Women are still unequal and unrepresented in Ireland

A more equitable gender balance in positions of leadership and employment would have lessened the impact of the recession on Ireland. Indeed, an increased effort to correct gender imbalances could also hasten our recovery. However, Ireland's gender gap is getting worse, impacting not only the economy, but women's health, violence, children and society as a whole.

The New York Times coined the term ‘mancession’ for a recession which they claim has disproportionately hurt men who are “more likely to work in cyclically sensitive industries like manufacturing and construction.” Although this may hold some strength in the US, the situation in Ireland is much different. Although the whole country is sharing in collective economic woes, women have been hit particularly hard by the recession, which has further deepened an already cavernous gap in gender inequality. Susan McKay, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland says “women are being punished for the failure of a political system run overwhelmingly by men”.

This situation grows more serious if one considers that the gender gap in Irish society could have contributed significantly to the downturn and that women, and their development, could hold the key to economic recovery and sustainability.

Studies have shown that the greater the representation of women in government, the lower the rate of corruption. One study supported by the World Bank finds that, in positions of power, women are less likely to sacrifice the common good for personal and material gain and that the presence of women in the upper echelons of hierarchical structures exercises an extremely positive influence on the behaviour of their male colleagues.

Increasing the presence of women in government and senior management may be valued as a positive ethical measure, for reasons of gender equality. However, if women are less likely than men to behave opportunistically and the presence of women lowers levels of corruption, then increasing female participation in leadership will have significant benefits for society in general.

However, despite the ethical and practical implications of gender inequality, the situation in Ireland is far from improving. In fact it is getting worse.

According to a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the number of women in senior government positions in Ireland is among the lowest in the developed world. In Ireland, women only fill approximately 13.3 per cent of senior government positions, a figure which places the state fifth from the bottom in a list of 22 countries. Top of the table are Canada, New Zealand and Greece where almost 40 per cent of the top positions are filled by women.

A brief glance at the composition of key national decision making bodies leave little doubt that the needs and opinions of women are not being adequately represented. The Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure who produced the McCarthy report consisted of five men and one woman. The Commission on Taxation consisted of 13 men and five women. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance and Public Service consists of 16 men and one woman.  Despite the fact that women constitute 51 per cent of the population, they make up just 13 per cent of the Dail and 16 per cent of local councils.

Female participation rate in the labour force remains below the EU average, despite a rapid rise over recent years. According to an OECD country profile of Ireland, participation is hampered by a lack of affordable childcare and disincentives in the tax-benefit system. The OECD recommends that Government need to improve the targeting of child support to strengthen the incentives for second earners and lone parents with young children to work and further increase the supply of childcare places.

Despite the fact that, on average, women in Ireland out-perform men in terms of educational achievement, a recent report by The Equality Authority and the ESRI: ‘A Woman’s Place: Female Participation in the Irish Labour Market’ revealed that the gender gap in wages is in fact widening, with men, on average, earning eight per cent more than women. When the last research of this kind was published seven years ago, men earned approximately six per cent more than women. The increase of two per cent to the current gap of eight per cent has no obvious explanation.

However, such inequality is not limited to the labour market, it exists at every level of society and is evident in many budget allocations and cuts.

According to the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), women are responsible for a disproportionate burden of care work which has left them economically dependent and under-represented in decision making. NWCI statistics show the excessive burden of care duties damages women’s health, affects their employment, reduces their leisure time in comparison to men and affects their pension entitlements.

In the “historically high” social welfare packaged delivered in budget 2007, Government took the initial steps to “to ensure that the welfare code is fairer to women”, increasing the qualified adults pension by €23. However, since this gender equity within the social welfare system has actually declined.

There are a number of ‘equality’ measures currently ongoing under the remit of various government departments. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is currently overseeing both the ‘National Women’s Strategy 2007-2016’ and the ‘Equality for Women Measure 2008-2013’. The former has as its vision “An Ireland where all women enjoy equality with men and can achieve their full potential, while enjoying a safe and fulfilling life” while the Department website claims that  “significant funding, including €15.75 million of European Social Fund support under the Human Capital Investment Operational Programme 2007-2013, is anticipated” for the ‘Equality for Women Measure’.

However, the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s pre-budget submission outlines the reality of these projects.  Funding available for gender equality initiatives has been drastically cut by 46 per cent since the supplementary budget in April of this year. The budgets of both the ‘National Women’s Strategy’ and the ‘Equality for Women Measure’ have been dramatically reduced in order to re allocate funds to other areas of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and other government departments. Almost 90 per cent of money allocated to the Equality for Women Measure’s projects in 2008 was used instead for Garda overtime. In 2009, 75 per cent of funds allocated in the April budget had been reallocated by July. The 10 million which was provided by the European Social Funds for equality projects has been reallocated to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment with no condition that it is to be used for women’s employment.

Female health care has been seriously impacted as well. The government’s shelving of the cervical cancer vaccine programme was widely criticised.  Ireland has one of the highest death rates from cervical cancer in Western Europe and mortality rates have increased by 1.5 per cent each year since 1978. The latest figures from the National Cancer Registry of Ireland show that 286 women were diagnosed with malignant cervical cancer in 2007. Despite this, Government chose to scrap the cervical cancer vaccine scheme which would have cost approximately €9 million to roll out. Also, Government have still not implemented the National Cancer Screening Services proposal to extend the age for Breast Check to 69 years, a move which would be in line with international best practise but looks increasingly uncertain as a result of the downturn in the economy.

Local women’s organisations have also endured huge cuts in funding. These organisations provide counselling and advisory services, health information, education and training and childcare support. Many also provide support to victims of domestic violence and enable women and children to escape violent situations. The Women’s Council says of them: “much of the work is of necessity slow, careful and even hidden. It is difficult to measure its impact- but it essential to the well being of society.”

Women’s Aid have spoken out about how the recession is trapping women in abusive relationships. Calls to the organisations help line have revealed that the financial crisis has led to more frequent and dangerous domestic abuse. Callers also said that abusive men were often using the recession to excuse their behaviour. Despite the increase in abuse, organisations that help victims have experienced huge funding cut backs. In 2009, Women’s Aid was one of these victims of recessionary cutbacks. Margaret Martin, director of Women’s Aid, has said 2010 “looks even bleaker”.

‘Safe Ireland’, an organisation which represents 20 women’s refuges across the country, has warned that cuts to centres with low staff numbers would make it impossible for them to continue operating. Already the Meath Women’s Refuge and Support Service Centre in Navan revealed it has been forced to turn away those looking for help in the wake of the budget cuts. In a two month period, 17 women and 21 children had been turned away from the shelter due to lack of funding.

Women’s groups claim that the proposed cut in child benefit and the introduction of a three-tiered system of payments is flawed and will adversely affect many women. The NWCI argue that the impact of these proposals will be to force many women out of work and leave women working in the home with even less support.

Orla O'Connor, Head of Policy for the National Women’s Council of Ireland told Politico how the NWCI have been campaigning for gender equality within Ireland for many years. Ms. O’Connor also told Politico that the NWCI were today putting the finishing touches to a submission to the Oireachtas calling for the introduction of gender quotas for electoral candidates: “We don’t believe we can wait for change because the situation is changing so slowly”.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland’s pre-budget submission can be read here.