14 April 2014

'Getting the Balance Right' - Irish Perspectives on policies for women in work and child wellbeing.

The following speech was delivered by Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Children & Youth Affairs, to an audience at Ewha Women's University, South Korea, in March 2014. 

'Getting the Balance Right' - Irish Perspectives on policies for women in work and child wellbeing.

- Speech by Minister Frances Fitzgerald T.D.

Ewha Women’s University

 Many thanks Dean Kim. Good afternoon ladies, and indeed I do see some gentlemen, greetings to you too.

It is a great pleasure to be here in Ewha today to share with you my perspectives on Ireland’s experience over the recent decades of reflecting on, responding to and indeed encouraging social change which has seen more women entering the workforce, and seen changes in the way our families live and our children are cared for.

I am very encouraged to find such a strong group of women at the forefront of educational achievement in Korea.

This is my first visit to Korea and I am undeniably impressed by the economic achievements of this country. Modernity is all around us from this marvellous architecture to the apparently compulsory smart phones. I know that Korea did not start off from a high base and that these achievements are very considerable. Ireland too, shares a history of building ourselves up from a low base.

This morning I was honoured to lay a wreath at a memorial for Irish men and the at least one Irish woman who died in Korea during the Korean War. The vast majority of those who died were soldiers in the armies of other nations. Ireland was a young country in 1950. We were not a member of the UN.  The fact that our young men were fighting in other armies was a reflection of our position as a relatively newly independent country and a post-colonial nation.

Ireland in the mid-twentieth century had spent some years growing into our independence from Britain and we were moving towards stronger economic development. Ireland does not have quite as dramatic a tale to tell as Korea in terms of the scale of devastation in the 1950s and economic development since the 1970s. However, our story is also one of a post-colonial nation finding our feet; dealing with the consequences of history in the shape of Northern Ireland which remained a part of Britain; developing an export and outward-looking economy; reaching a period of unprecedented growth which brought prosperity and confidence; and then responding successfully to the challenge of the global economic crisis and its impact on our prosperity and society.

This period of economic development, with high points and some challenging low points, has brought with it social change that makes Irish society today very different to that left behind by the men who came to Korea back in 1950. It has been my privilege to contribute to these changes. Today I want to share with you how Ireland has responded to the opportunities, and sometimes challenges, of economic and social change; how increasing female participation in society, education and the workforce has improved; and how we are working to make sure that our children have the best possible start in life, the opportunity to hear their voices heard and the privilege to live in families where both parents’ contributions to the family, the economy, and society are valued.

I will begin by giving you some context on the development of the Irish economy and a snapshot of where we are now.

Ireland was a founding member of the OECD in 1960 and became a member of what is now the European Union in 1973.

As a member of the EU, Ireland has seen its economy strengthen and levels of prosperity rise. As Korea joined the OECD in 1996 Ireland was moving towards the era which became known as the Celtic Tiger.

In the second half of the 1990s, GDP expanded by double digits. Unemployment plummeted from 16 per cent in 1994 to 4 per cent in 2000. Our workforce doubled to 2 million. That growth was driven by an educated workforce of both men and women, producing high value exports at competitive costs in a low tax business regime.

The number of women in paid employment has more than doubled since the early 1990s and women have contributed significantly to the economic growth which has in turn enhanced the wellbeing of the majority of Irish citizens.

It is fair to say that some women have now achieved positions in business – breaking many glass ceilings in the process – that have made them the principal agents of change, rather than cogs in a man-made machine. Aside from the many blue chip companies that are now led by strong women, there are a multitude of small businesses, created by women, that are making significant contributions to our local and national economies. These women have taken control of their own destinies and don’t subscribe to the notion that you cannot tailor your life to suit your needs – that you cannot have a rewarding work experience, coupled with a rewarding domestic and family life.

However, the number of women who are actively engaged as decision-makers, political players and as other persons of influence within society has not kept pace with the rate of take up of employment. This needs to be addressed, and in this context we have a National Women’s Strategy. This Strategy seeks to foster and support initiatives which will help to encourage more women to engage as equal and active citizens by supporting developmental initiatives; setting targets for women’s involvement, where appropriate; by encouraging women to put themselves forward as candidates for more active engagement as decision-makers in civil society; and by encouraging the establishment of networks to enable women to promote and advance themselves as men have had the opportunity to do for many years.

Politics in Ireland has some way to go to achieve equity in representation. Government must lead by example. We need more female representatives, creating a parliament better equipped to make decisions that reflect the needs and concerns of all citizens. We need the female perspective. We need the benefit of their experiences, their skills, their expertise. Your first female President, President Park shows that in Korea a woman can hold the highest office in the land; in Ireland too we have had two female Presidents. However, there are only a small number of female office-holders in the current Government. Unless we have improved participation by women in political and business life, we will continue by implication to enforce the concept of the workplace as a male-dominated domain.

It is important to set targets for participation, to make them realistic, and to make them attainable. This Irish Government is making it a priority to encourage women to enter political life. 50% of Ireland’s population are women, but only 15% of Ireland’s elected representatives are women. It is a testament to my political party - Fine Gael - that more than 30% of all the women ever elected to our parliament, Dáil Éireann, have represented Fine Gael. No party has had as many women elected. We intend to build on this record in our local elections this year, providing an important opportunity to increase the number of women participating in Irish politics. We are also trying to increase the number of women represented nationally on State boards.

The political sphere is often, unfortunately, not a family-friendly one. It is rarely nine to five. I have personally seen the sacrifices that many politicians have made, where engagement with political life has been to the detriment of family life. It is a reason why women are reluctant to enter politics. We are prepared to make sacrifices, but to what extent? We want to contribute, but we don’t want to miss out on important family milestones, on participation within our own family contexts. And why should we? These are the questions that we still grapple with.

Committing to political life is, I believe, a calling. To see your endeavours bearing fruit is something that in my view makes it all worthwhile. The long hours of negotiation. Reaching compromises. Engaging with political colleagues and opposition members. Bringing primary legislation through its various stages. Delivering on agreed Government commitments. Changing the way things are done.

In my own case I was delighted to see the establishment, in January of this year, of the new Child and Family Agency. The establishment of the Agency represents one of the largest and most important public sector reforms being undertaken by this Government, bringing together over 4,000 staff and a budget of some €609 million to provide a dedicated focus on services for children & families, including, particularly, for the over 6,400 children in the care of the State. We have moved from a position where child and family welfare was barely a priority, competing for funding and recognition with our hospital, disability and mental health services, to a position where it is now the sole focus of a single dedicated State agency. For the first time we have child and family social workers, family support workers, social care workers and educational welfare officers all working together to protect children and support families.

In 2008 Ireland faced a new and harsh reality - global financial crisis and the collapse of a banking and property bubble in Ireland meant that our economy was exposed and fragile. We entered into an EU/IMF bailout Programme in 2010, another experience which I know Korea shared in the late 1990s.

In 2011 the Government of which I am a part was elected.

I am pleased to say that today Ireland is well on its way to economic recovery.  While we know there’s a long way to go still, it’s clear we’re firmly on the right path.  We have had to make some difficult decisions, but we expect that 2014 will be our fourth consecutive year of economic growth. Export levels are higher than before the crisis, jobs are being created and unemployment is falling.  At the end of 2013, we became the first Eurozone country to exit an EU/IMF programme of assistance. Businesses, investors and global markets have renewed confidence in our economic future. 

Trade has been the driver of our economic recovery. Export levels are now significantly higher than the pre-crisis peak in 2007. We have one of the most open and progressive economies in the world. Forbes magazine ranks us as the best country in the world for business.

Like Korea we are investing in innovation and creativity. Our indigenous enterprises and start-ups are among the most dynamic and innovative in the world. Irish innovation in sectors such as information technology, medical devices and engineering is changing and enhancing people’s lives around the world, every day.

Our progress is the result of collective national determination and sacrifice; hard political decisions taken and implemented with the support of the people.  Challenges remain, in Ireland and across Europe, in tackling unemployment and driving stronger economic growth. But we are on the right track.

The Irish Government recently published its Action Plan for Jobs 2014. This is the third annual installment in the Government plan aimed at building a sustainable growing economy and creating jobs. The Plan builds on the more than 500 measures already implemented over two previous plans, and contains 385 actions to be implemented by all 16 Government Departments and 46 Agencies. This is the whole of Government approach that we need, to stimulate the economy and ensureg that the pace of job-creation matches our ambitious targets. 2014 has been designated by the Government as the year for jobs.

The Action Plan for Jobs includes actions targeted at supporting female entrepreneurs. It seeks to promote female entrepreneurship through adoption of female role models, targeted events and awards, support for female entrepreneur networks and dedicated areas on enterprise-related corporate websites. In addition, it is planned to launch and co-fund five Development Programmes focused on optimising the business capabilities for women-led businesses.

The role of Government is crucial in encouraging and creating opportunities for all. There are a wide range of family-friendly policies in place, which allow both parents to participate in a working life and to balance that with the needs of their children. Ireland has a strong culture of maternity leave, parental leave, flexible working hours and term-time arrangements. We have a strong employment equality framework and equal status provisions.

Ireland also has a strong educational focus, recognising that we must invest in the next generation to allow them to fully realise their potential.

We in Government are under no illusion that improving outcomes for children and families is something we must continue to aspire to, and strive for. We have long-standing child benefits arrangements, and a country-wide family support network. Much has been achieved in recent years in terms of child care provision. Parents have options now that just did not exist in the past. Primarily they can go to work in the knowledge that their children are being looked after by dedicated childcare providers.

There is more that can be done. Over the coming year my Department has a number of key targets that focus on children and families. These include setting the agenda and supporting the work of the recently-established Child and Family Agency. I will also in the coming weeks launch the new ‘National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014 - 2020’. This is the first overarching national policy framework spanning children and young people from birth to age 24 years. It sets out the Government’s objectives for improving children’s and young people’s lives over the period 2014 to 2020, and how we intend to achieve these objectives.  

Essentially, this Framework will, for the first time establish a shared set of outcomes for children and young people and identify a range of commitments in place across Government and progress these based on a structured, systematic and outcomes-focused approach. A robust infrastructure will be put in place to guide and support its delivery. It is a very ambitious project, and I look forward to engaging with all stakeholders.

I also intend this year to launch Ireland’s first ever Early Years Strategy, and a policy on ‘Family Support and Parenting’, to continue quality improvements in early years and childcare services and to review existing targeted childcare supports.

I commend the stand that your President has made in making higher rates of female participation in the workplace a priority. I know that this is a practical economic position and is necessary to continue to drive Korean economic growth. It is also an opportunity for your generation to take advantage of a policy which acts in your favour. It is an opportunity to show how women can be the best and reach the top in every area.  It is not only important that women are in the workforce, it is important that the skills and contribution that we bring to the workforce are recognised.

I am pleased to hear that President Park has also drawn attention to the role of fathers in making womens’ participation in the economy work for everyone. It is not easy to change the roles which people take on within the home. However, it is an important part of leadership to recognise that asking women to ‘double-job’ - taking on all the family responsibilities as well as those of a committed professional – is asking too much. It is important to find policies that support families to make choices so that all the members’ needs are recognised and met.

Around the world we are impressed by Korea’s consistent high achievement in Education. We want to know how you manage to show again and again that you are among the very best in maths and science and that your universities rank among the global top tier. Educational achievement for women is important in every society. It is a major driver of change. In low income countries it can significantly improve family nutrition and health. In successful economies like Korea, highly educated young women like you can show exactly how much you can contribute. A workplace which values men and women equally is more successful for everyone in the longer term.

One of the ways in which Ireland and Korea are very different is our birthrate. In the OECD we sit at opposite ends of the scale. Now in Ireland we have a birthrate of 2.05 and children born in Ireland today are a part of a large peer group.

It is a challenge for any country to both encourage an increase in births and to encourage women to stay in work and this is I understand, is now the challenge for Korea.

I know that Korea has begun putting in policies to do just that through providing free childcare for the under-fives and standardising the curriculum in childcare centres and Kindergartens. In the case of Ireland, the Early Childhood Care and Education programme is designed to give children access to a free pre-school year of appropriate programme-based activities in the year before they start primary school. Participation in a pre-school programme provides children with their first formal experience of early learning, the starting-point of their educational and social development outside the home. Children who avail of pre-school are more likely to be ready for school and a formal learning and social environment.

I believe the free pre-school year in Ireland has tremendous social value, and the Government is committed to both maintaining the free pre-school year, and to improving quality standards in early years and childcare services.

Putting children first and making sure their voices are heard is a part of the ways in which society makes sure that we are meeting the needs of all our members. In Ireland we held a referendum on the rights of the child with the intention of enhancing constitutional recognition of the child. In addition, my Department is prioritising legislation which will place elements of our ‘Children First’ National Guidance on a statutory basis. It is intended to impose a duty on certain specific individuals to report child protection concerns to the Child and Family Agency, and to improve child protection arrangements in organisations providing services to children.

Like Korea, Irish people have traditionally held very strong views on what it means to be a member of a family. Part of the changing face of Irish society over the past fifty years has been how we think of the family and what it means to be a part of a family. Yesterday, I met with some single mothers living here in Seoul and heard about their experiences bringing up their children. Being a single parent is not easy, it takes grit and determination as well as endless energy wherever you are. Taking to those women it was clear to me that they are challenging society by asking for their definition of family – a mother and a child – to be accepted. I heard that they are part of how the Korean family is changing now. They are determined to be able to bring up their children with love, respect and dignity.

In conclusion, it is my belief that advancements for women in the workplace context cannot take place without strong equality and family-friendly agendas. Sometimes, in order for advancement to take place, rights must be properly enunciated, and they must be asserted. They must be legislated for and protected by statute. And they must be vindicated, in the courts setting if needs be, so that there is no doubt as to our obligations. We cannot be seen to be simply paying lip-service. The workplace must be an arena where everyone gets their chance to perform, to excel, and to reap the rewards of their hard work. But the workplace must also allow for a level of flexibility, to ensure that all workers who are parents can positively engage in their children’s lives, participate in community life, and lead their own external lives.

In my lifetime working, campaigning and legislating for the rights of women and children I have seen a lot of change. But there is still a long way to go before we can say that equality has been achieved. As young women looking to your future, you are the generation who must take up the challenge of change and through your own lives ensure that further progress will be made.

It takes strength to stand up for yourself and your peers. It takes courage of conviction to insist that your rights are met. As you encounter life’s milestones and joys; finding fulfilment and challenge in a career, perhaps getting married, perhaps having children, perhaps becoming the CEO of a great Korean company, you must make your opinion heard to make it count. It is not enough to expect that equality will come you to, you must make it happen for you. I wish you all well in your future careers whatever they may hold. I look forward to hearing more and more about inspiring Korean women in the future and I hope and expect that the increasing connections between Ireland and Korea mean that there will be more and more friendships and connections been Korean and Irish women so that we can share our experiences and encourage each other in our journeys.

I would like to thank you for your attention and your kind welcome.