Ireland has a long way to go in terms of gender equality

Isabella De Luca

OPINION: Last week, a conference on gender equality took place in Dublin Castle as part of the Irish Presidency of the Council of the EU.  Organised by the European Commission, it brought together national experts on gender equality and employment, as well as academics and representatives from the European Commission, European Parliament and NGOs, to examine “Women’s Economic Engagement and the Europe 2020 Agenda”.

Gender equality is more important now than ever as we strive to recover from the economic crisis.  Along with the obvious fulfilment of moral obligation come economic advantages from efficiently using the skills of all the population.  While adjusting policy to meet standards of equality may yield short-term expenses, the long-term benefits to society on both an ethical and economic level would be unparalleled.

According to research undertaken for the Swedish EU Presidency in 2009, the EU would experience significant economic growth if women were to become more actively engaged in the labour market.  A closing of the employment gender gap could increase GDP of Member States by an average of 27%, and a massive 35% in Ireland.  With the economic crisis signalling many changes in the labour market, now is the perfect time to implement advancements in this area.

Ireland is on the cusp of a new age with regard to women’s rights.  Last July, gender quotas that will require 30% of party candidates in the next general election to be women were passed in the Dáil.  In February, the Constitutional Convention voted overwhelmingly in favour of amending the women in the home clause of our Constitution in favour of more “gender-neutral” language.  And following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, legislation on the X Case is close to becoming a reality.

However, our country still has a long way to go to reach the international standards of equality that will be exalted at the conference this week.  The language of our Constitution reflects the fact that we live in a society which implicitly considers bread-winning the man’s responsibility, and child-rearing the mother’s.

The statistics reflect this stark reality.  Women continue to earn 12.6% less than men and are 18% more likely to work part-time.  They also find it harder to advance to the top of the career ladder, with women only making up 30% of workers in managerial positions.  Regardless of whether they have jobs or not, women bear the brunt of the unpaid but unavoidable domestic tasks of daily life, such as childcare and housework.  Among couples where both partners work, women spend more than two hours per day extra in unpaid work related to running a household, and even among couples where the woman is the only earner, men only do as much housework as women.

Change is clearly needed in our norms, culture, mindsets and attitudes, and this will take time.  However, policy also has a huge role to play in raising public awareness of gender biases in society and promoting a new way of thinking.  Unfortunately, through budgetary and policy decisions, our government is currently continuing to support gender inequalities, and penalise those affected by them.

From the birth of their children, women are given the message that child-rearing is their imperative.  As said by Vice-President of the European Commission Viviane Reding at the Citizens’ Dialogue in Dublin this January, “In Ireland, women become mothers but men do not become fathers”.  Men have no legal entitlement to paternity leave in Ireland; it is purely left to the discretion of their employers.

Families with young children need affordable childcare if both parents are to work, yet the government are doing little to reduce this expense.  Reports on childcare costs have shown that Ireland comes very low in the league table of affordability.  Last August, an Irish Independent survey found that a crèche place for one child costs more than average home repayments for many families.  With the scrapping of the €1,100 a year Early Childcare Supplement for children under five in 2009, the only boost to parents in recent years was the introduction of the free preschool year at the end of that year.  However, this only contributes around €200 a month to childcare costs for children aged three to four.  If childcare eats up one wage so that there is little or no financial gain from going out to work, parents (most often mothers) may be less likely to seek a job.

As women make up the majority of workers earning the minimum wage or just above, they are the group most affected by austerity measures that are disproportionally targeting low-income workers.  Women, especially women with children, are more reliant on public services and welfare provisions, all of which are currently being severely curtailed by the government.

Maternity Benefit will be taxable from July 1 for all claimants. Lone parents, 91% of whom are women, are also being subjected to cuts in Child Benefit, cuts to the earnings disregard under the One Parent Family Payment, cuts to the Back to School clothing and footwear allowance, and reductions in the entitlement to Jobseeker’s Benefit.  The burden is expected to worsen, with the International Monetary Fund urging the government to start means-testing child benefit.  While it is claimed that the poor will be protected by this measure, vulnerable groups such as average income-families with high mortgage repayments will not be spared.

Before the economic crisis, steps towards gender equality in budgeting were beginning to be taken on a European level.  In 2003 the European Commission established a working group of experts on gender budgeting, and the European Parliament also adopted a resolution and recommendations that called on “the Commission, the Member States, and local and regional governments to carry out gender budgeting”.  While some progress was made in Ireland toward equality budgeting, much of this was subsequently reversed with the dismantling of the equality infrastructure in Ireland that has been on-going since the onset of the recession.

At the gender equality conference last week, delegates gathered to discuss women’s position in the workforce, and how best to mobilise the abilities of half of our population in order to help reach the 75% employment target set in the Europe 2020 agenda.  Without a doubt, gender equality is paramount to economic recovery.  However, there are many steps that need to be taken on a governmental level before Ireland comes anywhere near achieving that goal.

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