and education. Many of these roles ought, in a civilised society, to be highly valued.

One major reason for this situation, according to Murphy, is “very deeply embedded stereotypes which are socially constructed through education and market processes at a very early age”.

Murphy advocates a redistribution of care roles, with the introduction of paid paternity leave as a start. It is pleasing to note that this smart woman teaches in that former bastion of Irish clerical conservatism, NUI Maynooth.

The deeply embedded stuff urgently needs to be examined, and feminist analysis of it taken far more seriously. Violence against women here and around the world shows no sign of abating and has a profoundly inhibiting impact on women’s freedom.

Road ahead
And then there is housework. Kate Holmquist reminds us 70 per cent of women aged 20 to 50 still do more than 75 per cent of it. “Women at Work” has been a great series. As our great poet Rita Ann Higgins has it, “Ireland is changing, mother.” As Eilish Hardiman adds, “Gosh, it’s taking a long time.”

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