Irish Women are still just ‘a little bit equal’

You can’t be ‘a little bit pregnant’, as the saying goes, but you can be ‘a little bit equal’.

In February, we marked the centenary of women getting the vote in Ireland and the UK. Later this year, we will celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the 1918 general election. This was a momentous occasion not only because it marked a seismic shift on our path to independence. Sinn Féin’s Countess Markievicz became the first woman elected to the House of Commons.

But, all else was not equal. All men over 21 were entitled to vote, but women had to wait until they were 30. Combined with property ownership requirements, this meant that less than half the women across Ireland and the UK could actually vote.

*** This article was first published on thejournal.ie on 18 April, 2018 ***

But, things are surely getting better?

In some ways, 2016 was a big year for gender equality. The general election was the first in which Irish political parties faced sanctions if candidate selection didn’t achieve a minimum of 30% of each gender. Gender quotas are an imperfect, but necessary, measure to address deep-lying structural inequalities in political representation. The results were impressive: a record number of 35 female TDs out of 158. Unfortunately, this 40% increase was still only enough to move us up to 81st in the world.  Neither did it lead to an increase in the number of women around the cabinet table, under either Enda Kenny or Leo Varadkar.

2018 could be another big year. The fallout from several high-profile cases of sexual harassment, and worse, has awakened anger at the persistent failure of society to root out abuse and violence against women. According to the UN, for example, about 1-in-12 Irish women have been the victim of sexual violence in the last 12 months, more than half of these by someone other than an intimate partner. Meanwhile, a successful campaign to ‘repeal the 8th’ would extend fuller reproductive rights to women for the first time on the island of Ireland. Mná na h’Éireann are calling time on being treated as second class citizens.

To borrow a phrase: a lot done, more to do.

Yet another part of our Constitution, Article 41.2, continues to recognise the importance of a woman’s ‘life within the home’. It shouldn’t really come as much surprise then that, despite significant progress, women have yet to achieve full equality

in the worlds of school, work or business. So, let’s look in more detail at these ‘3 E’s: education, employment and entrepreneurship:

Education: First, the good news. Girls get better grades (except in maths), on average, and are now more likely to graduate with a third-level degree. So, it’s certainly not talent or application holding women back when they enter the workforce. Women are still significantly under-represented in STEM (Science, Technology and Mathematics) studies, however, and over-represented in health and education, with little change in recent years.

Employment: In every country, there are less women in work, working less hours, and getting paid less for every hour they do work. And yes, globally the gap has been closing, albeit at a snail’s pace. For shame, however, Ireland is one of the countries where the gender pay gap is actually getting wider! Between 2010 and 2015, the gap jumped from 12.8% to 14.4% (for the median, or ‘woman in the middle of the distribution), higher than it was even in 2005.

Women in Ireland are less likely than men to be in the workforce, but there are differences depending on education level and, particularly, whether the woman has a child or not. The gender employment gap is three times higher for women with low education levels than for those with higher education. Strikingly, this gender employment gap is nearly a quarter for women with at least one child, but almost disappears for women with no children.

Late last year, the Royal Irish Academy published a report, entitled Fixing the leaky pipeline and retaining our talent, noting that women are more likely than men to drop out of STEM careers altogether, while those that remained face barriers to promotion. While half of academic lecturers are female, this share falls to less than one in five at full professor level. There is a similar pattern in junior versus senior management positions in the private sector.

Entrepreneurship: Men in Ireland are three times more likely to be self-employed than women. Meanwhile, men who are self-employed are nearly three times more likely to themselves employ staff and earn, on average, nearly 30% more than are their female counterparts. This entrepreneurship gender gap appears to be very gradually narrowing, and is lower among younger cohorts, but some countries have achieved far greater progress than Ireland in this regard.

Womenomics can benefit all

Less women workers, lower women’s’ wages and fewer female business leaders is not just bad for women. It holds back economic growth, meaning lower living standards for all. Leakage from the STEM fields as happens at present means Ireland’s human capital is not being used to the full in cutting edge sectors, undermining our capacity to innovate and to operate at the technology frontier. Gender equality should be the norm regardless, but it can clearly improve men’s lives too. So, we need more win-win public policies to flip the switch – what similar efforts in Japan have been termed ‘womenomics’.

What can we do to start making gender equality the new normal? Here’s seven steps for a start:

  1. Make Article 41.2 of our constitution gender neutral or, even better, repeal it altogether. As a society, we have surely grown out of believing ‘a woman’s place is in the home’.
  2. Adapt to the Irish context the Australian initiative whereby Summer Schools are offered to STEM students, with a particular focus on increasing the number of participants who are female or from a disadvantaged background.
  3. Make pay transparency the norm, while respecting individuals’ privacy. Last year Lithuania, for example, required employers with more than 20 staff to provide annually average wages by gender and by professional group. They join a growing number of countries with similar requirements.
  4. The government should unilaterally adopt the G20 gender target of reducing the participation gap by 25% by 2025. This could bring an extra 50,000 women into the workforce.
  5. Government plans to introduce two weeks paid parental leave in October’s budget are welcome, but lack the ambition needed. It is a fraction of 18 weeks the government is eventually targeting and does nothing to ensure employers’ share the burden in providing properly paid maternity leave, as happens in most other European countries.
  6. Ireland remains one of the most expensive countries for childcare, reducing the incentives for the second parent – most often women – to enter the workforce rather than care for kids in the home. Homecare should be an option, not an obligation. Progress is being made on Minister Katherine Zappone’s watch, notably including the provision of two years of free pre-school and subsidised childcare for under-threes. When she announces Ireland’s “early years strategy” later this year it needs to be backed up by significant investment so that many more families can benefit from lower childcare costs. Consideration could also be given to piloting after-school ‘homework and play’ clubs using school facilities, and staffed by childcare professionals.
  7. Efforts to address challenges women, in particular, face in accessing finance, such as Enterprise Ireland’s €150,000 Competitive Start Fund for Female Entrepreneurs are welcome. Likewise, many Local Enterprise Offices already support Women in Business networks, but there is a need to expand this dedicated offering to include starter office space and longer mentoring periods.

What better way to mark the centenary of 1918 by those jockeying to form our next government committing to meaningful reforms that make gender equality the new reality?

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