More action is needed to boost female labour participation and bridge the gender pay gap

If we’re to make real change in addressing the gender pay gap, a social shift is required

By Emma Kerins Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Chambers Ireland

IRELAND HAS A much lower female labour participation rate than the European average. CSO data shows that there is a 14% pay disparity between men and women, and in the most recent WEF Global Gender Gap Report we rank ninth overall, having dropped one place from 2017.

Boosting female labour participation rates is a priority of the Chambers Ireland network. Low rates of participation contribute to a lack of diversity in the workplace that manifests in the “gender pay gap”- the difference between men and women’s pay, based on the average difference in gross hourly earnings of all employees.

Supporting those who are excluded from the workforce because of caring duties is an essential element of reducing the pay gap.

What’s driving the gender pay gap?

CSO Statistics show that women in Ireland work part-time more frequently and have lower levels of workforce participation. Women also suffer from occupational segregation, often in lower paid professions.

The Department of Justice and Equality has published legislation which they believe will narrow the gender pay gap. The Gender Pay Gap Information Bill 2019, which has passed second stage in the Dáil, will place a new obligation on all companies with 50 employees and upwards to publicly publish their gender pay gap data online.

If our goal is to narrow the gender pay gap, we must be open to asking how we get there and what policies we need to introduce. The data produced by the Gender Pay Gap Bill should inform these discussions.

Throughout our engagements with the department on this matter, we’ve emphasised how important it is that any new reporting requirements are diagnostic and contribute to policy initiatives which narrow the average pay gap.

The reasons behind why pay gaps exist are multiple and complex. They involve educational structures, social norms, access to affordable childcare and lack of support for parenting equality. 

These factors need to be understood by policy makers, employers and employees if we are to remedy the problem.

More action is needed

This bill has the potential to inform policy meaningfully, but only if State agencies collate and review the data which businesses will be obliged to publish.

It shouldn’t just “name and shame”, then expect change to follow, as reporting alone will not narrow the gap or improve the economic equality of women in the workplace. The bill must be seen as a means to an end, not an end in itself. 

From 2015 UK figures, we can see that while the gender pay gap between men and women was approximately 20.8%, the “Motherhood Pay Gap” (comparing women without children with women who have two children) was as high as 25%.

We know that low levels of female labour force participation are associated with the high cost of childcare and caring responsibilities in the home, therefore further investment in childcare must be a feature of Budget 2020 if it is to become affordable and this gap is to narrow.

Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that the vast majority of caring duties in Ireland are carried out by women. For as long as women are the primary carers in the home, it’s likely that lower female labour participation rate and gender pay gaps will continue.

If we’re to make real change in addressing the gender pay gap, a social shift is required

To promote this shift, government policy should take into consideration the needs of working families particularly around flexibility to decide how parental and/or maternity leave is shared within a couple.

Later this year, government intends to enact legislation that will introduce two additional weeks of parental leave on top of existing family leave entitlements.

But if it is to be effective, more parental leave alone is not enough, it must be introduced in a way that works for employees and is manageable for employers, particularly SMEs. For example, paternity leave could be drawn down on a phased basis over the first few months after a birth rather than in a single two-week block.

We have the opportunity to work together to make constructive changes which help shift how working parents, both male and female, balance professional life with family life.

Let’s take a positive approach that aims to inform policies which work for families, rather than a negative approach that assumes naming and shaming is enough to promote change.

Emma Kerins is head of policy and public affairs at Chambers Ireland

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