Women and work

December 12, 2019

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by Orla O’Connor, National Women’s Council of Ireland

The Carnegie UK Trust-TASC Ensuring Good Future Jobs essay collection describes many of the key challenges faced by workers in Ireland today, and proposes a series of policy and practice changes to ensure good future jobs. First published on 28 November, as a coordinated response to the Irish Government’s first Future Jobs Strategy, this blog series showcases the contributions by key social partners in Ireland to the collection.

Central to discussions on the nature of paid work today is the question of “quality work”, how is it defined and how can we achieve it. For the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), Ireland’s leading feminist organisation with over 190 member groups, moving away from structural inequality in the labour market where women’s employment patterns have been defined by part time, low paid and increasingly precarious employment must be at the core of “quality work”. A model of employment defined by decent pay, equal promotional opportunities and career progression, flexibility and environmental sustainability is one that would support economic equality and independence for women.

Today Irish women make up almost half of the workforce (CSO, 2016a). However, while discrimination and unequal pay is illegal, there remain significant obstacles to achieving equality between women and men in paid work. These obstacles mean that the gender pay gap in Ireland continues to stand on average at 13.9% in favour of men (Eurostat, 2019). This gap affects women throughout their careers, culminating in an even greater gender pension gap of 26%.

Low pay is a critical cause of the gender pay gap. In 2016 the Low Pay Commission found 60% of minimum wage workers were female (Low Pay Commission, 2016). In 2014, it reported that 50% of women workers earned less than €20,000 annually. Supporting women out of low paid work and into sustainable, secure and well-paid employment also requires a greater focus on the interaction of our welfare and employment policies, particularly for lone parents who are at most risk of poverty and women dependent on qualified adult payments.

The sectors where women workers predominate, the personal, the community and social services sectors have experienced the most aggressive casualisation of terms and conditions over the last decade. Women predominate in all forms of temporary precarious work, part-time, uncertain work hours, and self-employment[1]. It’s clear that women must be at the centre of the fight for secure, quality and well-paid work. This is particularly urgent in the area of childcare, eldercare and personal care workers.  These vital social services are being delivered by women, often young women, women of colour or migrant women who are vulnerable to the most precarious working conditions.

Care also has an impact on women and work, with the CSO in 2016 reporting that 98% of all unpaid care work is undertaken by women (CSO, 2016b). There are over 450,000 women who state their role is “home duties” compared to just under 10,000 men[2]. Limited possibilities to cost-effectively, efficiently and flexibly combine paid work with family responsibilities are some of the main reasons that women predominate in low paid roles.  In 2018 it was revealed that just two of the 17 top civil service jobs are held by women (Irish Examiner, 2018). Alongside this, according to the 2019 CSO Gender Balance in Business Survey – Only one in nine CEOs in large enterprises in Ireland in 2019 were women. Women occupied 28% of Senior Executive roles compared with 72% for men. The vast majority of Chairpersons were male at 93% with 7% being female. The overall composition of Boards of Directors was 80% male and 20% female. Moreover, those that do avail of flexible working arrangements find that senior positions are by in large still seen as full-time by default.

Workplace segregation continues to be a feature of the Irish labour market as, women are grossly underrepresented within manufacturing, IT, engineering and skilled trades. Only 25% of those working in Ireland’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries are women (Maguire, 2018).

A World Economic Forum (WEF) gender gap report placed Ireland top of the table for educational attainment, indicating that there is no difference in terms of education for both men and women. However, when it came to economic participation and opportunity, Ireland slumped to 49th, due to lower female participation rates and lower average earnings for women. As the WEF notes, a large number of countries – Ireland included – “have failed to reap the returns on a pool of highly educated and skilled women” (World Economic Forum, 2016).

Feminist Economic Vision

Making all jobs flexible, unless there is a compelling need not to, would remove the stigma flexible working continues to carry and allow workers to use it to shape their jobs and work around their family and community life. This would also challenge the widespread perception that visibility equals productivity. NWCI is one of the founding organisations of the Campaign for a 4 Day Week in Ireland, alongside trade unions, environmental organisations and some businesses. This Campaign provides an opportunity to generate a new conversation on the re-organisation of work around the realities of women and men’s lives, encompassing the realities of care in our society and providing a sustainable society and economy.

NWCI is also part of the Campaign to move from a minimum wage to a Living Wage, currently estimated at €12.30 per hour. This would be a significant first step to achieving quality work for women and also would significantly reduce the gender pay gap. When men are expected to have similar working patterns to women, particularly in the years after having a child, the implicit assumptions of motherhood and what that means for work will change. So too, hopefully, would the penalties associated with it. This can also help change work cultures so that work is not defined by hours spent there, but the contributions made, and where a better balance between work and family life is prioritised not only for the performance outcomes it can result in, but also for the shared social goals of gender equality and recognition of care in society.

Achieving quality work can only be ensured if the necessary public services that can support sustain this model of work are in place. This requires comprehensive public childcare which provides high quality early years education and childcare and a flexible model of after school hours care. It also requires accessible public transport for all. Quality work will be achieved when all paid work can enable us all to have a decent standard living.



Central Statistics Office (2016a) ‘Ireland and EU: Employment rate, 2006-2016’. Dublin. Available at: https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-wamii/womenandmeninireland2016/employment/

Central Statistics Office (2016b) ‘Women and Men in Ireland 2016 ’. Dublin. Available at: https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-wamii/womenandmeninireland2016/introduction/

Eurostat (2019) ‘Gender pay gap statistics’. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Gender_pay_gap_statistics

Irish Congress of Trade Unions (2017) ‘Insecure and Uncertain: Precarious work in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland’. Available at: https://www.ictu.ie/download/pdf/precarious_work_final_dec_2017.pdf

Irish Examiner (2018) ‘Here is how many women hold Ireland’s top civil service jobs’, Irish Examiner, 18 November. Available at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/ireland/here-is-how-many-women-hold-irelands-top-civil-service-jobs-886114.html

Low Pay Commission (2016) ‘The preponderance of women on the National Minimum Wage’. Available at: http://lowpaycommission.ie/publications/women-on-nmw-report.pdf

McGuire, P. (2017) ‘Placing gender equity in Stem on the radar’. The Irish Times, 20 June. Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/placing-gender-equity-in-stem-on-the-radar-1.3109286?mode=sample&auth-failed=1&pw-origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.irishtimes.com%2Fnews%2Feducation%2Fplacing-gender-equity-in-stem-on-the-radar-1.3109286

World Economic Forum (2016) ‘The Global Gender Gap Report 2016’. Available at: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/GGGR16/WEF_Global_Gender_Gap_Report_2016.pdf

[1] More women than men are in temporary employment, with approximately 27,700 females in temporary employment compared to approximately 18,000 males. The majority of part-time temporary employees are female (55%). Women represent the majority of the part-time self-employed without employees, 51% (ICTU, 2017).

[2] The number of men looking after home/family nearly doubled in the 10 years up to 2016, rising from 4,900 to 9,200 (CSO, 2016b).