Monday, 8 March 2021
International Women's Day: Statements
I thank the Minister for being here. I am going to heavily focus my contribution on women who have been impacted by Covid. Before I do so, I want to acknowledge that when one talks about gender quotas, gender balance on boards, and the gender pay gap, for example, it sometimes feels like those issues are far away from me, my life and where I have come from. These are conversations that we definitely do not have in my community. If we really want to look at the intersectionality of life, women and International Women's Day, we also need to look at housing, access to child maintenance, lone parent family payments and women being able to live a life free of suffering. These women may never have an interest in boards or decision making. They just want to live a life free of suffering with access to healthcare and a decent standard of life and they want to be able to parent and to bring their children up in a community where they can flourish. We have mentioned gender quotas and the theme of "choose to challenge". We have an opportunity to challenge in the upcoming by-election. We can talk about women entering politics and gender quotas but we have to move away from saying we care about female representation and actually act. There is one black woman councillor from Longford and another woman of colour from Dublin who want to be on the ticket, but they are being blocked. If we want to use International Women's Day to challenge and to protest, I ask those in other parties to refuse to put their names beside the other candidates running and give the nomination to women. There is no point in just having gender quotas. We also need to use every other opportunity to make sure women are on the ticket instead of only being forced to have them with quotas. We have an opportunity to have two new female colleagues in here with us next month. I ask members of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party to have a think about that. They should choose to challenge and choose to put their names beside somebody else on the ticket. That would be a huge move for us in the Seanad this year, to make sure we give an opportunity for two women of colour to join us here next month.
Regarding Covid and women, we are 12 months into a global pandemic and I am spending today thinking about how the virus, its public health impacts and our policy responses to it have specifically and disproportionately affected women. Covid-19 has hit society at all levels, including health, economics and education, and has been at the heart of our political discussions. As we emerge from these measures, we must ensure we address the unequal and unfair impact this pandemic and its resulting restrictions have had on Ireland's women. A recent report from the OECD, which measures female economic empowerment, has shown that the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting Government responses have disproportionately affected women. At the end of 2021, the number of women at work will have regressed to 2017 levels, with a 2.1% drop predicted. While Ireland has improved in reducing the pay divide between men and women, despite a lack of progression by the Government of the gender pay gap legislation, the rise in the unemployment rate here has been larger for women than males during the pandemic, as is the case in many countries.
When considering the health and well-being of women who have remained in work, research from the US and the UK found that working women reported chronic stress levels 40% higher than the average person. This steadily increased with the extended restrictions. I hope we will consider and try to understand why women are dropping out of the workforce and explore what we can do to support these women to return to work. It is on us now to find ways to reduce the stress women are feeling across Ireland. One key reason for job losses is the high proportion of females employed in the industries most impacted by the pandemic. These include low-paid professions, service roles and care professions. Further to this, the closure of schools and childcare services has increased the in-home caregiving obligations for women. Research has often shown that women assume more care responsibilities than men and Covid-19 restrictions have added to women's burdens. They have created a tipping point for some women in their work and home life balance that I am concerned we might not be able to rescue if we do not take radical action to rebalance the care responsibilities.
Dr. Katriona O'Sullivan of the ALL Institute in Maynooth University has been interviewing women and children across Ireland and examining their experiences of the pandemic. The findings of this work to date are stark. The research observed that fathers were less likely to reduce work hours than mothers in light of Covid-19 restrictions. The distribution of homeschooling and childcare responsibilities was uneven. Mothers are unfairly expected to manage work, home and education. A survey of families undertaken by Dr. O'Sullivan revealed that 10% of mothers surveyed had lost their jobs due to the added pressure of homeschooling. These were women in positions such as pharmacists, legal workers and many others who felt they could not manage this situation well. A further 25% of women had reduced their working hours and over 65% reported underperforming in their work life. Many stated that they went to bed feeling they had failed their families and their employers. This is not breaking news. In 2020, the United Nations stated that families' inability to access institutional and community childcare during the lockdown placed a heavier burden on women, restricting their work capacity. One parent described her experience as "extremely stressful to the point of causing depression. Inadequate. Children falling behind and suffering despite my enormous efforts", while another stated, "It is torture. There are tears every day. I hate how it affects our relationship."Another says there are tears every day and every minute, "either mine or theirs". Parents report being tired and pressurised. Home schooling causes tension with the children and makes them feel inadequate. They describe the impact on their mental health and that of their children and how being home all day is affecting the whole family.
When we look at Ireland's response to Covid-19, we must consider whether the problems that have arisen have been born of the structure of the governance processes themselves. Female representation in the Oireachtas still lags behind European levels despite the excellent work of organisations such as Women for Election, and I am lucky to sit on its board. Even the specific institutions managing Covid-19 responses such as NPHET and the Cabinet Covid subcommittees are scandalously male. Suppose all the decisions around schooling, employment supports and the language we use are made by men? How can we be sure our policies are not directly affecting women? Suppose a mother trying to manage three different children with three different home schooling scenarios has been sitting at the decision table, would we have done things differently?
As we enter the week of the woman and prepare to celebrate Mother's Day, we must consider the inequalities facing women and how Covid-19 has shone a light on the imbalance in home-work-life structures and the physical and emotional burdens women carry. Public discussion around Covid-19 needs to consider its long-term impact on women and, in turn, their families. We know the burdens of Covid-19 are causing adverse psychological outcomes and higher rates of severe psychological distress for mothers compared with men. Some 32% of fathers and 57% of mothers reported a deterioration in mental health since the beginning of the pandemic, suggesting mothers take on a significant proportion. With that in mind, we should rethink the support systems we have put in place and begin to use language that acknowledges the incredible sacrifices women and mothers are making to ensure our families survive.
Ní saoirse go saoirse na mban.