Monday, 8 March 2021
International Women's Day: Statements
I thank Members for the opportunity to speak today about equal opportunities and access for women in all spheres of life, whether it be economic, social, cultural or political. It is important that we have these debates to keep the issue of gender equality live in mainstream politics. I welcome the initiative of the Irish Women's Parliamentary Caucus to raise the matter. I note the appropriateness of Senator O'Loughlin chairing this session given her role as chairperson of the women’s caucus. I believe the caucus has been an important and significant development in how, as an Oireachtas, we come together to tackle the issues and barriers towards women's participation in politics and all spheres of life in a co-operative and cross-party manner.
As Senators will be aware, the theme chosen this year for International Women's Day by UN Women is "Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world." This theme encourages us to celebrate the tremendous efforts made by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the pandemic.
I will speak about the work that is under way across Government to support these principles. Before I do that I would like to reflect for a few moments on the impact the Covid-19 pandemic and all events that surround it have had on women and girls in Ireland and worldwide.
Since February last year, almost 215,000 people in Ireland are confirmed as having contracted Covid-19. We have lost over 4,000 family members, neighbours and friends to this disease. Women are a majority, 52.5%, of confirmed cases and a little under half, 49.8%, of those who have lost their lives. The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many existing inequalities in society, including inequality that disadvantages women. Healthcare workers are among the occupations most at risk of contracting Covid-19 and make up approximately 26,500, or 12% of the cases. Women are over-represented in the sectors with greater exposure to infection and the sectors with greatest exposure to job losses. Women have carried an unequal share of the unpaid work of keeping families going. Across the population, women's days involve longer hours and increased stress with implications for their physical and mental health and well-being. The Central Statistics Office surveys have highlighted that women's well-being is being more adversely affected by the Covid-19 crisis. Women are disproportionately victims of domestic and gender-based violence and at greater risk. An Garda Síochána has reported a 17% rise in calls relating to domestic abuse in 2020, and the response of the Garda through Operation Faoiseamh has been crucial in ensuring that victims can access the supports they need throughout the pandemic.
In addition, my Department has increased funding for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services through Tusla by €4.7 million to a total of €30 million in 2021. Domestic violence is not a product of the crisis, however. Sadly, it will remain with us into the future. In keeping with the commitment in the programme for Government, my Department is examining the introduction of paid leave for victims of domestic and intimate partner violence. I note that Sinn Féin brought forward legislation dealing with this issue last year.
As part of the process of addressing the issue of paid domestic violence leave, I have already begun engaging in consultations with service providers, victims' groups, trade unions and employer representative groups. Following these consultations I will be bringing forward legislative proposals.
As I said earlier in the Seanad today, the Government is also advancing an audit of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services and responsibility across Departments and State agencies. Tusla is undertaking an accommodation review to ascertain the degree of accommodation present for victims.These actions together represent the action the Government is taking against the epidemic of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in our society.
Covid-19 presented to us as a health crisis, but also as an economic crisis and a social crisis. In our response to the Covid-19 crisis we are afforded an opportunity to re-examine old certainties, to call out and challenge gender stereotypes and attitudes that have restricted opportunities for women and men for so long and to reshape society for the better. A patriarchal society still exists, sexism still exists and women must still face misogyny in everyday life. The world we live in has been transformed entirely by the pandemic. We need to make sure that as we emerge from these difficult times, equality and gender equality are at the forefront of our minds. We have the opportunity to change the world for the better and we must seize that opportunity.
One of my early decisions on taking on this ministerial portfolio has been to chair the strategy committee overseeing the implementation of the national strategy for women and girls and to extend the strategy to the end of 2021. As we look forward to renewed effort to draw the current strategy to a close, it is important that we acknowledge the achievements realised in advancing women’s leadership since the strategy was launch in 2017. I have set an ambitious work programme to be achieved by my Department under the strategy this year that will involve expanding the family leave available, including the Government’s commitment for a Bill to extend parental leave, which we will address in the Seanad on Friday. If we are to better support women in employment, we need to improve how women are treated throughout the whole pregnancy and improve the supports provided to women after the birth of a child.
The First 5 strategy includes a commitment to undertake a review of the relevant provisions of the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Act 2004 on the issue of extending the current entitlement to paid breastfeeding breaks or paid reduction in working hours for breastfeeding mothers in the workforce from 26 to 104 weeks after the baby's birth. It is proposed to take forward legislative proposals in this regard late in 2021. We also intend to take forward the Gender Pay Gap Information Bill 2019 in the coming weeks. I will be seeking Cabinet approval for an amended Bill in the next fortnight and I hope to see this legislation resumed in the Dáil after Easter and subsequently rapidly passed and enacted.
Childcare, one of the "5-C" barriers named in Senator Bacik's report for this House as potential barriers to women's engagement in political leadership, is an issue we are determined to tackle. In particular, my Department continues to invest in the national childcare scheme and has begun to look at the potential for family leave for Members of the Oireachtas and its legal and practical implications.
Reflecting on this year's theme of equal access and opportunities for women, it is important that we commend those sectors where progress has been made in increasing women's representation. Sectors in which the greatest gains are being made include those where we have begun to measure and track systematically the representation of women in leadership. In business leadership, the balance for better business initiative has shone a spotlight on gender balance in the governance of our largest companies and the benefits to be accrued by greater diversity. Following a proactive focus, the representation of women among directors of the largest publicly listed companies in Ireland has increased by over nine percentage points, from 18.1% in 2018 to 27.4% in September 2020.
In higher education and research, the measures set out in a national review in 2016 and a task force in 2017 are accelerating progress towards gender equality. To support and ensure sustainable change, a centre for excellence in gender equality is established in the Higher Education Authority and institutions have adopted the Athena SWAN charter. The Government is also investing in the senior academic leadership Initiative, creating additional posts to accelerate gender balance. In 2015, 81% of professorial positions were held by men; by 2019 this was 74%. Leadership and governance is one of the four key strategic areas on which the Sport Ireland policy on women in sport is based. In line with this policy, Sport Ireland now publishes biannual updates of female representation on the boards of sports national governing bodies funded by the State. Female representation, at 24% in 2019, increased to 29% in the first update. This monitoring has grounded Sport Ireland's investment in female leadership capacity and guides governance best practice that supports gender equity.
These are just some examples of the achievements of recent years under the existing strategy. As we move to looking at what will follow the strategy, I want to identify the key areas in which we can make a difference in the coming years.I thank the Acting Chairperson for facilitating the debate and look forward to the contributions from Senators across the House. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will conclude for the Government so I will take this opportunity to wish all Senators a happy International Women's Day.