Monday, 8 March 2021
International Women's Day: Statements
I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving us this opportunity to mark International Women's Day in the Chamber, and thank the Leader and the leaders of the different groups in the House for agreeing with that. I also thank the Cathaoirleach for inviting me, as chair of the Oireachtas Women's Caucus, to chair this session.
As we gather in this Chamber to mark International Women's Day, we must thank all those who have gone before us and upon whose shoulders we stand. We remember Countess Constance Markievicz, the first woman ever elected and of course the very first female Minister. To think that over 100 years later we have had just over 100 women elected is quite simply incredible. I am sure it is not what she anticipated at that time. We must think also of the number of firsts we have had with women in Leinster House and outside it, including: the first woman Minister for Justice, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who went on to become the first female European Commissioner; Mary Harney, who was the first female Tánaiste; and Mary Robinson, formerly a Member of this House and the first female President.I had a very engaging session earlier with the Association of Irish Local Government. Councillor Mary Hoade is the first female president of the association.
When we look back to the start of International Women's Day, we see that 15,000 women marched through New York city in 1908 demanding voting rights, better pay and shorter working hours. One year later, on 28 February 1909, the first national women's day was observed in the US. In 1910, a German woman, Clara Zetkin, called for an international women's day to be observed. A conference of over 100 women from 17 countries agreed and International Women's Day was created. In 1913, it was decided to transfer International Women's Day to 8 March and it has been celebrated on that day ever since.
The original aim of that day was to achieve full gender equality. More than 100 years later, this has not been realised in any field. This year's theme, therefore, of choose to challenge is very appropriate and more important than ever. In 2019, women essentially worked for free for 51 days of the year because of the gender pay gap. The World Economic Forum has stated that this pay gap would not be closed until 2186, a truly frightening prospect. I suspect that this is far worse because of the year we have just endured. According to research published two years ago, over one-third of women in the Irish workforce considered leaving or have left professional positions due to opportunity inequalities in their own company. The Duff and Phelps study revealed that 39% of female employees felt that there was a lack of equal opportunities in comparison with their male colleagues. Almost half of those who took part in the study thought the Government should improve shared parental leave options, 77% believed we should work on incentivising flexitime and remote working and 54% said we should force organisations to disclose their gender pay gaps. Two years later, we have learned so much more about remote working and how we can support that. I know the Minister will provide some information about legislation concerning the disclosure of gender pay gaps later.
It is very clear that Ireland needs equal opportunities for both genders to ensure we have a diverse and effective workforce. Today is also a day to reflect on progress we have made, celebrate and encourage the determination of ordinary women doing extraordinary things in our communities and press for change. It is also a time to think of our sisters in other countries with fewer rights than those enjoyed by us and to stand in solidarity with their struggle for equality.
I often think there is a huge responsibility on us as elected females to improve female participation in politics and improve the lives of women in this country. We need women at all levels to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation and make sure women's voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored. We know that women's voices make a difference. We know that 62% of local councils in India that were female-led had more water than those in male-led councils, while in Norway, there was a direct relationship between women on municipal councils and childcare provisions. Following the motion on period poverty from the women's caucus during the previous mandate, the programme for Government ensured that this was included.
As to the business of the day, there is no doubt that Covid has severely impacted women in many different ways, from the 78% of our front-line healthcare workers who are female to the women working in essential retail.All the time these women are trying to balance childcare and home schooling. Of course, it has equally impacted on women who do not have employment opportunities because other retail and hospitality have been closed as well. That further widens the gender pay gap and one can see that at present, 4% more women than men are unemployed.
At this stage I will ask the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, to make a contribution of ten minutes. He is very welcome.
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.
I thank the Minister. In the spirit of true co-operation and solidarity among female representatives, I thank Senator McGreehan for agreeing to swap her time allocation with Senator Chambers before the Brexit committee begins.
I thank Senator McGreehan for facilitating me to make a contribution to today's important debate. I wish all of my colleagues a happy International Women's Day. The women leaders in my life are my mum, Mary, my grannies, Phyllis and Bridie, and my three sisters, Ciara, Michelle and Karen. They are my inspiration for the work that I do, the people who surround me every day and drive me to do the work that I do to make this a better country for the women and girls coming up behind us. We all know the statistics and are very much familiar with the gaps and imbalance that still persists for women in Irish life. While we have come a long way, the biggest impediment now to achieving true equality is the notion that we have already got there, that equality is done and dusted and already achieved. We have not achieved equality and there is a long way to go.
Some of the pushback that I often get is that others ask why I am still discussing the matter because I am in politics, got elected and can do whatever I want. It is not as simple and obvious as that but those barriers are real, ever present and there to be taken down. It is incumbent on us, as public representatives, to lead and be role models for young girls coming behind us, and to young boys who are coming along the way. Those boys should see that this is a country that values equality and wants to reach a point where we can truly say that men and women are equal in all aspects of Irish life.
When we look at our Parliament, less than 23% of Deputies are female and 40% of Senators are female. The percentage of Senators is an example of what can be achieved with determination to achieve balance. Only 25% of councillors are female and there is a considerable imbalance across the regions. Mayo County Council has 30 councillors, only two of whom are female. There is a huge imbalance between rural and urban Ireland at local government level and that needs to be addressed.
We know that Equal Pay Day falls on 9 November. That is the day on which women in this country stop getting paid, effectively, because of the 14.4% gap in gender pay. We think that happens in other countries but not here. It does happen here. Women get paid less and that has a knock-on effect on pensions in later life. Women are at greater risk of being in poverty in later years.
We also know that female representation on boards is not where it needs to be. Only 10% of women comprise corporate boards in this country. The figure is slightly better for State boards where women represent 36% of the total but there is still a bit to go before equality is achieved. Only 7% of women lead those boards. We have a long way to go yet.
It is important that we ask why there is such low representation of women in, for example, political life. Why are women not attracted to entering politics, running for election and staying in politics? What are the challenges that persist? There are times when I get quite frustrated that the debate always seems to centre around caregiving and childcare, as if those things are only the responsibility of women. We know that those issues are significant barriers for women because, time and time again, they are identified as the key reasons women feel they cannot enter public life. They also leave public life for those reasons because they find the balance hard to strike. That is because women are still the primary caregivers in many families and that pressure still falls to them. That is why we, as legislators, need to do an awful lot more to address parental leave to give fathers that opportunity to take time off to be at home so that the women who want and choose to go back to work earlier, or whenever they choose to go back, have the option to do so. As it stands, the high cost of childcare is a financial barrier to some women getting back to work and some families would be worse off if the women went back to work.
We need to challenge some of the stereotypes that persist about women in leadership positions, not only in political life, but in business and every aspect of Irish life. We often hear a man described as ambitious, a great negotiator or a strong advocate for X, Y or Z. A woman who adopts a similar stance is often seen as aggressive, not very nice or a little bit cold. That is the terminology, the language we use to describe women who are just doing their jobs well, want to be ambitious and to succeed in their careers. The words we use to describe women who follow those pathways are always negative while positive wording is used to describe men in similar positions.Sometimes women can be as difficult when criticising each other. It is as important that we do not pull the ladder up after ourselves and that we encourage women to enter politics, public life and business. We should be there to facilitate others coming through and make that as easy as we can. That is why the work of organisations such as Women For Election is fantastic. I have been involved with that organisation since its inception. I have been through all of its training programmes. The training was top class and I learned so much in those programmes, and the collegiality was also fantastic. I met women from all different parties and none. Some of us entered the Oireachtas together, at the same time. It was fantastic to have access to people who came from different walks of life and wanted to enter into politics, and maybe had different perspectives, but that was okay. I thank the Acting Chairperson for facilitating me. I appreciate Senator McGreehan letting me in. I thank the Minister for being here and wish everybody a happy International Women's Day.
Today is a day for women to celebrate but also a day for raising awareness about socioeconomic issues that affect women. It is no exaggeration to say that women in today's society face multiple disparities, from unequal pay in their workplaces to housewife values being imposed upon them in their home life through discrepancies in the system that governs them. All women in Ireland, irrespective of background, face sexism. It is a systemic issue that is present in all facets of society.
In the history of the Seanad, there has only been one female Cathaoirleach, Tras Honan, who was elected in 1982. In 2018, Ireland was ranked the tenth lowest in the EU by the Central Statistics Office for representation of women in the national Parliament, with 22.2% of Deputies being women. In the current Dáil, this percentage has increased by less than 5%. Ten counties have not elected any female independents into local government. There are only four elected female Independent Deputies, who are Deputies Catherine Connolly, Carol Nolan, Marian Harkin and Verona Murphy, along with the five Independent Senators here.
Only three women of colour are currently elected into local government, namely, Hazel Chu in Dublin, Yemi Adenuga in Meath and Uruemu Adejinmi in Longford. No woman of colour has been elected into these Houses. The upcoming by-election for the vacant Seanad positions was a groundbreaking opportunity for political parties to rectify the lack of representation in this House. There is no doubt that women of colour face double the barriers that white women do. This by-election could have been an ideal time in our history to promote our diverse political talent.
I want to shed light on the problems that young women face when growing up. My 16-year-old foster daughter wrote about her experience as a young teenage girl, stating that her experience of sexism has been covert. Since primary school, she has noted differences in the way girls are treated as opposed to boys. She wrote that when studying traditionally male-dominated subjects, such as technical graphics and mathematics, she finds herself being patronised by her male classmates or receiving unsolicited explanations from them. She states that in projects, it is always easier to talk over a girl than a boy and that even in social life, girls are expected to laugh at every joke a boy makes or else be labelled stuck-up, and to brush off sexist behaviour because that is how boys are. She writes that the pressure to crave male validation is ingrained in our culture.
The next paragraph is from my 27-year-old daughter, Aoise, about her experience as a young woman in business. She writes that she co-founded her business with two other women. The business delivers procurement services for businesses and public sector organisations. She states that the procurement space is not an easy one for women. It is often led and made up of white, grey men. She states that having spent the last number of years building the business, they have endured countless sexist encounters, been ignored at networking events, been paid less for speaking slots and have been congratulated for being a lady in business. Would one believe that is possible? She states that it represents a change in the way things are being done and the way business is done. That is something to be celebrated. Today is also about celebrating women, and in that spirit I would like to herald all the independent elected women of Ireland. Some of them have been fighting the system for years. Some got into politics in order to create a better future for children. I think especially today of Councillor Ann Norton in County Clare and Councillor Maeve Yore in County Louth. Councillor Miriam Murphy in Wicklow has been a trailblazer for women with disabilities. I also think of strong independent women like Councillor Niamh Kennedy in Donegal, Councillor Marie Casserly in Sligo, Councillor Mary Roche in Waterford and Councillor Mary Farrell in County Wexford have been elected and re-elected by their communities. Some elected independent women found that party politics did not believe in them. I think today of Councillor Mary Linehan Foley from Cork. One could not find a better, hard-working councillor. Under the guidance of Councillor Marcia D'Alton, who is passionate about the environment and protecting nature, the people of Passage West are in safe hands. Councillor Lorna Bogue recently joined the independent ranks when she found her policies were different from those of her political party. Nevertheless, Lorna is out there working for the people daily.
I want to highlight the work of the Dublin councillors – Councillors Gráinne Maguire, Tania Doyle, Deirdre Donnelly, Anne Colgan, Noeleen Reilly and Liona O'Toole and the newly co-opted Councillor Patricia Kinsella. Given the large population growth and the diverse needs of the people they represent, these women never stop.
Great women like Councillor Terry O'Flaherty from Galway and Councillor Brigid Teefy have all given decades of their lives to public life and they must be commended. Councillors Geraldine Donohoe, Kara McHugh, Colette Connolly and Evelyn Parsons from Galway continue to be brilliant examples of politicians in the west.
I watch in envy daily our independent women changing communities and making a difference. I mention Councillors Mary Kavanagh, Mags Crean and Peir Leonard in County Wicklow. I commend the dedicated efforts of women like Councillor Anne Marie Ryan Shiner and the young Máirín McGrath in Tipperary for showing leadership in their municipal areas. The people of Kerry are equally blessed with Councillor Maura Healy-Rae. No one would ever doubt the commitment the Healy-Raes give to their people. I have no doubt Councillors Maura Healy-Rae and Mairín McGrath will have a place in these Houses one day.
Independent Councillor Fiona McLoughlin Healy in Kildare is a strong force within local government for corporate governance. Councillor Ida Cousins in Kildare is another tireless worker for her community. Councillors Kathleen Shanagher and Valerie Byrne are two formidable and driving forces in County Roscommon. It is great to see young women like Councillor Elisa O'Donovan in Limerick not being afraid to simply get out and do what needs to be done. Last but by no means least, Councillors Amanda Smith, Gillian Toole and Geraldine Keogan are all strong public representatives for County Meath.
I want all the elected women of Ireland to know that I see them and I will continue to support them to deliver better for their communities. We must now look at ways to move forward and create a more equal society. I believe the key to this is to support women in their socioeconomic pursuits, dismantling toxic beliefs towards women and empowering female youth to recognise their talent. In a world that oftentimes pushes women to the sidelines, we must step up and fight for the rights that we deserve and create our own platform to uplift each other. We must take the initiative, observe the problems around us and take action to solve them. We must work as a collective in order to ensure gender equality for future generations. Contrary to what society has taught us, it is not a competition, it is a collaboration. That said, I do not want today to be taken as a token and for the Minister to sympathise with us now and to forget about it tomorrow. We are worthy of much more. Personally, I thank all the women who have made me the person I am today and stuck with me and by me to reach my goals.
It is great to be here on International Women's Day. The theme of this year's International Women's Day is choosing to challenge. That is something that can resonate with all of us, men or women. We must challenge the status quo, policy, gender balance, inequality, sexism and misogyny.Yet, as a woman, I do not want to focus on those gendered issues, and I do not want to be defined by my ability to challenge them. I do not want that for my daughters, Poppy and Heidi, nor do I want it for my sons, Charlie and George, to grow up believing that women and girls have continually to prove themselves and keep challenging those glass ceilings and walls that restrict them.
Recently I did an interview for International Women's Day with one of my local newspapers, the Tullamore Tribune. The interview went through my childhood, early life, education and my life in politics. I was asked if I had ever felt any of it was especially challenging as a woman and I had to think. I could not say I particularly felt challenged because of my gender during many of the different things I have done throughout my life, from studying, working in all sorts of jobs or even life in academia. I could easily say, however, that politics has been the most challenging thing I have done because of my gender, and entering Government seems to have opened up a whole new level of challenge. It is not just the demands of the job, the public-facing aspect of it and managing the expectations; that is all doable. The most challenging element is probably learning to deal with the nastiness that now seems endemic among some in our society. While all of this applies to both male and female politicians, the personalisation towards females, in particular, is concerning, and my Government colleague, Senator Lisa Chambers, has spoken eloquently about this in the past.
In some respects, we have to become less human as we grow that thick skin deemed necessary to be a politician. We become desensitised to the spite and, essentially, normalise this malevolent behaviour towards politicians. To me, that is a really sad state of affairs because of all the traits we should have in our politicians, humanity should be right up there. Someone said to me once that it goes with the territory and no one forced me to enter politics, which basically means we all have to put with it and politicians are fair game. Should that be acceptable? Should anyone have to put up with such abuse as part of their job? I think not.
For me, at the moment, however, I feel I am strong enough to put with it but the same cannot be said for others. There are also ramifications, for example, for my children and for my elderly parents, who get upset when they see abuse aimed at their daughter. I am sure that may well be the same for other politicians, too, and their families, and that is upsetting. What perhaps is most damaging of all is that it can be so off-putting for women, in particular, to consider entering politics in the first place. This is besides all the other barriers we all know exist to female participation in politics.
It is well accepted now that every organisation, political or otherwise, functions better with more gender balance and more gender equality. Political parties now have quotas for female candidates in general elections, and there have been calls for the same in local elections. Quite simply, despite what anyone might think of this, if we do not have sufficient numbers of female candidates actually running in elections, then we will never have sufficient numbers in office, because women in politics are amazing. There are some incredible female voices here in the Seanad across all parties and Independents, not least my own Green Party colleagues, Senators Pauline O'Reilly and Róisín Garvey - two formidable women indeed. The importance of female leadership contributions cannot be overstated. Every parliament and organisation will fail to reap the benefits by not having a gender-balanced membership.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the gender balance in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine when I joined last summer. Of the 3,800 or so people working in the Department, nearly 1,800 are female, which is not far short of 50%. More to the point, they are excellent colleagues working, as I have discovered, at all levels from senior management to clerical and across all areas such as administrative, inspectorate, veterinary, laboratory and professional services. These people are really talented women.
However, beyond my Department, the agriculture sector is still heavily dominated by men. One only has to look at the membership of the executive committees of the main farming organisations to see just how gross an imbalance there is in them. In fact, it was a pleasure for me to meet recently with a relatively new farming organisation called Talamh Beo and it was so refreshing to see more women than men on the Zoom call, and that is important. When I think about the many wonderful female farmers I know, they are innovative, have made changes to their farms, have taken risks and have diversified. They have challenged the status quo, and those are exactly the characteristics we need in the farmers of the future.The most challenging aspect of being a politician for me, and for other women I know, is being a mother. My decision to enter politics five years ago has taken a toll on my family life. Of that, there is no doubt. There are sacrifices to be made and precious moments must be missed but, for me, the support of my husband, Mark, and my mother, Jeannie, has allowed me to pursue this path. It simply could not have happened without their help.
I greatly admire any woman who has managed to have a successful political career while at the same time rearing a family and, it is to be hoped, managing to have some spare time along the way. The current President of the European Commission, Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, comes to mind as a woman who is very much in charge of her brief, yet she is also a mother of seven and has juggled a prolific political career with family life, particularly when her children were young. Who has not admired Mary O'Rourke, a five-time Minister, a Deputy for nearly 25 years and also a Senator? Mary always speaks fondly of the essential support she received from her late husband, Enda, during her political career.
Yes, sisters are doing it for themselves but, behind every great woman lies what is perhaps the single greatest ingredient for success: a great man, a great partner, a great family or great friends. On this International Women's Day, I want to celebrate that and to thank those who make it possible for women to be the best they can be because that best can simply be better than all the rest.
I thank the Minister for being here today and for taking these statements on International Women's Day. The Minister of State has stolen my line. We had the same first sentence. The theme for this year's International Women's Day is "choose to challenge". This indicates that a challenged world is an alert world and that from challenge comes change. My challenge relates to who is making the decisions and who has a seat at the table.
I will begin by quoting the late US Supreme Court judge, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who said "Women belong in all places where decisions are being made." To be fair, I believe that does not only apply to women. I believe that all those affected by decisions should have a seat at the table where they are made and that we should have diversity and inclusion across all of Parliament, the Legislature.
I was introduced to speaking out for women when I was a very little girl when a new church was opened in Clondalkin, where we then lived. The priest announced from the altar on the first Sunday that he was looking for men to volunteer to be readers at mass and for women to volunteer to clean the church. My mother was the sole objecting voice to find that announcement offensive and to challenge it. It took the voice of a woman to point out the blatant stereotyping and discrimination. It took a pregnant woman sitting at the Cabinet table for the blatant discrimination of the lack of maternity provision for politicians to get a proper debate and resolution. Let us remind ourselves that this is 2021. We will shortly celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the foundation of the State but, with regard to the function of the reproduction of our population, maternity leave for legislators is still not an entitlement. The case for councillors is similar. Arrangements need to be put in place to address their needs in respect of having children and childcare, an issue I urgently want addressed.
Throughout the crisis, women have been disproportionately affected in terms of their sexual and reproductive health. For example, it is difficult to get a determination from the Department of Health on whether travelling abroad for IVF treatment is deemed essential. For a couple desperate to have a baby, as time is ticking and against them, this journey is, without doubt, absolutely essential. The review of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 has commenced. We are now three years on and still women have to travel. This needs to be addressed with the review. Who will be at that table and who will conduct that review? There are matters still outstanding including access to contraception, ensuring that sex education is universally and uniformly delivered, and ensuring a woman's safe passage to a doctor's clinic when seeking abortion services. We need to make sure that no one is left behind in this review.
There are similar issues with regard to assisted human reproduction. Without ensuring that the right voices are at the table, we may well walk into passing an impotent law that disenfranchises most of those who need it.The Oireachtas is preparing to introduce the assisted human reproduction, AHR, Bill. The current commentary by the AHR coalition is that the legislation is not fit for purpose and ignores the calls from groups most affected by its provisions, including Equality for Children, LGBTQ groups, Surrogacy Ireland, Families for Surrogacy, 221 Plus, cystic fibrosis service advocates, the National Infertility Support and Information Group and many more. The proposed scope for surrogacy under the Bill is limited and does not have significant cognisance of the plight of families wrestling with infertility that is medically or socially caused. Pre-approval, altruistic, domestic provision and a raft of other models are covered, but what about the survivors of cervical cancer who are excluded from bearing their own children, those who were born without a uterus and those who are wrestling with infertility where the cause is undiagnosed and who have been abandoned to unregulated private medicine? What about single women who want to access IVF services or all those longing to be parents? They will be left behind by this Bill, which proposes a regime that has been in operation in Canada and the UK for some years but which is now under review because it has been shown to be not fit for purpose in how it has played out.
What of the mothers of surrogate-born children who are not recognised as mothers by the State? They were given some comfort and status by the Children and Family Relations Act 2015, in which they were designated as custodians and guardians, but they remain susceptible to the precarious whim of their spouses for even that unsatisfactory legal status relationship with their much-longed for and loved children, the children whom they have nurtured since before conception and, through no fault of their own, could not carry in their own wombs. What of the children already born via surrogacy, citizens of this State who are in a precarious position in terms of their entitlement to those mothers and to their inheritance rights from same? We are leaving them behind.
We are at a juncture where the proposed legislation is drafted by those who, by the stroke of fate, have no need of it and is set to ignore the voices of those who are most crying out for it. That is because the most affected are not at the decision-making table and the discourse about them is sometimes only short of branding them as child abusers. Today, I welcome and embrace the theme of International Women's Day. Today, I am choosing to challenge. If we are to live in a truly inclusive and just society that legislates for ethics rather than morals, we must ensure that the voices not at the table are heard and acted on.
I will end with a poem written by the mother of a surrogate-born child who was unable to carry her own. It reads:
Not flesh of my flesh,
nor bone of my bone,
but still miraculously my own.
Never forget for a single minute,
you didn't grow under my heart,
but in it.
To those women who have wrestled with their fertility, I dedicate this day and my speech.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for attending this morning to deal with the Labour Party's Commencement matter on the gender pay gap. I wish colleagues a happy International Women's Day. Today has a long and proud history. We started International Women's Day as a day of protest, struggle and socialist and feminist campaigning for women's rights. It was only in 1977 that the United Nations recognised 8 March as an international day for women everywhere. Only in recent years in Ireland has it become a day of celebration more than just a day of protest. As a student in Trinity College Dublin in the 1980s, it was a day of protest and for pointing out so much that was wrong for women and so much law that needed to change, in particular laws on reproductive rights, healthcare, abortion rights and contraception.
I am struck by the personal stories that Senators have told the House, how much resonance there still is and how much remains to be done.While we are now celebrating the repeal of the eighth amendment in 2018 and the reform of much of the law that was so problematic for women in the 1980s, we still face very significant burdens and obstacles.
I thank the Minister for acknowledging the report I compiled for the justice committee in 2019, on women's participation in politics, in which we produced a clear outline of the evidence as to the barriers women face, not just in political careers but in all careers and professions. We named those barriers in respect of politics the five Cs but four of those Cs apply in every walk of life for women. They are a lack of cash, a lack of confidence, an old boys' culture and a lack of access to childcare. At every forum at which I have spoken and from any woman I know in any job or profession, I have found that those four Cs hold us back as women in our career progression.
In politics, as we all know, there is a fifth C, candidate selection procedures in political parties. We sought to address that through the gender quota legislation in 2012. That is very welcome and there has been some improvement for women in politics but, as others have said, a great deal more still needs to be done. When the 30% quota was first introduced in the 2016 election, the proportion of elected female Deputies jumped from its previous high of 14% to 22%. Unfortunately, however, in last year's election, there was a stagnation, with just 22.5% of Deputies being women, or 36 of 160. In the Seanad, we are all aware of how much better we are, with 24 women of 60 Senators, or 40%, the highest we have ever had. It makes a difference in our collegiate working, in our collaborative practices in the House and in the sort of legislation we debate.
I speak as someone who, when I was first elected in 2007, saw how pale, male and stale Irish politics was. It has changed and is changing, and given that there will be a 40% gender quota for the next general election, we can all anticipate that there will be an improvement in the numbers of women not only put forward in the election as candidates but also elected. It is not inevitable that that will happen, however, and we must keep pushing for it. It was depressing for me to look today at the International Parliamentary Union, IPU, table and to see we have slipped again. A year ago, we were 92nd in the world classification table for women's representation, and while that was not a cause for celebration, we are 101st today. We have slipped down further.
It is not that our numbers have disimproved but that we have stood still while all around us other countries are improving, taking positive action measures and addressing those five Cs. I refer not just to the candidate selection procedure. Laws are being put in place in other countries that address women's lack of cash and the gender pay gap, and I am glad the Minister is moving swiftly on that. They are addressing childcare by putting in place longer paternity leave and proper accessible childcare for women. They are addressing all the other issues of culture and confidence through measures like those we in the Labour Party have proposed.
We have proposed that, for example, reproductive healthcare leave should be brought in so that women who have to take time off work for early miscarriage or IVF treatment will be enabled to do so. That is a very important step forward for women, along with so many issues that need to be improved on. We have today produced a manifesto called Working for Women and put forward some of the measures we think need to be taken on board by the Government. I look forward to sending the Minister a copy and to working collaboratively with him to ensure that Ireland is a better place for women in the years and decades to come. I hope we will not have to wait much longer to address those five Cs.
I thank the Minister for appearing before the House and for giving us the opportunity to make statements on International Women's Day. Over the past few years, I have grown uncomfortable with the way in which the day is celebrated because for me, the day was borne out of the struggle of the labour movement. In 1911, New York garment workers, mainly immigrants, marched and struck for decent, safe jobs after a fire killed 146 women in this low-paid, exploitative job. Their battle cry was not "lean in", "girl power" or "who runs the world?" but that basic guttural slogan "bread and roses". Today, social media platforms operated by rich tech companies profit from the online abuse of women, giving a platform to fast-fashion companies that profit from the sweat and labour of poor women, and offer discount codes to women in the name of girl power and female empowerment based on a notion that they come through purchasing power.For me, International Women's Day is not a day about women in leadership or the corporate board, but it is a very real basic fight for safe working conditions and equality. That is its historical context.
This morning, fast fashion companies all over the world posted messages for International Women's Day, but how does their lip service to International Women's Day stack up? This year, Boohoo.com was exposed by The Sunday Timesfor poor pay and working conditions at its UK factories. It paid an undercover reporter as little as £3.50 per hour. Many people turned to Amazon during the pandemic, but we know its workers are under so much pressure to make Jeff Bezos richer that they are not allowed to take toilet breaks. More than a century after New York garment workers died in a devastating fire, 1,134 women died when a factory in Bangladesh collapsed. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, garment workers in countries such as Cambodia, Bangladesh and India work 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. That adds up to 96 hours per week. They work in conditions where they breathe in toxic substances and accidents and fires are frequent. Worldwide, 168 million children work in the fast fashion industry, earning as little as 22 p per day to satisfy our insatiable demand for girl boss clothing.
This International Women's Day, which is my first as a Member of this House, I want to remember the origins of the day. I stand in solidarity with the women who are in service to the fast fashion consumer industry from which we consume. The fight for bread and roses and the historical context of this day goes on through the fight for good quality jobs and workers' rights.
Guím Lá Idirnáisiúnta na mBan sona do gach éinne sa Teach. I used to love International Women's Day. It was a day to celebrate one's feminist heroes such as Kathleen Lynn - I am wearing a brooch commemorating her. She was a proud republican woman who fought for the freedom of her State, but she also played a significant role in addressing inequalities in mothers' and children's health and in the roll-out of the vaccination for tuberculosis. I hope the Government will review its decision not to name the national children's hospital after Dr Kathleen Lynn.
International Women's Day was also a day on which we had an opportunity to protest for real and radical reform. It may be that I am just tired now that I am in my forties, but I fear that in recent years International Women's Day has become a day when we talk a lot. We talk about the issues that affect women, the need for change and what the changes should be, but that is it. We talk and then the box is ticked for another year. The email inboxes of every Member of this House will today be flooded with messages of solidarity from corporations for International Women's Day, but tomorrow those corporations will go back to exploiting their workers, predominantly women, and perpetuating the gender pay gap.
On International Women's Day two years ago, the then Government ratified the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women. That move was welcomed by everyone in the political stream, but also by everybody who has worked on the front line of domestic violence services. However, two years have passed and there are still nine counties in this country without a single refuge space, while the Government continues to peddle a definition of providing one refuge space per 10,000 women rather than one per 10,000 of the population. Its choosing to use that definition makes Ireland an outlier in the EU. What is even more disturbing is that we are not even reaching that target. Under that definition, there should be 490 refuge spaces per head of population but currently there are only 141. This is at a time when the incidence of domestic violence has increased by 16% since the convention was ratified, but especially in the past year with the pandemic and the impact of lockdowns.
The requirement for self-isolation facilities has also reduced capacity. Saoirse women’s refuge in Tallaght has two emergency accommodation shelters but it has had to use one of those shelters for self-isolation, which has reduced the number of families it has been able to help.It is not just in a refuge capacity that we are still failing women who are coming out of situations of domestic violence. While legal aid for barring orders is covered under the Istanbul Convention, once a woman tries to rebuild her life after coming out of a violent situation; she can face further barriers in accessing the courts.
I mention the current discriminatory system of treating tenants who are eligible for local authority housing but who find themselves in the private rental sector due to the chronic shortage of public housing differently to local authority tenants. This effectively means that women are being blocked from accessing the courts. Treating the housing assistance payment, HAP, as income is preventing women from pursuing maintenance and from defending applications for access to children. It is a deeply unfair interpretation of the law. Every Member of this House knows that HAP is paid directly to the landlord and that it never passes the account of a tenant. It is almost definitely a contravention of Airey v.Ireland, where it was found to be unreasonable to expect one to have to defend oneself in the courts. By counting HAP as income, that is what this State is effectively doing and this is happening on a weekly basis, as will be confirmed by any of the domestic violence organisations.
It appears that it is not just in the case of civil legal aid where access to justice is problematic. The lack of free legal aid for the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, is also disproportionately impacting women. In today’s edition of The Irish Times, Eilis Barry, the chief executive of the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, said that it is almost certain that many employment discrimination or sexual harassment cases are simply not being taken. This is not because those breaches of the law are not happening. Rather, it is because the victims do not have the resources to get representation. While the opportunity is technically there for victims to represent themselves at the WRC, this provision does not take into account that people on lower incomes face greater levels of time poverty. This is especially true for women who take on more care work. Therefore, even if they wanted to represent themselves, women are at a disadvantage again. Workers in the lowest-paid jobs are being put in a vulnerable position. I know there is a commitment in the programme for Government to examine the issue of access to justice but it would be good to have clarity as to whether this will be an independent investigation or one that will be carried out internally within the Department of Justice.
I would like to express my solidarity with the ex-Debenhams workers who are predominantly female. They have been on the picket line for a total of 333 days. They have campaigned with bravery and dignity in pursuit of a fair redundancy package. They chose to challenge the unfairness of their situation. On International Women's Day, I call on the Government to listen to the demands of the ex-Debenhams workers. Their first ask is to make the €3 million training fund available as a cash payment and their second ask is to pass the legislation to prevent this from ever happening to workers in the future. That would be a true acknowledgement of International Women's Day.
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.
I stand here as a very proud member of mná na hÉireann, a descendant of our ancient warriors and modern rebels, from Queen Maeve, who battled in the mountains above my home to secure ownership of the Brown Bull of Cooley, to Granuaile the pirate queen, who proved her might on sea and was a formidable force in politics, to the more recent day heroes of my party, Fianna Fáil, such as one of our founders, Constance Markievicz. When I first learned of this woman and the other women of the early 1900s, who fearlessly fought to create a free, independent country, I could not believe there were such creatures who, amidst all the inequity, believed in something so fiercely, they went against the grain to create a new republic where equality of opportunity and equal rights were promised. For a wee girl, who from about seven years old dreamt one day of being a Member of one of these Houses, Constance had me at "hello". One of the first female Cabinet Ministers and the first woman in the world to be appointed Minister for Labour in 1919, she was elected to the Dáil to sit as a Fianna Fáil TD. At the time she passed away, she was an officeholder and a representative of Fianna Fáil. It makes me so immensely proud that, in some way, we all carry on her legacy.
However, women were erased from history, their involvement in our fight for the for the Republic was ignored. They were put back in the home to give birth, to become caregivers so that the men carry on with the work they believed they were destined to do. Ireland, in many ways, has been no country for women. The actions of State and church have proven this over and over again. We can look time and again at women's status, mother and baby homes, Magdalen laundries, and inadequate healthcare for women. The treatment of Noël Browne back in the day, when he tried to change things and make them a little bit better for women in this country, highlights where women were on the hierarchy of our society.
Today is about celebrating the many social, economic and cultural, political achievements of women. We all have our favourites. My mother, Carmel, my sister, Lorna, Marian Finucane, Mary O'Rourke, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Katie Taylor, Catherina McKiernan, Justice Catherine McGuinness, and Sinéad Burke are some of the many women who I look up to.
Today is a day of celebration, but it must be a day that acts as a catalyst for change. We need to use today to ask questions. Why is there still so much inequity? What can we all do, men and women? We know change needs everyone and is not for one gender to walk alone. Gender equality does not mean the differences between males and females disappear - far from it.We must create equity. Equity means recognising the glorious differences by creating fairness and a new normal so we can all achieve the same outcome. The gender pay gap is part of this inequity. In general, women in Ireland earn 14.4% less than their male counterparts. This is a critical issue and the pandemic has highlighted pay inequalities harshly. For example, in the earlier waves of job losses, female workers accounted for more than half of all pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, claims. As of 2 March 2021, the majority of women who were in receipt of the PUP were on rates below the top rate of €350 per week and accounted for the majority on the lower payment rates. The Government is progressing initiatives to address such inequalities and the Gender Pay Gap Information Bill 2019, which will be progressed, will assist in continuing to highlight and rectify the pay gap but it cannot come fast enough.
We also will never be able to say that gender inequality is gone until prejudice is overcome and we have eliminated the irrational bias people can have against somebody just because they are female. Equal rights are not enough. This inequality also exists in our minds, our biases and prejudices and remains to be fixed. We must tackle this unconscious bias. For example, when I was running in the 2019 local elections, I cannot count how many times I was asked who was going to look after my children. Imagine asking a man that question. It is something that simply would not come up. Moreover, the lack of inadequate childcare provision in this country is part of that unconscious bias. Part of our bias comes from our laws, our Constitution. We must mature as a country and realise that in cases where our Constitution, the basis for our laws, is outdated and innately biased against women, it must be changed. Article 41.2 effectively states a woman's place is in the home. This article refers to the State recognising the support women give in our country but it is just a platitude and platitudes do not pay the bills. Article 41.2 must be amended to be gender-neutral and to acknowledge the role of care in Irish society and there is a reason we are catching up on providing that adequate care for our most vulnerable. Why would the State choose to provide childcare or elder care when women were banned from the workplace? Their place was in the home, to look after their children and when that was done, to look after their aging parents. A women's place is where she chooses to be. A man's place is where he chooses to be. It is the job of the State to recognise this. The Constitution is an important document and it should be respected and protected but it must protect all of us.
This brings me to the value of our care economy. Millions of euro are provided to the State every year by men and women. However, there is a real inconsistency: care is mostly done by women, making possible much of the paid work which drives our market economy. Care work is also essential for advancing human capabilities, yet it tends to be unpaid. It is undervalued and often taken for granted. We must be radical, ambitious and willing to change. We must establish a working group to fully examine the value of care in our economy. It must highlight the critical contribution care workers make and help to ensure policies which recognise it. The division of paid and unpaid work is strongly gendered. We all know the supports for caring are at a low level and I can attest to the fact that combining paid work and caring is difficult.
There is so much I wish to say today but I simply do not have time. Gender-based violence, domestic violence and abuse, be it virtual or real, must be urgently addressed. However, today I choose to challenge. I choose to challenge those who stand in our way and those who do not put value on diversity and difference. I challenge us all to not leave any woman behind, to not make it an equality of privilege. We must hear the female voices and their stories. We need to be empowered by what women have done before us and what they have achieved in much harder times. It means an incredible amount to me to stand here as a daughter of Carmel O'Reilly, a granddaughter of Brigid O'Neill and of MaryRose McCann, who worked the land, created life, shaped the world and created a legacy today. I thank them and thank the woman who made all this possible. Seo é lá na mban. Éirigh suas agus bí láidir.
I start by wishing all my colleagues here and all those who work in the Houses of the Oireachtas a very happy International Women's Day because too often in our line of business, it is seen as a man's world. I want to mark my appreciation of the work of women at all levels and of all political colours who keep this place ticking over.
We are all aware that public representation in Ireland has never come close to being representative of the actual public. Less than a quarter of Deputies are women. This House is performing a little better but we all know that is because most of my party's females were appointed. I am very grateful for this but it is a real shame. We have a real problem with the electoral system. Of the women who have made it to these Houses, not just today but over the years, we were genuinely spoiled for talent. The leaders of four parties in this House are led by women. The Leader and Deputy Leader of the Seanad are female. However, we all know we have an awfully long way to go.
Fine Gael introduced gender quotas for general elections and they have been a major driver of increased female representation in the Dáil but they are not enough. Political parties must meet a 40% target for female candidates in respect of the general elections in 2023 to secure funding. We all know this will ruffle feathers and that it is a blunt and cruel way for us to try to increase representation of women in politics and political life. We do not like it, nor do we like the consistent references to us being token candidates or token women on the ticket. The very least we need to do is create a space for women to be able to put themselves forward and create the environment. The next step for all of us to make sure we continue to encourage women to be able to do that. A lot of the time, female politicians speak mostly in frustration about the barriers that face us in terms of helping to increase the number of women in politics at local and national level. While we are right to talk about the barriers - Senator Bacik spoke eloquently about them earlier on - and it is an awful pity that they are increasing rather than decreasing, when we talk about female representation, we must also talk about the balance in our arguments and the positives that female representation brings to the table. We bring balance to the debate. We bring an entirely different perspective based on our unique lived experience. It might seem like a soppy thing to say but we bring empathy and a caring approach that have sometimes been lacking in political decision-making throughout the country's history.
The equal involvement of women does and will provide better legislation, better outcomes and a better Ireland. I must be honest; I am proud to be a member of Fine Gael, the party that probably has had the most female Cabinet Ministers in the history of the State but I am not proud of the fact that there has only ever been 20. We have had our own instructive governance in this country for over 100 years but there have only been 20 females sitting around a Cabinet table during those 100 years - women like Gemma Hussey, Nora Owen and Frances Fitzgerald. They paved the way and smashed the ceiling before us but is it not awful that when we stand here to reflect on the women we are proud of, it is the same names that keep coming up because there were so few of them? We are proud of them but we need to be talking about the next generation. Twenty-two women in 100 years is an absolute joke.
While we are talking about women we are all incredible proud of, I would like to be selfish for a moment and talk about the woman who has been completely instructive in my role in political life. Maria Dalton is my mother. She was the person who first introduced me to politics when I probably was not even out of nappies. She brought me everywhere with her. She brought me to meetings. She brought me to Ard-Fheiseanna in my communion frock. She brought me leafletting. I was canvassing when I was big enough to walk. My first election memory was when she ran in 1979 when I was only eight years of age. She involved us completely in the campaign. She is my best friend, confidante and biggest cheerleader. She is probably my most constructive critic but I would never have made it this far without her love and support and I wanted to put that on the record of the House today.
We are choosing to challenge. While this day is one to celebrate and reflect, women are still not treated equally in the workplace, education and sport. The list goes on. While Senator McGreehan is right, if we do not have a real conversation about care - children's care, elder care and self-care - we will find ourselves here in ten or 20 years' time marking International Women's Day with the same arguments like Groundhog Day. The only way we will ever achieve equality of opportunity for women in every sphere is if men want it for us as much as we want it for ourselves.I am making the call-out today to all of our male counterparts and all our males in leading industry, medicine, education, science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Every section of life needs to want for our women what we want for ourselves. We choose to challenge. The road ahead of us looms. We will get there but I hope to God we are not standing here in 100 years' time with only another handful of women in charge of political leadership in this country.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire inniu agus guím Lá Idirnáisiúnta na mBan sona air agus ar gach duine eile anseo. Tá faitíos orm anois toisc gurb iad an tAire agus mé féin the only men in the room today.
We say we choose to challenge. I want to talk about a woman called Maureen Quigley, who chose to challenge. She was born in 1924. Senators can search all the history books they wish, but they will not find her. She raised eight wonderful daughters to be strong courageous women who set about challenging life every day of their lives. She was a woman who showed her daughters how to turn a 1 lb can of Heinz beans into 1.5 lbs of beans by pouring in half a can of water. She was a woman who showed her charity when five Traveller children turned up at her door one evening. As they were waiting for her to get some bread for them, they looked through the door and saw the television. They said, "Can we see the moving pictures, Missus?" She brought them in, sat them down and gave them their tea. She did that every day so that they could watch "Seoirse Agus Bartley" and "Dáithí Lacha". When the news came on they knew they had to go home.
Maureen Quigley was my mother. I grew up in a family of 11. All of us idolised my father. My mother was the engine room. We took it that she was there.
She never missed one occasion in my life. She turned up for my instigation as an altar boy. She was there when I went into the boy scouts and the FCA. When I joined the British Army, she came to my passing out. When I passed out in the Army, she was there. When I got my degree, she was there. She was never missing at any time in my life, and I never put any thought into it.
Shortly before she died I had the privilege of arriving in the nursing home on my own one day. She was sitting on the bed. She sat up with a big smile. She asked me what I was doing there. I said I came down to visit her. I said that on the way down I had thought about something and she asked what it was. I said I thought about the extraordinary influence she had had on my life. I said I would never have done anything but for the strong silent motivation that she provided for me and my brothers and sisters. She said, "Stop that now, stop that". Yet, she did. She drove all of us on to do wonderful things. If my father or mother had known I would be standing here today, I am unsure what they would have make of it.
The second woman I want to talk about is a girl called Rebecca. Rebecca is my daughter. I am so in awe of her that I cannot begin to tell Senators. That is not forgetting my wife. My wife of course was the strong woman behind my daughter. My daughter, Rebecca, was struck with cancer of the tongue at 19 years of age. What should have been a wonderful career path for her has been damaged by constant setbacks with health. She could have had a setback one day when I would go to meet her in a hospital or wherever she would be. She could be in tears. I would then go in the following day and she would be sitting up in the bed determined to get back to life. She has lived that way every day since she was 19 years of age. She is now in her 40s. Good God, I love and respect her courage and strength.
We may talk about choosing to challenge but not everyone is going to be able to challenge for equal pay or equal rights. I want to talk to the mothers who chose to give up a career and stay at home to make their children the best they could be. I want to respect them. I wish to God the State would respect them and treat them properly, because we do not treat them properly.
I want to remember the women who had children on their own. This will come up here soon. I am referring to the right of children to have their birth certificate. I have to say that I know some women who had children when they were young and single. They were castigated by society and left that behind them.Of all the Ministers, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, has a huge challenge ahead of him because some of those women do not want to be known; they do not want their private lives ever to be opened again. My heart goes out to them today and, equally, to the children they brought into the world.
In this House we have a huge responsibility. We should not be discussing equal pay; that should have been resolved years ago. I admire all of the women in this House. I do not like all of them, but I admire all of them. They are wonderful, strong people. I hope that the Leader of the House is correct and we will see a huge increase in the number of female Members of this House. As a teacher, I worked in a women-dominated society for over 20 years. I never really found one that I could not get along with. Great women deserve great support. I thank the Acting Chairperson, Senator O'Loughlin, for allowing me some latitude on time.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. Truly blessed is he among women today. We are delighted to have him. I also welcome my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and thank her for joining us for this discussion on International Women's Day.
I am very proud and delighted to stand here today. It is a huge honour for me. As I have often said, I live closest to Leinster House, but it has probably taken me the longest to get elected. Every day when I get here I take great pride in taking my place among all of the women and men. It is a huge honour. On my way here, I pass the Countess Markievicz plaque on North Frederick Street and there is a bust of Countess Markievicz in Leinster House. She is an iconic woman in Fianna Fáil history and in our country's history. We can all own her. It is in her shadow that we all try to aspire to make some small contribution.
On a personal level, I thank all of the women in my life. I come from a long line of very strong women who faced very significant challenges but did so always with great courage, resilience and heart. I am so privileged and I never forget that. I thank all of the women I have met in my life outside of my family who have been a friend, be that in New York when I was starting out and had nothing or in Dublin, in politics and in my professional life. I have always operated in male-dominated environments. We live in a male-dominated world; it is a fact of life. Many men have been a friend to me too and I acknowledge that. I also acknowledge the support of my husband and sons and my dad as well.
International Women's Day has been celebrated since the early 1900s. It started with women in New York city demanding better pay, better working conditions and the right to vote. We have come a long way, but we still have a long road ahead of us. It is great that the first citizen of Dublin city is a woman, Hazel Chu, that the Leader of this House is a woman and also that the leader of the Fianna Fáil group in the Seanad is a woman. There is still so much we need to do to achieve equality.
Today, I think also of all of the women with whom I come into contact as a public representative. As public representatives constituents often come to us at a moment of crisis. There are many women - I accept there are also men in this situation but it is largely women - who are victims of the housing crisis that still grips our country. For all of those women, I challenge all of us and the Government to use our time in office to tackle the housing crisis. The Government has an ambitious and radical plan, but we need to work collectively to deliver a radical change in terms of the State's role in the provision of housing so that there is a sustainable supply of social and affordable housing provided such that every person in our country will have a place to call home. It is only when one has looked into the eyes of a mother, a father or an individual who does not know where he or she, or his or her family, is going to spend the night that one can see and experience the anxiety and fear that nobody living in our society should have to endure.I ask the Minister, as the Government representative here today, to remind the members of the Cabinet that women need to believe and will support this Government when it is ambitious and radical in its efforts to tackle the housing crisis. I do not only mean using public lands to deliver social and affordable housing, but also championing the right to housing and taking forward the proposal for a constitutional referendum to insert the right to housing for all of our citizens in our Constitution.
I thank the Minister for the work he has done so far in trying to provide some justice to the survivors of mother and baby homes. I ask him to redouble his efforts. I know he is moving forward by giving the survivors justice through access to their birth certificates and an opportunity to reclaim their identities. He needs to continue his efforts, as I know he knows, because all of those women and survivors are depending on him. I wish him courage. He has all of our support in his work.
I have enjoyed the past half an hour, listening to everyone's statements and the stories that have been told. There has been a richness to the stories about our families and the strong women in our lives, including our mums and grandmothers. It hits me that we are very fortunate. All of those women lived through hard times such as the war-torn years in the 1940s, and we know the infant mortality rates in that time. They lived through times of recession and emigration. I sometimes wonder how we are here today at all, when I hear the stories. My mum always paid tribute to a woman in our village, Mrs. Hall, the midwife, who came around and delivered the babies safely. I remember thinking that if it were not for women like her in villages and towns all around Ireland, I do not know what would have happened.
We have talked about many things today. International Women's Day is about equality for women. I heard Senator Chambers state that only 24% of councillors are women. What we are going to do about that? We have had positive quotas for general elections but we also need to have those quotas at local election level. I was a councillor. It has been a whirlwind for me; I do not know how I am here, sitting in this House. It has only been two years since I got involved in a community action group. I was then elected in the 2019 local elections and now have the wonderful opportunity of being here, representing the place from which I come. Sometimes being a representative of one's local area is about speaking for that area and the men, women and children who live there. We must bring people forward and encourage women to run for office. We have such strong women. I was involved in a recent campaign for a cycle way and dealt with different towns and villages about different routes. The women who got involved were amazing. They were all managing development groups or Tidy Towns groups. They were the organisers. Why are we not seeing more of those women coming through in local elections? Why are they not the ones who we are bringing forward? That would be positive and we need something like quotas for local elections.
I will speak to some of the points that the Minister made in his speech. I am a spokesperson for further and higher education. I spoke earlier about the fact that women comprise only 26% of professorship roles. I understand that it is about equality at every level but I believe that unless women are at the decision-making table, we are not going to change what it is like for women in the rest of society. It is not going to happen. We need to see women on television, speaking as experts, and professors in all areas. We need more women as experts, leaders and CEOs in all our organisations. At the moment, only 12% of our organisations have a female CEO. We need more women acting as chairpersons and appointees of boards. It is not enough to sit back and say that it will happen because it will not. It has not happened in the past ten, 20, 30 or 40 years. When I thought about equality when I was in college, I thought I had the same rights as everybody else. Did I? Do I? When I say that, I am talking a little about recruitment because when it comes to recruiting for positions in education, businesses, workplaces or the Oireachtas, who is doing the recruiting?We need to make sure that our assessment and recruitment panels are balanced. We need to make sure that what we are being judged for in the qualifications for the role is balanced and that when advertisements for different roles and positions are placed, they take into account qualities and criteria that favour both men and women. They should be gender-balanced criteria. Recruitment is a key issue for me because unless we have fair recruitment practices, balance will not happen. I am a strong believer that unconscious bias is a problem and that we need to have something to tackle it. It has been proven through Nobel Prize winners and yet unconscious bias training is somehow seen as not being effective and that we should do away with it without having anything in its place. We need to have unconscious bias training and we need people to acknowledge that there is unconscious bias that we do not realise. That has to be part of this.
Some people mentioned our public representatives. It is important that we have representation of men and women in this House from many different backgrounds. Councillor Yemi Adenuga has been mentioned. She is one of our councillors of colour and she will be launching Proud to Serve, with stories of 28 women who have been in this House. I know Mary O'Rourke who lives near me in Athlone. Mary Harney is originally from Ahascragh in east Galway. There is a hotbed of activity by political and public representatives in that area. I will ask the Minister, in his role relating to children and families, to address family resource centres and how, with Covid, we will support children in areas covered by DEIS and Pobal. Women are feeling the impact of Covid-19, especially single parents. I will be asking the Minister about how we provide family resource centres for some of these areas and would appreciate his support for that.
On International Women's Day, there tends to be much reflection on the women who have gone before and the firsts. I am grateful to those women who have laid the path for many of us but I find myself thinking of the women who are yet to come and not just those who have been. I ask myself who is not in this room. There are not nearly enough women, even though this is the most women that we have had in a Seanad, and there never have been. This goes for the Dáil too. There has never been a woman of colour in the Seanad or a woman who has lived through direct provision. Senator Eileen Flynn is the only woman from the Traveller community to be a Member and this place is richer and better for Senator Flynn being here. How many more would wish to be here, in the Dáil and on local county councils, who simply cannot get there? No trans woman has ever been elected to the Oireachtas and as long as this House, which is here to represent all the people of Ireland, does not have these women in it, it is incomplete. As Senators, we all have a say on who will be here in the future, in our votes and in our influence in political groupings, and we all have work to do in our own parties.
I also think of the women of Ireland who, in this most unusual and challenging year, have, as always, stepped up to the plate. We have all heard the statistics before about women taking on a far larger share of domestic work, childcare and care for elderly family members than their male counterparts. We have seen that workload skyrocket this year. It includes full-time child carers and teachers. Early indicators suggest that women are, as per usual, being left to carry the burden of this extra work. Women are paid less at work and expected to do more work in the home for no pay.
A tweet by my Labour Party friend, Hannah Deasy, over the weekend really struck a chord with me, stating:
I used to love #InternationalWomensDay but a year into the pandemic I feel hollow looking at many #IWD2021 events. Where is paid sick leave? Where is paid maternity & parental leave? Where is publicly funded childcare? These are the things that create #genderequality
For International Women's Day, I want to remind people not only of the women who are in this room. Electoral politics is only a small part of effecting societal change, and thinking about the women who are in this room is all well and good. It is a little bit lean in feminism for me. We need to reflect on the women who are truly carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders for little or no recognition and even more insultingly, little to no pay. I hope that this time next year, we will have made great strides in addressing some of those issues.
It is good to see the Minister in the Chamber. In the short time available to me, I want to address the profound impact that the pandemic has had on women workers in particular and on their position in the world of work.We already know that between the end of 2019 and the end of 2020, approximately 13,600 women left the labour force. These are women who had to retire early, who were forced to leave their work because of caring responsibilities or who have lost their job and are not seeking work any longer. I think today of the women who have been in contact with me who have children with intellectual disabilities who have had no services available to them on and off for nearly 12 months at this stage. They were forced to leave their job. I also think of the couple who were both essential front-line workers who made a decision in September for the woman to leave her job because they felt they would not be able to provide cover for their children if one of the children had to leave school due to being a close contact. There are plenty more like those women. There are other women who have had to take unpaid leave because they simply could not find childcare for their children under the age of one year. I am pleased to see the Bill to extend parental leave will be debated in the House this Friday, but it is nearly eight months since the Government announced the extension of parental leave. Eight months is too long for women who have been hanging on, with no option but to stay at home from work because they could not get childcare.
While the pandemic has not been great for women in the workplace, it is not all bad. Some 45,000 women lost their part-time jobs last year or moved out of part-time employment, but there was an increase of 15,000 women in full-time employment. The ability to work from home has provided opportunities for some women who previously could not work full time to do so now.
I will conclude on a positive note. I welcome the Minister's commitment to bring forward the legislation to deal with the gender-pay gap legislation in the next fortnight. I very much welcome the EU directive on pay transparency introduced by the European Commission last week. I hope the Government will support that. If we are serious about improving the lot of low-paid women in this country it is important that the Government would support the EU directive on adequate minimum wages. We know that approximately 29% of all women are in low-paid work and two thirds of all those on the minimum wage are women, so it is vital that the Government supports the directive.
We are running very tight on time. I am very conscious that the Minister has to come in at 4.24 p.m. We are bound by the rules of the House. We have three remaining speakers and I am keen to let them in, but the only way for it to work is if speakers can shorten their contributions. Senator Ardagh is next. I ask her to shorten her contribution to two and a half minutes and then we will take Senators Currie and Clifford-Lee.
It is great to see Senator O'Loughlin in the Chair today. I have been sitting in on this debate since it started and I have been so moved by the contributions from my friends on both sides of the House. The debate has been enjoyable. There have been so many different perspectives on International Women's Day and I have dwelled on them. I thank my wonderful, beautiful colleagues for their contributions.
We have all heard the statistics on the gender-pay gap and women working two months for free every year but we do very little about it. As Senator Dolan outlined, in the state of Ontario in Canada they have brought in significant legislation on recruitment such as pay-transparency legislation. It increases the transparency in hiring practices, so when a company advertises for a position, it must clearly state the salary. It is illegal not to do so. There is also a bar on asking candidates what their previous salary was. They also have a framework for tracking and reporting the wages of both men and women, in the same way that we do. The pay-transparency measure is a huge step.
We all clapped when we heard there would be special legislation that would allow us to work at home, but we must be cautious when we consider legislation for working at home because of what was described in an article in The Irish Times as women's invisible jobs, which is generally caring for children and managing the household. We will probably flock towards the idea of working from home but sometimes it might be to the detriment of younger women who are not already established in their career. We must be careful and put proper safeguards in place to ensure that women are not taking a step backwards by working at home.We all know in large companies, and even around Leinster House, that if one is not in every day making connections and building a network then one will fall behind. It is imperative that we do something and ensure that this does not happen.
I pay tribute to all the women who participated in the Repeal campaign, the women in the mother and baby homes, and the women involved in campaigning for assisted human reproduction. I thank them for being a strong voice, for campaigning and we have so much to do.
As lots of colleagues around here have said, and I am a mother of two children, the Seanad will sit for an hour later today so I must change plans and every minute of my day is planned. So one must be mindful in this House and in every house of childcare, and the State needs to provide childcare for free. In March, we gave a little hat tip to free child care because the State paid childcare for month but then cut it off completely. We need to revisit providing free childcare and the issue should come within the ambit of the Department of Education. The Government must listen to women and take childcare very seriously.
We cannot help but focus on Covid today and the inequitable effect that it has had on women. What are we going to do about it? We cannot allow for these experiences and insights to merely become ink on reports or for us to sleepwalk into a global she-session going back on progress that we have made in women's economic participation. The structural inequalities that exist are staring us in the face right now more than ever and we need to see action, investment and long-term change.
I hope to touch on three things, the first of which is remote working. Employers faced major upheaval when, overnight, they moved their employees to their homes but the next stage of upheaval will be whenever employees return to their offices. These people need to be managed fairly and I am specifically talking about office workers. Despite the fact that only 40% of home workers at the moment are women, we cannot allow remote work to be gendered or for those to opt to work from home or remotely to be viewed, or treated, as any less ambitious than people present in the office. If offices return to a culture based on physical presenteeism then there will inequality, so the Government must be proactive in helping to establish a new work culture based on equal opportunities. The Government can do so by encouraging the use of technology first, which is basically what companies are doing now but merged and integrated into the office environment. We need a communications campaign on best practice for how to do that and how to bring companies through the hybrid transition. I am worried that not enough companies are talking about the hows of the hyper transition.
The national remote working strategy is fantastic. It is committed to introducing the right to request to work remotely. It will enhance our commitments under the EU work-life balance directive which requires EU member states to introduce the right to request flexible working arrangements for carers and working parents of children aged from zero up to eight years. I believe that we can go further than that. Not everyone works in roles that can be done remotely, has access to adequate remote work spaces or wants to work remotely even if they could. If we do not want flexible work to be gendered or stereotyped then we need to go beyond parents and carers and offer it to everybody. Let us look to Finland where, in 2017, Finnish fathers spent as much time with their children as mothers, and the gender employment gap was less than 2% in 2020.
I must cut the Senator off because the debate is already over time, and Senators Crowe and Martin did express a wish to speak but I told them that they could not. I call Senator Clifford-Lee and she has two minutes.
I will be super quick because I want to give my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, a very good period to discuss this very important topic. I am also delighted that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, is also here.
I want to touch on two very important issues that I am very passionate about. One is the free contraception scheme for women aged 17 to 25 years that was promised in the programme for Government. Personally, I would prefer universal access to free contraception as recommended by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution but this limited scheme is a good start. I would like the Minister for Health and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to put structures in place so that we can begin the scheme and have it rolled out by the time we meet here this time next year.The second issue on which I want to touch is the outrageous situation whereby those in receipt of the housing assistance payment, HAP, primarily women, are being discriminated against when applying for legal aid. I know a lot about the legal aid system and the family law matters discussed in the District Court such as maintenance, custody, access and guardianship. These payments are taken into account when assessing income, which rules many people out. This is an absolutely outrageous situation. Vulnerable women and their children are those primarily being left behind by this. Going to court on one's own because the State has failed to provide one with a council house and one has to rely on the HAP system is a scary prospect and absolutely outrageous.
There is a lot more I could say on International Women's Day. Many of my colleagues here in the Chamber have touched on issues. I hope that next year, when Covid has receded, we will be able to have a debate over a full day to allow us to tease out all of these issues rather than rushing through them in a very short session. I hope everyone enjoys the day. I thank everyone for their contributions. It was really interesting to listen to everyone's thoughts. It is a great honour for me to be a Member of this House alongside so many brilliant women.
I have enjoyed the conversation. One could not call it a debate. It was a really engaging conversation from the very beginning and all the way through. Everyone brought up really poignant topics in their contributions across the whole two hours.
It is amazing when one sits down and reflects on one's own time and how one ended up in politics. For me personally, it goes back to my mother. There was a pothole down the road from where we lived so she drove into the council office one day. The pothole had been there for quite a length of time. She went in and told PJ in the office that the pothole was back again. PJ told her not to worry and that council workers would be out later. She told him that she would sit in the car and follow them out. That shows a little bit about us. If women want to do things, they just get into it and do it. That tells us a little bit about us. That is how we got here. We persevered. We broke our own personal glass ceilings to get here. Whether we got here in an independent capacity or through a party, we have all faced challenges. Of that, there is no doubt. Some of us are single women, some have had to deal with childcare and some have had to deal with health issues. I do not remember who mentioned it but someone pointed out that one gets asked questions like "How will you cope?", "How will the family manage?" and "Who will mind the kids?" The guilt starts straight away before one even puts one's name on a ballot paper. Senator Dolan spoke about subconscious and unconscious biases. That was a valuable contribution. We need to start challenging unconscious biases and wondering what they mean.
I need to share another experience with the ladies in the House. They may know that I ran for election to the European Parliament back in the day. One day, I found myself in Dunboyne or Ashbourne. The car was pulled in and I was eating a little bit of lunch. There was a knock at the window. I looked out and saw the Leader of the Seanad, Senator Doherty. When she came over I pointed out that I was in her neck of the woods. She asked me to get out of the car and take a photograph. I said that she was with the other side but she said that strong women should support strong women. That tells us a little bit about us. We need to be able to support each other. For far too long, we did not.
One of the wonderful things that happened in the Thirty-second Dáil was the founding of the women's caucus. I extend my reverence to the chair of the current women's caucus, Senator O'Loughlin. The caucus gives us opportunities to have conversations that are always left on the periphery and which never make their way through those magical brown doors. There are many issues that need to be the focus of conversation, some of which Senator Clifford-Lee mentioned. Time and again, they fail to make their way in here. Period poverty was one such issue knocking on the door of the Thirty-second Dáil and which is now being addressed in the Thirty-third Dáil. The Senator also talked about maintenance. That is a very significant issue in all of our council areas. It is a barrier to women's existence. Senator Fitzpatrick talked about having to look into the eyes of a person who does not know where they will sleep that night, where the front door is or where their children can crawl about. She also spoke about the ambitious housing plan. These are really concrete issues that need to be discussed. I had a speech prepared, but I took down notes as the debate progressed. We talk about women in sport, the 20x20 campaign and so on. Women do not need to make it into the Oireachtas to be a positive influence on young girls. It is all down to the nice teacher they meet in national school or the woman on the sports pitch who shows young girls how to pick up or kick a ball. The same goes for gymnastics. It gives girls a bit of extra time and coaching. As they say in the mental health field, all you need is one. It is the same for women who want to make their way through - we just need one sounding board, one to push us through, one to say we can do it, one to reinforce us.
While that would be wonderful, we also need to go back to where it starts, namely, at the council and, before that, the Tidy Towns committees in which we were all involved. We can consider the numbers on councils currently. It is fantastic to listen to the National Women's Council and to hear that the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, and local government are supporting initiatives to develop the outreach model of the caucus system of councils regionally, as we do not have enough women. We do not have that diverse voice. It sometimes pains me to hear that local councils cannot get enough women onto education and training boards, ETBs. While legislation requires a proper board composition, women cannot get onto them because it might disturb who sits in what chair on some strategic policy committee.
That is what goes on and we have to call it out. There is no point in us talking about percentages. They are only as good as what follows on from them. Without mentioning specifics, I have experience on a county council where females could not make their way onto an ETB because the boys would not leave even though that meant the board was not meeting its structural requirements.
There is so much more to do, but I feel empowered because there are such strong women inside the gates of Leinster House and there are great jobs to be done. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and I are passionate about our roles and doing what we can from within the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. For example, as long as I am also in the Department of Health, I will raise the issue of contraception. Two Senators mentioned endometriosis. We will do our work and I look forward to working with everyone.