The impact of Ireland’s EU membership on women

By Business & Finance
20 December 2022

Our participation in the single market has revolutionized every aspect of our lives writes Mary Garvey, Vice President, Cybersecurity & Technology Controls, JPMorgan Chase & Co. 

Note: This piece was originally published in the December 2022 issue of Business & Finance magazine.

From how we work, our rights, education, travel, water quality, freedom of movement, our infrastructure, foreign direct investment, the peace process, a voice on the world stage to support during major crises, including the most recent pandemic. It has enabled participation in one of the strongest economic areas in the world. We have come a long way from the image of turf baskets, shawls and rosary beads, to a global super-power in Technology and Pharmaceuticals.

Being part of the EU has accelerated the need for Ireland to evolve from an impoverished, insular agrarian economy and a culture of religious oppression, particularly for women. In 1973, when the Marriage Ban for Women working in the civil service was removed, women accounted for a mere 27% of the workforce here. By 2014 that rose to 56% and 77% by 2018.

Equality between genders is one of the fundamental principles of EU law.  Legislation for equal rights between women and men has existed since the very early days of the European Community.

In fact the basic principle of equal pay for equal work was included in the Treaty of Rome (1957), which Ireland committed to in order to join the EU. 

In addressing the lack of integration of equality at policy level in Ireland, major initiatives in the late 1990s and early 2000s were needed to meet European Commission requirements. Where Irish projects were supported by EU funds, they were required to promote equal opportunities. Other important equality legislation such as equal treatment at work and when applying for a job, protection of pregnant workers and breastfeeding mothers as well as maternity and parental leave, has been driven by the EU.

However the EU’s progress overall on gender equality is slow and at the current rate, it will take over 60 years to reach gender equality. Across Europe women still earn less, are underrepresented in positions of power and suffer disproportionately as targets of hate speech, gender-based stereotyping and violence.

In 2019, the Department of Justice described the levels of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in Ireland as “disturbingly high”. This is increasing, COVID-19 has impacted women’s safety even more.  There is a pervasive theme of women being controlled by partners, with research by the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland (BPFI) finding that over 20% of women aged 18-34 do not have control over their money, – where the abuser uses money as a means of controlling his partner (BPFI, 2022).

Ireland has taken a very long time to address the lack of laws prohibiting domestic violence, only enacting the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act in 2017, and the Domestic Violence Act in 2018. In 2019, Ireland ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence , The Istanbul Convention, which defines and criminalises the many forms of violence, harmful communications, harassment etc.

Being part of the EU has accelerated the need for Ireland to evolve from an impoverished, insular agrarian economy and a culture of religious oppression, particularly for women.

The Istanbul Convention stipulates very specifically what governments need to provide to assist women in need of help. Ireland is the only country in Europe to opt for the lowest support level. There are currently only 140 available refuge spaces here, as opposed to the 498 spaces that would have been required if Ireland followed the approach of the rest of Europe. We are failing the victims of domestic violence,  meaning they have to stay with or return to their abusers. 

There are vast regional variations, with nine counties that have no refuges. Safe Ireland stated that around 8 families a day are refused refuge in Ireland due to insufficient spaces (Tusla 2022).

With some very turbulent years to come, equality will be more important than ever. We know economic crises exacerbate domestic violence and discrimination, of which women are most disproportionately impacted. The first report on the EU Commission’s Gender Equality Strategy 2022- 2025, published in March 2021, confirms this  – highlighting that the pandemic has amplified existing gender-based violence against women. This supports long-standing research findings that the risk of domestic violence tends to increase in times of crisis.

So what can we do? 

Our membership of the EU has taught us that a combination of education, legislation policies beyond our own narrow experience can bring about  transformative meaningful change in relatively short timeframes. We have also learned how we can be leaders on a global stage, we’ve enacted very progressive policies and law changes in the very recent past.

There are some very real steps we can take, from implementing strategies (from the EU) aimed at increasing the number of women in decision-making positions, in politics and policy making and  improving the gender balance on corporate boards.  We should be publishing information on pay,  enforcing the Work-Life Balance Directive and other EU laws aimed at tackling the gender gaps and discrimination. Specific support and focus for Women as investors and entrepreneurs (such as InvestEU) are needed, only 8% of CEO’s in the EU’s largest companies are women.

Fundamentally, we need to tackle attitudes and behaviours that underpin and reinforce gender-based violence, starting in primary schools and expanding this for different age groups across a range of educational settings. It’s simply not a level playing field for women, there are real and systemic issues that have deliberately excluded women for centuries.

I would love to see Ireland at the forefront of making equality a reality. With the global employers we attract and retain here, the opportunity to make an impact globally is huge. The benefits of quality are staggering, the more equal a society, the happier, healthier, safer and kinder its citizens are, who amongst us would oppose that as an outcome?

As a net contributor to the EU, it’s our duty to do more to raise the standard of living for those who are excluded and sidelined. Just as we once sat on the edge of Europe, impoverished and suppressed it’s time to make equality a reality, now.

Read more:

The future of preventative healthcare

Leveraging Technology for the Good of All: An Interview with Nikki Lasley, Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Amplitude

Equipping business for success in the global village — An interview with Alice Mansergh of Google