Any UK or Irish politician voicing in 2019 the opinion that a woman’s place is in the home would be condemned. Yet that attitude is still enshrined in the Irish constitution – and it’s symptomatic of a wider problem in the country that’s holding back women in the workplace, especially in low-paid public service jobs.
Since 1937, despite growing calls for an update, article 41.2 of the the Irish constitution has stated that economic necessity should not force mothers to work “to the neglect of their duties in the home”. Last year, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission said the phrase should either be abolished or changed.
The Irish economy is thriving, fears over the impact of Brexit notwithstanding, and female employment has risen over the past decade. But this masks an underlying inequality: the increase has been higher in low-paid roles in sectors such as retail, health and education and childcare, leading to a greater pay gap between men and women.
“Women in Ireland have made very significant strides,” says Marie Sherlock, head of equality and policy at one of Ireland’s largest trade unions, Siptu. “But there are more women in lower-paid jobs in all sectors.” Women’s share of health employment has increased from 79% in 2008 to 81% in 2017, and the number of women in education jobs has risen from 65% to 74%, according to the union’s analysis. The Irish civil service and related state agencies has seen the greatest transformation, with women going from 38% of total employment in 2008 to 52% in 2017.
Sherlock says there is no single answer that will decrease the gender pay gap and the segregation of too many Irish women into low-paid, often part-time jobs. But she and her union are urging action on a number of fronts, including greater pay transparency and collective bargaining, to increase wages for both men and women.
The Irish government is drafting its own law to make it mandatory for organisations to report on the means and median average pay for men and women. The move has been welcomed by Irish businesses and unions keen to build on the experience of the UK government, which introduced similar legislation in 2017.
The plan at the moment is to enforce reporting on organisations employing 250 or more staff – the same as in the UK – and then widen that over the next two years until it includes all organisations employing more than 100 staff. But Sherlock says this will cover only 57% of all Irish workers. Her union wants the new law to cover all organisations employing more than 20 people, which it says would cover 70% of those employed in Ireland.
Irish employers have also welcomed the proposed legislation. “You have to do something, or nothing changes,” comments Kara McGann, senior labour market policy executive at Ibec, which represents Irish employers. McGann and Sherlock were both speakers at a recent meeting in Dublin of the European Institute for Gender Equality, whose research shows that on average, women’s gross hourly pay is 16% lower than that of men across the EU.
Ibec is urging its members to get ready for the new law on reporting, which may come in next year. McGann says one important aspect of the new law, part of Ireland’s national strategy for women and girls, is the intention to make it compulsory for organisations to give some background context about their gender gap, rather than simply reporting statistics. In the UK, it is not mandatory to provide additional information, and McGann points out that only 16% of its organisations published some narrative about their figures. “You need that context, which is why it will be included in the Irish legislation.”
Ireland’s better balance for business group, which is supported by the government, launched its first report in May, setting targets of 33% female directors for ISEQ 20 companies by 2023 and 25% for all other Irish listed companies.
The Irish government set gender targets for state boards as far back as 1993, but progress has been slow. The original target of 40% of women on state boards has still not been met. But more initiatives are being put in place, including a plan to create 45 women-only academic posts, to address gender imbalance in higher education. “A change in culture cannot be left to chance,” says Sherlock.
The European Institute for Gender Equality paid for flights and accommodation in Dublin for the reporting of this story
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