In the week when we celebrated International Women’s Day, the Social Democrats TD says we should settle for nothing less than equal pay for equal work.
THE REMOVAL OF the marriage bar was a defining moment in the working lives of my mother’s generation. It was the practice whereby women employed in the civil service and many other sectors were prevented from working after they got married.
The marriage bar was in place from the early 1930s to 1973. It was a manifestation of a deeply misogynistic society and was put into action by a state which failed women in so many ways.
By the time it was eventually abolished, after the recommendation of the Commission on the Status of Women, it had deeply impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of working women.
Archaic work practices
It was abolished at a time when feminism was on the rise in Ireland. But it came too late for many – and we must never forget the personal stories that lie behind the laws, figures and statistics.
Think of what it was like to be a victim of the ban: the sense of hope for the future dashed; the effect of the isolation from being separated from work colleagues; and, of course, the loss of economic independence.
It would take many articles to track and analyse why and how a marriage bar came to exist in the first place. In short, it came down to structural power being wielded unfairly against women and the social attitudes which dominated undoubtedly played a part.
Fast-forward the best part of 50 years, and the marriage bar looks archaic. It is a forgotten part of Irish history for many, though certainly not for those who were victims of the regime.
The marriage bar may no longer be in place, but we are a long way off economic equality. Equal pay for equal work ought to be what women can expect; instead, it remains an aspiration. In a week when we celebrated International Women’s Day, it is a sobering thought.
The persistence of the gender gap infuriates women who experience it. And so many of us do. Across the EU, women earn on average 14.1% less per hour than men.
The persistence of the gender pay gap is down to a number of factors: women tend to be overrepresented in low pay sectors of the economy and women tend to do more part-time work than men.
But we should not forget the role played by discrimination, which sees women getting paid less for doing the same work as their male counterparts, or the persistence of the glass ceiling, which often results in very few women occupying senior positions in organisations.
The persistence of the gender pay gap cannot simply be argued out of existence. Countless papers and studies have been written which have concluded that, yes, the gap is real, and have set out some of the ways it can be addressed.
There are some who will try to dismiss the gap or claim it hardly exists at all. So many of us are so tired of having to hear our experiences dismissed. We should not have to constantly prove what is so obviously true.
No more excuses
And so, to solutions. It is welcome that Minister Roderic O’Gorman has said the Government will legislate to introduce pay transparency. This legislation will require companies to publish information on pay differences. The secrecy surrounding pay does not in itself constitute discrimination – but it can provide the perfect conditions for discrimination to thrive.
But we should remember that this legislation, while welcome, will be far from a cure for all ills. It is likely that it will cover larger companies only. The publicising of information must be accompanied by meaningful action to address pay disparities at every level.
The Government must take the lead across the public sector and publish plans as to how they will address the gender pay gap. Local authorities must do the same.
We need to introduce a living wage across the economy. We know that women are disproportionately affected by low pay – so let’s raise the floor. This should start with targeted action from the Government.
The childcare sector, where women are predominantly employed, would be a good place to begin. Minister O’Gorman should move to swiftly introduce a legally binding joint labour committee for the sector, as promised in the Programme for Government, which would set a standard below which no one can fall.
Above all, we need to see a sense of urgency from those in power to take action to address the gender pay gap. The Government has the legislative power to address the imbalance and it should use it.
But we also need a cultural change in how we view work and ensure that we get the balance right between our jobs and our lives outside workplaces.
An introduction of the right to collective bargaining still denied in Ireland would help ensure workers have a voice on these issues. Unions protect workers and workers in Ireland should have the right to such protection.
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Holly Cairns is a Social Democrat TD for Cork South-West.