WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE FOR WOMEN IN IRELAND TO HAVE EQUALITY?
– EQUALITY AT WORK
– EQUALITY WITHIN THE FAMILY
– EDUCATIONAL EQUALITY?
The framing of the question indicates that there is no equality for women. There is a view that human beings based on their biology, are separately categorised to male and female with a different social role ascribed to each category. The category for women is that of child bearing and rearing, while the role of the male is to impregnate women and to provide the funds for the rearing of their children. The Irish Constitution seems to embody this theory. Article 41 basically states that woman is to marry, to have children and to devote herself to the welfare of her husband and children. In return, the State is to “endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”. The husband is the breadwinner whose principal function is to provide adequate funds to maintain “his” family.
Semantics attribute a value to women but in reality the non economic valuation of their contribution to the family unit ensures a dependence – a dependence which in many cases is nothing other than a life sentence. The role of the Church and the primary function to pro-create ensured a system of dependency and the resultant vulnerability of those subordinated, namely women, and other marginalised groupings. Legislation compounded the situation. Until the 1970’s when the issue of equality for women received a new impetus, the Marriage Bar applied, contraceptives were not available, a non marital child did not have the same rights as a legitimate child, a woman and family could be left without a home if the spouse chose to sell it. Social changes resulted in changes in patterns.
The unemployment increase of the 1980’s and early 1990’s eroded the concept of the man as the breadwinner. Women began to enter the workforce. Ireland’s entry to the European Community in 1974 resulted in the enactment of legislation including laws relating to equal access to employment, equal pay and equal conditions of employment. The European Convention of Human Rights and the Vienna Convention are also a determining factor in securing equality for marginalised groups. However the effectiveness and application of the equality legislation which is an important instrument of social changes is questionable. In practice, it is hard to implement it.
I intend to focus on equality at work because if this is achieved, in my opinion, women will make the necessary inroads to achieving equality within the family. I will write briefly on equality within the family and educational equality. This does not mean that these areas merit less attention but the scope of the question is vast and I prefer to focus on the issue I consider to be a good foundation base for achieving equality in these other areas.
EQUALITY AT WORK:
Changing times economically, politically and socially, having resulted in more women in the paid labour force. The transition from home-maker to the public domain gives rise to tensions in the family structure, in social attitudes and public policy. Women are gaining economic independence and social identity. However, we must note that in Ireland and Spain, women’s labour force participation, in the 20-59 age category, is the lowest within the EU and the participation in the workforce of mothers in Ireland is the lowest with only 20% in paid employment. The change in marital/fertility patterns has resulted in more women entering paid employment. In 1971 women in employment amounted to 25.7% but by 1994 this had increased to 36.4%. In 1986 22% of women aged 20-24 years were married but by 1991 the number had dropped significantly to 13% (CSO 1995). The reduced fertility rate, the choice to have children closer together resulting in a shorter period of child-rearing and the older marriage age dramatically alters the number of women in the labour force. 36.4% is low in comparison to other countries like Sweden, Denmark and Finland with rates running at 69%, 62% and 62% respectively.
To establish equality in the true sense, it is necessary to encourage or at least provide women with the opportunity of paid employment at equitable rates. For countries with low participation rates for women (Luxembourg and Belgium – 39%; Ireland – 37%; Italy – 35%; Greece – 34%; and Spain 33%) it is necessary to look at a role model and a good example is Norway which has a high number of women in public office. The Norwegians readily admit that you need a substantial number of women in the decision making process to press for an alternative policy and this is something which is required in Ireland. Only 13% of our legislators/decision makers are women while 87% are men. Changes are required. Norwegians applied the following game plan in an attempt to alter the political agenda:-
- Traditional and feminist groups formed a coalition. They agreed on certain basics e.g. equal pay.
- They developed strategies at election time, the aim was to mobilise women to run as candidates, to canvass men and women to vote for them, to advise voters how to use the ballot and most importantly they obtained the adoption of sex quotas namely 40% of either sex by the political parties and most importantly they ensured that the Equal Status Act was in favour of women rather than in gender-neutral terms. The outcome was greater attention to women’s issues in parliament. The Scandinavian countries, in political science terms are referred to as ‘consensual’ democracies giving them a high profile relating to matters of equality. It is interesting to note that the Equal Status Act in Norway was introduced in 1978 and the first paragraph read as follows:-
“This Act shall promote equal status between the sexes and aims particularly at improving the position of women”.
This indicates that prohibiting discrimination is insufficient, it takes more to achieve equality between men and women. Positive action is required and the outcome in Norway, as the number of women increased at Government level, was the establishment of quotas of women in the civil service, as well as reservation of places for women in courses, schools and studies, the provision of an independent Ombudsman to enforce the provisions of the Act, an increase in childcare subsidies, an increase in parental leave and other factors. The parliamentary time-table in Norway, unlike Ireland, is agreeable to MP’s, be they male or female, and their parental obligations. At a legislative level, like the Scandinavian countries, it is necessary to ensure that women are encouraged to enter the political field at Senate/Governmental/European Union/Local Government/trade union level and once in place changes can be made to ensure greater equality and application of European laws presently in existence. The EU, through the Maastricht Treaty, is now able to pass equal opportunities legislation by majority voting, so it is much easier to enact. Using these voting procedures binding legislation on childcare; paternal leave, flexi-time for parents; greater availability of part-time work for everybody and other remedies aimed at reconciling domestic and professional commitments is a possibility and it is probably correct to assume that greater participation by women at governmental and judicial level would ensure the application of this legislation.
Statistics prove that the choice to be a mother and remain in the workforce is not as prevalent in Ireland as in other European members. This is an area which requires attention. It is interesting to note that for women in paid employment, a high level of occupational segregation exists. Irish women occupy a narrow range of service jobs: clerical work, retailing, catering, civil and public sector – in fact as many as 80% of women in employment, are in the services sector. The services sector, although it is conducive to a part-time concept and to facilitating family arrangements, does not provide the required opportunity and women involved in it work long hours, are poorly paid, and are subject to direction of male dominated senior management. Over-representation of women among the low paid is a characteristic of all EU countries but the majority of countries operate a safety net based on minimum wage protection – however, this does not apply in Ireland or England and this explains why both of these countries have the highest level of low pay.
In my opinion, the absence of a minimum wage, is pure exploitation of a vulnerable workforce and it is imperative that our politicians are lobbied to redress the situation. In Ireland there is evidence of a two-tier workforce of women. The minority (who are unlikely to press for changes for their peers on the lower strata) comprises the relatively highly remunerated, highly educated, with few children v. the majority i.e. the services sector who lack support services or institutional protection and this contrast reinforces the need to ensure that those in the majority sector are assisted in their endeavours to become independent contributors, on an equal basis to men, to family income and achievement of their own economic independence.
Assistance is required to encourage women to enter, re-enter and remain in the work environment and some suggestions follow:-
Education at secondary level is vital and women need to be encouraged to identify areas of interest, and if the choice is not the Third Level/Vocational option, they should receive guidance as to improvement in skills and qualifications while engaged in the workforce. Aontas https://www.aontas.com/ is the National Association of Adult Education and promotes learning and education throughout life, particularly for those who are educationally and emotionally disadvantaged. This service is invaluable both to women in search of promotion or just stimulation and interest within the work environment and to women who at any time wish to return to the work and require skills, personal development, confidence, qualifications to achieve same.
For those not suited to examinations, accreditation applies. Boredom in service jobs is a major negating factor and it is necessary to establish motivation to overcome an attitude of escapism, an escapism which often makes the function of unpaid housewife and mother an attractive alternative. Personnel departments should identify strategies to alleviate boredom and encourage ongoing education by funding it, to compensate. Availability of support services to facilitate entry and re-entry into paid employment are also required.
An increase in the number of women in paid employment is needed to challenge the existing lack of equality between men and women. It is necessary for women to recognise the domination by men in power structures and to challenge this system by forming groups to lobby politicians, employers, trade unionists to promote a system which will enable them to remain in work, acquire additional skills and qualifications and move to the upper levels of management enhancing their opportunities to ensure equality. Joshi 1987: 114 provided statistics that stated that British women lost a minimum of £135,000 over their lifetime because of the family requirements. This figure would be substantially higher in the case of Irish women. An awareness of this value is required by women to enlighten them to a value which is foregone by a choice to work within the home.
Public policy in relation to childcare is required to ensure that equality legislation is effective. Research shows that good quality, reasonably priced childcare enables women in the home to remain in the workforce, engage in training, and ultimately this helps bridge the pay gap differential between men and women. Attitudes need to change. Negative attitudes towards women who choose to work and rear a family can greatly undermine confidence. These women in many cases need encouragement and support. In 1981 Irish women were given the statutory right to maternity leave, however the financial compensation is only 70%of their income and is the lowest in Europe. In most other European countries women receive full wages.
Another area requiring attention is parental leave. Ireland, Britain and Holland are the only three EC countries which do not provide for this. The concept of parental leave consolidates an intention of a shared experience in child rearing. This system also goes a long way towards negating an employer’s pre-disposition to giving employment to a man rather than a woman, particularly where the same qualifications are involved. It is interesting to note that a 1987 Labour Force Survey shows that women spend an average of 38 hours a week at paid employment while the average man works 47 hours. To achieve equality, I agree with the concept of a maximum working hour week. This means that both men and women will be more inclined to share non remunerated family work.
Women are paid 68% of what men are paid for similar work. It had increased to 70% but the recession over the last decade caused the reduction. An Employment Equality Agency now https://www.ihrec.ie/ is established but it has a low budget and hence its success is limited. It makes it difficult for women who are discriminated against to take cases to court. Pay gaps are due primarily to the fact that women and men engage in different jobs. Male nurses/secretaries are rare as are female engineers/carpenters. This is linked to the problem that women’s work is undervalued. Hairdressing, childcare, receptionist work are the lowest paid work and needless to say mostly occupied by women. Changes are needed here. Valorisation of women’s work and a breakdown of this traditional “male – breadwinner” theme is required. It is necessary to remove where justifiable the genderisation of jobs which in itself is discriminatory. It should be made easier for women to bring cases before the Equality Officer.
FAS now https://www1.solas.ie/launched its first Positive Action Programme for women in 1990 with the intention of broadening the range of job opportunities available to women in the labour market. It identified how women continue to cluster in a narrow range of occupations which tend to be low skilled and invariably low paid. It is opening up previously male dominated areas to women who wish to return to the workforce. This policy and the integration of women into male dominated areas will make it more possible to attain an equal pay situation. This is enlightening and a greater awareness is required to attract women to join the Back to Work programmes. It is necessary to highlight at this point that yet again women are victims of a system i.e. the system that states that they must be unemployed (drawing social welfare) for one year before they will be accepted. Given that most of these women do not comply because they have worked within the home, this is a major inequality, they are excluded because there is no economic value to their work. Again this issue needs attention.
The EU can sue countries for not implementing laws but it is not as effective as it could be. The Watchdog needs to bite. Discrimination still exists in the labour force against women albeit not as bad as the 1970’s. It is obvious that anti-discriminatory laws alone do not provide equal opportunities for women. Positive Action to increase women’s representation at all levels of political decision-making, could help in changing attitudes towards women’s employment as could greater support through the public sector and the state to facilitate this.
A large proportion of women work in the caring sectors. It is not unreasonable to say that the work of nurses is considerably more important than many occupations which are better paid. Caring for the elderly, community work, voluntary work all require dedication, commitment, input and save the economy considerable money, yet the women engaged in this work do not achieve the remunerative recognition deserved. It is disturbing to note that over 70% of the workers in the health service are women, yet 70% of the men hold the top positions. Intervention is needed. Perhaps the male domination at the vertical level is the reason for the low level of remuneration of those on the horizontal level.
An important aspect of equality at work is the economic value attributed to work within the home. Equality is about choice and if there is a decision by a woman to work within the home, either rearing children, assisting in running a family business, entertaining clients in connection with her husband’s work, it is imperative that this be given a financial value. Rural women are the real victims in this situation. Opportunities to work are less, work within the home, which often is a farm or small business, is part of their household chores and they receive no financial recognition. The UN Decade of Women https://www.britannica.com/topic/United-Nations-Decade-for-Women has made initial inroads. The European Union has adopted a report calling for EU governments to count women’s unwaged work in their gross national product. Something similar is proposed in the US. In Ireland, the National Women’s Council of Ireland https://www.nwci.ie/ and Western Women’s Link are unanimously in support of this. If work within the home is measured in accordance with the suggestions made by the Beijing Resolution https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/followup/reports.htm, it would establish women’s entitlements to the many human, economic and social rights which are presently denied to them. The immediate benefits of implementation of the Resolution are as follows:-
- Education and Training: Presently women not on the live register have no status and are referred to as an “adult dependent”.
- Divorce: Fair and Just assessment of the total value of Women’s unwaged work in marriage and the home.
- Realistic compensation: In the case of accidents and illness, women would receive realistic compensation in the waged workplace and outside it.
- Pension Funds: There could be a fair and equitable division.
There are inherent problems in this kind of Resolution. I don’t think it would be suitable if the working spouse had to remunerate the spouse who chooses to work in the home. Such an undertaking is commendable in the context of a supportive spouse (generally husband), a wage earner, and a benign father. What is required is something similar to a “children’s allowance”. The State would need to undertake to make the payment, how they fund is another matter, no doubt, it would entail an increase in taxation. In my opinion, an income with pension/PRSI entitlements for women who work within the home, is a basic right. It must always be remembered that women produce the largest and most essential primary economic resource, i.e. children and in a European Community with an ageing population, this becomes an even more valuable resource.
Part-time work, flexi time, career breaks, are all beneficial to obtaining time out to rear a family but it is unfair that such options can penalise people availing of them. Our population is an ageing one, women live longer than men, life expectancy is longer, and as a result pension contributions are vital. Personal pension plans need to be marketed with a proviso that contributions can be made during absence from work and that the 15% of earnings rule should be increased in the case of part-time workers or in the case of those who choose to stay at home, the working spouse may agree to make these payments. In order for this to occur, changes are required in legislation.
Educational Equality is important but in my opinion, any shortcomings which existed in the past, are presently being redressed by the availability of back to work courses, personal development courses, Aontas, UCD Women’s programme and the advantage I see to this is that women who may not have had the opportunity to study in their adolescent years, tend to return to education with a desire to learn, life experience, and with managerial skills – it must be remembered that they have organised the running of the home/family/back-up support to the spouse. The traditional gender orientated curriculum is now changed with more of an equality boys/girls focus. Career guidance is a very important part of the school curriculum. Not only is it of benefit to the children but if properly undertaken, children could be instrumental in directing non-working mother’s back to work.
EQUALITY IN THE FAMILY
This is difficult to achieve as it relates to personalities. The Report of the Working Party on the Legal and Judicial Process for Victims of Sexual and Other Crimes of Violence Against Women and Children 1996 https://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/dvreport.pdf/Files/dvreport.pdf makes 84 recommendations and in conjunction with various agencies and their impetus, greater protection to vulnerable members in a family situation should be available. The achievement of equality at work ought to impact on the family situation in a positive way particularly if the aspect of dependency is removed. Dependency is a policy which can be altered and no doubt as social changes occur, we will be similar to other European countries in which the majority of women work and men are more involved in the rearing of their children.
To conclude, I have to rely on my analysis of the equality in work part of the question because in my experience it is economic independence which is the prerequisite for personal independence for both men and women. Once independent then you can set your own agenda. If you are educated, employable, employed, valued economically for your choice to work within the home, it alleviates the total sense of worthlessness and enables a person to choose to extricate oneself from a relationship which is detrimental. Alongside this, the social welfare system is there to assist you, based on your own specific contributions, in the event of illness, retirement, unemployment. Alternatives are available to engage in further education retaining your unemployment benefits. It enables the woman to take back her personality and sense of worth. It is hard to move traditional interpretations of the woman whose function as stated by the Constitution is defined as Wife and Mother. However, times are changing. The European Initiatives such as Horizon, NOW, the funds provided to the FAS programme, all indicate a focus of attention on women to be non dependent. Women form a large part of the labour force and their contribution to GNP is relevant. They presently have a longer life expectancy than men and given the demographics of ageing populations, it is probable that the initiatives to keep them in employment or return them to employment, are economically led. Women are an under-utilised resource, so let’s hope as social change progresses onwards, equality will apply. It should be our ambition to become, in political terms, like the Scandinavian countries, a “Consensual Democracy”.
14th May 1997 (Uploaded to WordPress.com and links added 18th January 2016)
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