12 November 2014

Minister Fitzgerald’s Speech at National Women’s Council of Ireland premises opening

Thank you for your warm words of welcome to this exciting event in such beautiful surroundings. It is a privilege to be standing here in front of a passionate group determined to provide a better life for women in this country.
I would like this opportunity to share with you some brief information on the current gender equality work programme of my Department.

The Government has undertaken to look at the question of the most appropriate wording to be presented to the people arising from the recommendations in the Second Report of the Convention on the Constitution in relation to amending the language in Article 41.2 on the role of women in the home.  It has also undertaken to look at the feasibility of including the principle of gender equality as well as the use of gender-inclusive language in the Constitution.

A Task Force composed of officials from the Equality and Civil Law Divisions of the Department of Justice and Equality has been established to examine these issues.  The Task Force has collaborated in its work with the Attorney General's Office and other Departments as necessary.  The report of the Task Force is nearing finalisation and I would hope to receive it shortly.  Following consideration of the matter, I will bring proposals to Government. 

It is now some thirty years since we set out to eradicate discrimination in introducing legislation to outlaw discriminatory practices in employment.

In the two decades following Ireland’s accession to the EU, real progress was made towards achieving gender equality in Ireland.  The principle of equal pay for equal work was introduced by the Anti-Discrimination (Pay) Act 1974 and the 1977 Employment Equality Act made it unlawful to discriminate in employment on grounds of sex or marital status. Maternity protection and maternity leave were introduced in 1981 and equal treatment in relation to social welfare for women and men was provided for in 1985. Improvements in the equality laws and infrastructure were introduced with new legislation put on the statute books in 1998 and 2000 with the Employment Equality Act and Equal Status Act respectively. Equality legislation is vitally necessary to underpin a fair society:

•    It provides a mechanism by which individuals who have experienced discrimination can seek redress;
•    It serves as a lever for change that can be deployed by those who seek to promote equality within organisations; and
•    It reflects a societal commitment to equality and non-discrimination, thereby stimulating cultural change.

At each stage at which equality legislation was introduced – in the 1970s in respect of gender and in 1998 and 2000 in respect of grounds additional to gender and, in the case of the Equal Status Act 2000, areas other than employment – the legislation had an important normative effect and contributed to changing attitudes in our society on whether it was acceptable to discriminate against people on these various irrelevant grounds.

We have I believe laid the foundations for the pursuit of a fairer  economy and society, including providing the ingredients for equality of opportunity for both women and men.

This rapid progress towards gender equality in the latter decades of the last century often masks the inequalities that continue to persist. A number of challenges to achieving de facto gender equality still remain. There are still many barriers to women’s full and equal participation in the workplace, in the community and in civic and political life:

•    Women still spend less time in the paid workforce than men and even those who are working the same hours as their male counterparts, earn less money. This means that they are less financially secure than men and more vulnerable to poverty as they grow older;
•    Women remain underrepresented in leadership positions – both in public life and in the corporate sector; and
•    Rates of domestic violence and sexual assault remain alarmingly high

Despite our comprehensive equality legislation and our equality infrastructure, discrimination persists. In the decade following the enactment of the equality legislation (the period up to 2010),  the Equality Authority noted that it had received more than 100,000 enquires from members of the public over the ten year period. Gender continues to be cited as the key ground for discrimination in queries received by the Equality Authority under the Employment Equality Acts.

Equality legislation provides the basis for achieving equality both within the workplace and in service provision. However, positive measures are also required to go hand in hand with the obligations of organisations. Proactive organisations are the organisations that have equality policies and action plans in place and are committed to implementing them. By doing so they are creating opportunities for all staff, both men and women. This ensures that discrimination does not surface in the workplace but also that the organisation is making effective use of its most valuable resource and that is its staff.

In relation to the area of recruitment, it is fundamental that the economic engagement of women is addressed. Growth will be achieved by increasing the participation of both men and women in the labour market. With a particularly well-educated female population (recent 2012 CSO statistics reveal that 53% of females aged 25-34 had a third level qualification, compared to 40.4% of males) , it makes sound economic sense to ensure that the potential contribution of all women to the economy is maximised through their full engagement in the labour market. 
In an effort to strengthen its economy on the global front, the European Union has set a target employment rate of 75 per cent for women and men aged 20 to 64 under the Europe 2020 Strategy.  While Ireland has been granted a derogation from that target due to the economic crisis, it is still required to achieve an employment rate of at least 69 to 71 per cent by 2020 and is required to revisit this target in mid-term.

The Department of Justice and Equality continues to provide  funding under  the Equality for Women Measure, and has done since 2009, assisting  over 70 projects,  supporting over 9,000 women to build their capacities to access employment through IT training, personal development, advice on CVs, interviewing and communication skills. Current EWM projects will end in December of this year and consideration is being given to continuing this initiative under the new ESF Operational Programme for 2015-2020

The advancement of women in decision-making roles, including politics, is an issue that comes within the ambit of the National Women’s Strategy. Moreover, the Programme for Government, published in March 2011, contains a number of commitments to foster the achievement of gender equality in Ireland, including increasing women’s participation in public life, in politics and on State Boards. My former colleague, Mr Phil Hogan as the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, introduced new legislation which will create incentives for political parties to nominate women candidates by linking their State funding to gender quotas. Parties will be required in the first instance to ensure that at least 30 per cent of their candidates are women at the next general election or else their State funding support will be reduced.  This percentage will then rise to 40 per cent after seven years.

The purpose of the new legislation is to involve more women, to achieve a greater democracy in Ireland’s political institution and to look forward to the greater sharing of political decision-making, in political parties and in elected office.

With this legislation comes a new opportunity for women to participate in the political life of our nation.  The legislation will not operate satisfactorily unless women come forward in sufficient numbers to seek nomination in the next election.  For that reason, I would earnestly urge members of the constituent groups of the National Women’s Council to consider this option in the light of their own individual circumstances and, whether or not this is a road they want to go down, to spread the gospel as it were about the opportunity which this legislation affords.  

Reports on the representation of women on State Boards in 2012 and 2013, shows progress towards achieving the Programme for Government commitment of 40 per cent representation of each gender on all Boards. Overall in 2013, women represented 36.2 per cent of positions on State Boards, an increase of 2.1 percentage points since 2012. My Department has secured EU funding for a 2 year economic leadership project in partnership with Ibec and the NWCI. This project will adopt a multi-faceted initiative to foster the advancement of women into leadership roles including in senior management and governance, in both the public and private sectors. Actions being undertaken include:

•    Developing a women’s talent bank of ‘board ready women’;
•    Initiatives to increase female representation on corporate boards;
•    Leadership and mentoring training programmes for women to be piloted in the civil service; and
•    Conferences for promotion and dissemination of good practice.

The increased participation of women in decision-making roles is essential in any democratic society, even more so in a country like Ireland which has an almost perfectly gender-balanced population.  I firmly believe that there are many very capable and talented women who have the capacity for leadership roles and with the right encouragement and supports these women can succeed. A country that uses only half its population from which to draw its leaders cannot be operating to its full potential. Now more than ever we need to utilise and maximise all of the potential of our highly educated female workforce.

As you may know I have stated on a number of occasions that I favour Ireland signing and ratifying the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The convention, also known as the Istanbul Convention, provides for a range of legislative and administrative protections for women affected by gender-based violence. While current Irish legislation already implements many articles contained in the Convention, I believe that it is important for us to formally declare our intent to meet the highest standards in working to end all forms of gender-based violence, including domestic violence. 

There are a number of measures that are presently underway which will assist us in ratifying the convention in due course. Among these are the development of legislation to give effect to the EU Victims Directive which sets out to provide minimum standards across the European Union on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime. I expect that we will meet the transposition deadline of November 2015 for the directive. 

I am also keen to bring forward consolidated and reformed domestic violence legislation which will address all aspects of domestic violence, threatened violence and intimidation, in a way that provides protection to victims.  My Department is currently working on a General Scheme of the Bill, which I expect to bring to Government by the end of this year. 

Another measure which will address the requirements of the Convention will be the development of a new strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence.  I know that the National Women’s Council  contributed to the development of our present strategy and I expect to see you next week at the consultation day which Cosc has organised to discuss the development of a follow-on strategy for the coming years.  The strategy will form the outline of the State’s response to these forms of violence in conjunction with support services funded by the State.  It should be used to measure our progress in achieving our goals and to hold us to account if we fail. 

We can do better and we will do better. What we do know as we move forward is that if we manage to eliminate gender discrimination we will prosper as a country because that enables us to work with all of our women and men, not just to create a stronger economy but also a better society. A society without discrimination is the society I believe that we all aspire to.  It's a better way to create wealth and it's a better way to spread opportunity. If we fail in this endeavour as a country we will be poorer for it.

In acquiring the new offices in which we stand today, with the generous assistance of Atlantic Philanthropies, the National Women’s Council has acted with great prudence and this will bring pay-offs in the future.  The Council is also, very wisely, expanding its membership, both group and individual, and again that brings much needed revenue as well as an expanding circle of influence.

I have every confidence, that the Council will continue to play a key role in promoting women’s rights and equality and that the working relationship between my Department and the Council will continue to prosper. We are very lucky in Ireland to have a strong grass-roots culture of volunteering and citizen engagement in public affairs. The NWCI is an exemplar of such organisations. It has not rested on its laurels.  It has reached out to the new communities in Ireland, whose concerns are now our concerns. It has also reached out to younger generations of women and men, to encourage them to play their part in making Ireland more equal. In its constant striving to keep the goal of equal rights and equal treatment of all women and men - by all women and men - at the forefront of civil and political debate, the NWCI remains an inspiration. Long may this continue.

I am now delighted to officially open this new home for the National Women’s Council of Ireland and wish the Council every success in its new surroundings.