Gender equality: old problem needs new focus

State must lead by example by increasing percentage of women in decision-making positions

A ‘Waking the Feminists’ demonstration at the Abbey Theatre highlighting the lack of gender equality in the Abbey’s programme of events in 2016. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Getting more women into work, and into positions of power, is one of the most important global challenges. Although they carry out 52 per cent of work across the world, according to the United Nations, women are far less likely to be paid for their labour than men. The problem is so acute that the UN regards it as one of the main brakes on global development.

In Ireland, women have far more work-related rights than their mothers and grandmothers. Thanks to the abolition of the marriage bar and stronger equality legislation driven by the European Union, women's representation in the labour force has jumped from 27 per cent in 1973 to 68 per cent today. But that tells only part of the story; in reality, real gender equality remains a long way off.

A persistent problem is the imbalance in decision-making positions. In a report last week, the Council of Europe showed Ireland had made slow progress towards meeting targets set by the council 14 years ago to expand the involvement of women in political life and offices of state. Ireland scored well on its senior judiciary, with women comprising 40 per cent of judges in the High and Supreme Courts in 2016, compared to a Europe-wide average of 33 per cent.

The low proportion of women in senior and junior ministerial posts (21.6 per cent) was just below the European average, while the proportion of women in the Dáil (22 per cent, albeit rising) and in overseas ambassadorial posts (16.7 per cent) underline the scale of the problem. While the study focussed on the public sector, we know the problem is far more extensive. The share of female managers in Ireland is just 34 per cent, according to the OECD. An analysis of 31 Irish publicly quoted companies by The Irish Times earlier this year found that women accounted for less than 16 per cent of board members. The issue affects education, journalism, healthcare and other sectors.


The Council of Europe study drives home the point that equality will not be achieved by standing back and waiting for the numbers to align. One of the reasons we have more female judges on the superior courts is that the Fine Gael-Labour coalition made a point of redressing a glaring gender imbalance. The increasing number of women in elected office is linked to legal gender quotas in candidate selection, introduced by the same coalition in 2012. UK experience has shown that boardroom quotas, or at least the threat of their introduction, can have discernible positive effects. But that’s only the beginning. The gender pay gap must be tackled, and fathers’ leave dramatically expanded. And the State must lead by example by setting targets for increasing the percentage of women in decision-making positions, and then meeting them.