Should we be celebrating Ireland’s gender equality result?

Analysis: World Economic Forum survey places Ireland 8th of 142 countries

Are you bored with women complaining about gender inequality?

Surely these days women can “look the business” in their sharp suits and high heels. They can “network” with other female achievers over fine wine and mixed-leaf side salads.

No one is actually stopping women in Ireland from standing for election to parliament or putting themselves forward for corporate boards.

But what’s this?


The annual gender gap survey from the World Economic Forum is out. It measures equality and looks at the gaps between women and men in health, education, the economy and politics.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Ireland is in eighth place out of 142 countries for gender equality.

Granted, we’ve slipped from sixth place in 2013 and fifth in 2012, but only having 15.7 per cent of women in Dail Eireann seems to be no barrier to busting into the WEF top 10.

"People and their talents are two of the core drivers of sustainable, long-term economic growth. If half of these talents are underdeveloped or underutilised, the economy will never grow as it could," says Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the WEF, which is behind the high-powered Davos summit each year.

Business has brought the bottom line to the question of equality.

“Multiple studies have shown that healthy and educated women are more likely to have healthier and more educated children, creating a positive, virtuous cycle for the broader population.

“Research also shows the benefits of gender equality in politics: when women are more involved in decision-making, they make different decisions - not necessarily better or worse - but decisions that reflect the needs of more members of society,” says Schwab.

Gender equality leaders

As might be expected, five Scandinavian countries have pipped Ireland to the gender-equality post.

And Nicaragua and Rwanda are hovering just ahead of us. Rwanda surely got bonus points for having 63.8 per cent of their parliament made up of women, thereby topping the global league table for 2014.

On crunching the WEF numbers further, it looks like our two former women presidents continue to earn us Brownie points. A country gets points for the number of years out of the past 50 it has had a female head of state.

Next year is the 20th anniversary of the World Conference on Women in Beijing, which set out ambitious global targets for leveling the global gender playing field.

"There has been progress, but a lot of work still lies ahead. To this day, no country has reached full gender equality and the continuous presence of gender gaps keeps draining the global economy," Dalia Grybauskaite, president of Lithuania, commented on publication of the WEF report.

“In fact, we are faced with a paradox. Better access to education for women has not led to equal economic opportunities. Reconciliation of family and work remains exclusively a female affair. This undermines the family and increases the discrimination of women in the labour market.

“Women continue to be underemployed, underpaid and underrepresented in top managerial and executive positions in business and politics. This results in continuous waste of human talent and impedes economic growth,” Grybauskaite said.

So what should we read into Ireland coming out in eighth spot in the global rankings? Shouldn’t we be giving ourselves a pat on the back and stopping complaining about inequality?

Ursula Barry of UCD's School of Equality Studies is not so sure.

“The context of what they’re measuring here is very limited. It always depends on what you’re measuring. Life expectancy is high here, which boosts Ireland. And we come out very well in terms of women’s access to third-level education.

Ireland does, however, have the highest childcare costs in the OECD, Barry points out.

“There is nothing in this study to show that we have cut frontline services that support women experiencing violence, such as those provided by Women’s Aid or the Rape Crisis Network. So it’s the lack of those services, the lack of reproductive rights for women, our under-representation in the political system that skew our system towards inequality,” says Barry.

"I'm not saying that all women in politics would give these issues priority, but all the Nordic countries prioritise care," says Barry, pointing to the top rankings achieved by Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark in the WEF survey.

The issue of access to abortion as part of healthcare services is “absolutely critical” for women in Ireland, she says. “It’s huge for women here and it’s not measured in this survey.”

Moya Greene, chief executive of Britain's Royal Mail, and one of only five female chief executives in the FTSE 100, said last week: "It's still disappointing when you see how young women view their ambition - and how others view that ambition. To be a CEO it's really hard work and you really have to want to do it. For women, even in 2014, that can be a problem."

Much of the progress on gender equality over the last 10 years has come from more women entering politics and the workforce, Saadia Zahidi, lead author of the WEF report, said.

So when women are there, women get results.

Ireland has only slipped two places in the global gender equality rankings. We can count our blessings. The UK slipped from 18th place last year to 26th this. At its peak, it was in ninth spot.

The veneer of Ireland’s respectability can be laid at the feet of young Irish women.

As long as they keep piling through the gates of third-level institutions, Ireland will be sitting pretty in the World Economic Forum rankings. If they decide to have children, if they decide not to have children; they’re on their own.