It may be hard for many Irish women to imagine an Ireland where the very fact of their gender meant that women were paid less than men for doing exactly the same job!
Or where women were legally obliged to give up their job if they got married! Imagine that.
Well that’s the situation that prevailed here until we joined the European Union (or the EEC as it was then called) back in 1973. There’s a fair argument that Irish women may be seen as among the greatest beneficiaries of our EU membership, especially women in the workplace. Since 1973, it’s interesting to note that the percentage of women in the workforce has risen from 27% to 42%.
Margaret Sheeran, Swedish Trade Centre, speaks of the changing attitudes regarding women's role in society and female role models.
Our involvement with the Union has brought about not only increased female representation, but also in improved working conditions and better treatment of women in the workplace.
This advancement of women’s rights was principally achieved through the gradual introduction in Ireland of EU anti-discrimination and equality legislation. Chief among these measures was the implementation of the EU Equal Pay Directive by Ireland’s Anti-Discrimination (Pay) Act, 1974. That act legally requires the receipt by men and women of equal pay for work of equal value.
This principle is enshrined in Article 141 of the EC Treaty, and that continues to be the main reference point in continuing efforts to provide equal opportunities for men and women in the workplace.
Indeed such equality provisions extend well beyond direct financial considerations, and include requirements of equality in the social welfare code; in access to employment; in vocational training; and in working conditions. All these issues have been given extra attention by the implementation of the EU Equal Treatment Directive.
The improved conditions for working women are particularly felt by working mums. Through our cooperation with other Members, women are now entitled to a minimum of 14 weeks maternity leave.
Given the disappointing record on women’s rights prior to joining the European Union, it's very gratifying to see that today Irish entitlements to 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 from their employment on the grounds of pregnancy.
It has been said by Peter Cassells, former head of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, that the legislative changes prompted by our joining the Union “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”.
Of course, some inequalities between men and women, particularly in the workplace, continue to be an issue. But along with our EU partners, Ireland continues to build upon the very real and enduring progress made over the last 35 years.
Funding to promote and implement equality between men and women is available through the PROGRESS programme and the European Social Fund. PROGRESS is the name of the EU's employment and social solidarity programme. It was established to support financially the implementation of the objectives of the European Union in equal opportunities, employment and social affairs, as set out in the Social Agenda. This programme started in 2007 and will run until 2013.
For further information on gender equality visit the European Commission’s website.
Former President Mary Robinson reflects on the impact of Ireland's membership of the EU, including its importance for Irish women.