Irish women have benefited greatly from Irish membership of the EU, particularly women in the workplace.
Since joining in 1973 the number of women in the workforce has risen from 27% to 42%.
At the time of Irish entry there was an increasing awareness - as highlighted by the Commission on the Status of Women - of the inequalities experienced by women, including restrictions on employment and inequalities in pay. Through our involvement with the Union this situation has improved greatly, not only in bringing about increases in female representation, but also in improving working conditions and the treatment of women in the workplace.
The advancement of women’s rights was principally achieved through the gradual introduction of EC anti-discrimination and equality legislation. Chief among these measures was the implementation of the Equal Pay Directive by the Anti-Discrimination (Pay) Act 1974. This requires the receipt by men and women of equal pay for work of equal value. This principle is enshrined in Article 141 EC Treaty, which is also central to continuing efforts to provide equal opportunities for men and women in the workplace and to facilitate attempts to redress under-representation of either sex in particular sectors.
Indeed such equality provisions extend well beyond direct financial considerations to include - particularly through the implementation of the Equal Treatment Directive - requirements of equality in the social welfare code; access to employment; vocational training; and working conditions.
The improved conditions for women in the workplace thanks to EU membership are particularly felt by working mums. Through our cooperation with other Members, women are now entitled to a minimum of 14 weeks maternity leave. Irish periods of maternity leave - 26 weeks paid and up to 16 weeks unpaid - are in fact higher than the EU average. EU legislation also guarantees that women cannot be validly dismissed on the grounds of pregnancy.
It has been said by a former head of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions that such legislative measures prompted by our membership:
“not only transformed the workplace for Irish women but also gave a strong underpinning to the demands from women’s organisations and unions for major changes in the role of women in Irish society – changes, which still reverberate with us today” (Cassells 2000, p.70).
Inequalities between men and women, particularly in the workplace continue to be an issue, but Ireland together with its EU partners continues to work to build upon progress made. Funding to promote and implement equality between men and women is available through PROGRESS and the European Social Fund. For further information on gender equality visit the European Commission’s website.
As part of her thoughts on the impact of Ireland's membership of the EU, former President Mary Robinson talks about its importance for Irish women.