Women at Work: 40 years of change

Women were paid about half the salary of men 40 years ago, and from the 1930s to the 1970s many were not allowed to work after they married

As Ireland’s 860,000 or so working women set off each day, few are likely to spare a thought for how much life has changed since the marriage bar ended, 40 years ago. Yet a trawl of statistics on working women shows just how much impact the marriage bar had on women.

Introduced in the early 1930s, it prevented women in the Civil Service from working after they married. The bar extended to many private companies.

Censuses show that the effects of this policy were palpable. A third of women were either working or available for work in 1936, but their participation fell in the next five censuses, to a low of 27.3 per cent in 1971.

Some indication of how different life was for working women 40 years ago comes from a pamphlet quoted by The Irish Times that year. Civil Wrongs of Irishwomen, from the Irish Women's Liberation Movement, noted that the average pay for Irish woman was "a mere 5s 3d, compared with a man's 9s 6d".


It said that, although a third of the 702,000 workers in Ireland were women, just 1 per cent worked in the higher professions and just 6 per cent were in managerial roles. Although 12 per cent were teachers and nurses, “most working women in Ireland are factory-workers, waitresses, typists or shop assistants”.

Although the marriage bar was abolished in 1973 (and earlier for women teachers), it took some time for the number of women to rise again in the workforce.

Since 1986 the number of women in the workplace, or seeking work, has grown continuously. The gap between the proportion of men and women at or seeking work is now at its lowest ever.

Tax-individualisation policies introduced by Charlie McCreevy, as minister for finance, at the turn of the millennium changed the rules to favour married couples where both spouses were earning over those where only one partner was working. The policy was clearly designed to increase the workforce in order to feed a young and hungry Celtic Tiger.

In 1996, before tax individualisation, slightly more than 500,000 women had jobs. By 2002 that figure had grown by more than a third, to 678,334 – the single largest intercensus jump in the number of working women in the history of the State.

Even today a married couple where both partners are working can earn up to €32,800 each while remaining in the 20 per cent income-tax band. A couple where only one partner is earning will pay the marginal rate of 41 per cent on income above €41,800.

The rise in the number of women in the workforce correlates with the average age at which women first give birth.

In 1955 the average age of a first-time mother was 27.5, a figure that fell to a low of 24.8 in 1975. Since then the average age has risen pretty much consistently, reaching 29.9 in 2012.

And so the numbers staying at home dropped. In the 1981 census 55 per cent of women over the age of 15 classed themselves as “looking after home/family”, compared with just 17.5 per cent three decades later.

There is still a marked difference in the employment rates of women who have children. CSO figures from 2011 looked at employment among couples and lone parents aged between 20 and 44. They showed that 85.7 per cent of women without children were employed, slightly more than the percentage of men employed.

But women whose youngest child was under three were less likely to work, with just 57 per cent in the workplace (compared with 79 per cent of men). For women whose youngest child was aged between four and five, the employment rate was even lower, with 51.5 per cent in employment compared with almost three-quarters of men.

Once their youngest child had reached six the employment rate among women rose to 58 per cent, compared with almost 77 per cent of men.

The ways in which men and women work are also very different. According to CSO quarterly national household survey figures from 2011, the average working week for a woman was 30.6 hours, compared with 39 hours for men. The figures (below right) also show that three times as many women were in part-time work (29 hours or less) than their male counterparts, the implication being that more women than men choose to work part time after having children.

As women are only too aware, the other big difference is the gender pay gap, a topic that will be addressed in detail later in this series, along with the glass ceiling and occupation segregation, or the tendency of many industries to remain primarily the domain of one sex.