Check against delivery
3 May 2017, George’s Hall, Dublin Castle
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Twelve months ago when Minister David Stanton and I started the work on this strategy, I was aware of a kind of floating question.
Do we really need a national strategy for women and girls?
Come on, the big obstacles to women’s progress are gone.
The assumption behind that floating question is that social progress has an inexorable logic to it.
It’s always moving forward.
It’s always on the right side of history.
It can never be rolled back.
None of that is true.
I wish it were true.
But it isn’t.
Just look at the twelve months since then: international events prove social progress can rolled back with horrific ease and that advances in women’s equal rights are being questioned and can also be reversed.
The other reason for this strategy is the recurring invisibility of women. The consultation process overlapped with the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Great success, every aspect of the celebrations, but most significant in their shining a light on women who made major contributions to the Rising and who had become invisible.
“The Rising, and the following nation building, owes much to the role played by women,” says Chief Justice Susan Denham and she’s right. The last year has effectively re-positioned the women of the rising. Sharpened our focus. Brought them out of the shadows.
It has also hammered home the reality that women’s equality is a work in progress, not a completed task.
It’s a work in progress greatly contributed to, in terms of the consultation feeding into this strategy, by people of all ages who took time to express their interest in various aspects of women’s participation in Irish society.
The one theme that surfaced, again and again, was this invisibility of women and a lack of critical mass in many areas.
This strategy is one contribution to solving that. We must and should want women to have their work acknowledged and to be part of decision making.
Let me be very clear.
It’s about equality. Pure, simple equality.
The more women take their rightful place, the more they help to shape society, and society should be shaped by the total population, not by a section of it.
It does come back to visibility.
Where women are not as visible as men across key areas of Irish life, this does impact on what decisions are taken and how we craft the future.
The scope and ambition of this strategy are clear from the title.
It’s a national strategy because it speaks to Ireland – to the society we are, and the society we aspire to be.
It’s an all-of-Government initiative.
It draws in local government, employers, employee representative bodies and civil society.
We’re keen to emphasise that reaching gender equality and empowering women and girls isn’t solely the business of woman.
Our aim is the betterment of society for all, so the Strategy has to speak to women and men, boys and girls.
Why is this Strategy for girls as well as for women? 22 years ago, in 1995, I was privileged to be in Beijing on the occasion of the Fourth World Conference on Women, when it adopted the historic Declaration and Platform for Action. I might remind you that 1995 in Ireland was another period of sustained public focus on gender equality, in the aftermath of the Report of the Second Commission on the Status of Women in 1993, on which I served.
The Beijing Declaration recognised that the girl child is mother to the woman, stating that: “The girl child of today is the woman of tomorrow. For the girl child to develop her full potential she needs to be nurtured in an enabling environment, where her spiritual, intellectual and material needs for survival, protection and development are met and her equal rights safeguarded. "
Supporting the girl of today will help to foster the confident woman of tomorrow.
The Strategy includes six main objectives:
· To advance socio-economic equality for women and girls;
· To advance the physical and mental health and well-being of women and girls;
· To ensure the visibility in society of women and girls, and their equal and active citizenship;
· To advance women in leadership at all levels;
· To combat violence against women; and
· To embed gender equality in decision-making.
This is a Strategy for all women, old and young, urban and rural. It is a Strategy for migrant women, Traveller and Roma women, women who have disabilities, and for women who are LGBTI.
The Strategy includes actions on economic independence, employment, childcare, education, health, combating violence against women, decision-making, sport and the arts. It is a living document, which can be added to and modified, recognising that inequalities can take new forms and require new approaches.
The Strategy commits the Government to continue to increase investment in childcare over the period to 2020 and to introduce, on a phased basis, a new national scheme of financial support for quality childcare. At the same time, work is well underway on options to enable parents – both men and women - to take paid leave for the first year of a child’s life.
The Strategy includes a commitment to develop a National STEM Education Policy. The aim will be to develop a systematic approach to encouraging girls to take up STEM subjects and to consider STEM careers. We equally need to see what can be done to increase female participation in apprenticeships. These are crucial actions to address the continuing gender segregation of our labour market and help tackle the gender pay gap.
My Department will begin work this year on the action to undertake wage surveys among companies of 50 employees and over to establish what the current practices are in workplaces across the country. This will provide crucial evidence to determine how best to approach the complex issue of the gender pay gap. The Government will also work with the business sector on targeted guidance for employers on reducing the gender pay gap.
At the same time, legislation to tackle precarious employment and casualization will be of benefit in improving conditions for lower paid workers, many of whom are women.
It is not enough to get one or two women into leadership positions. We have to achieve a critical mass. And why should we be satisfied with reaching figures of 20, 30 and 40% - whether in politics, state boards, in Local Authorities or companies.
The representation of women on corporate boards remains much too low at 16%. Speaking at an event at the Central Bank in March, I discussed the concerning findings that only 20% of applications to fill senior roles in the financial services industry are coming from women.
Women have to be part of the decision-making process. We know that better decisions are made when decision-makers are diverse. We are told endlessly of the dangers of group-think. What better way to combat group-think than to ensure that more women are appointed to decision-making positions?
I am proposing a range of actions to address this problem. The first step will be to undertake an independent review, similar to that undertaken by Lord Davies in the UK. The Government will then take action on foot of the recommendations put forward by that review. I am confident that we can launch a dynamic process which will constitute a step change in the percentage of women on corporate boards.
There is something to be found for women at all stages of their lives in this Strategy - be it their subject choices in school, pay rates in the workplace or pension provision in retirement.
Women are also benefitting from greater access to assisted human reproduction technology. It is important, however, that this technology, which is rapidly changing, should be regulated properly. Equally, surrogacy, while a lifeline for some couples, should not become a form of exploitation of surrogate mothers. The interests of the children also need to be safeguarded.
I welcome the recognition from my colleague Minister Harris for the need to have a long-overdue national conversation on the separation of church and state when it comes to the provision of health services, not least maternity services. Absolute clarity is essential on the services that will be provided on the much-needed new National Maternity Hospital.
As you can see, the Strategy is tailored as much to new issues as to those which are longstanding problems. We have to recognise that we are operating in a new technological environment. Recognising the power of social media, including as a means of perpetrating violence, the Strategy includes an action to draft legislation to combat the posting of so-called ‘revenge’ videos and photos or voyeuristic material. Young women should not be afraid to end relationships because of the threat that their privacy will be breached and their reputations damaged by an ex-partner’s actions on social media.
You are all aware of my commitment to tackling gender-based violence and the Strategy outlines a range of measures to tackle this enduring problem. I have set a target in this Strategy to ratify the Istanbul Convention by the first quarter of 2018.
Coming back to the six high-level of objectives of the Strategy, I believe that our sixth objective – embedding gender equality in decision making – is crucial to its success.
We must remind Government Departments and decision-makers that gender reaches into every area of Irish life. If the gender perspective is ignored, women’s needs can be overlooked.
Women’s needs have to be a central part of the policy formulation process. The Strategy includes actions on gender budgeting and, as Tánaiste, I will be working to ensure that these actions are implemented and closely monitored over the lifetime of the Strategy. The document commits all Government Departments to ensure that they integrate a gender perspective into the development and review of national strategies. Recognising the particular issues faced by rural women, gender equality will be taken into account, for instance, in the implementation and monitoring of the Action Plan for Rural Development. A gender perspective will also be integrated into the design and review of funding and grant schemes to ensure that women get their fair share of public resources.
The National Strategy for Women and Girls sets as its vision ‘an Ireland where all women enjoy equality with men and can achieve their full potential, while enjoying a safe and fulfilling life.’ In 5 years’ time, the Irish State will be 100 years old. What more fitting vision for its future century than one in which the women and men of this island are valued, treated equally and given a fair chance at life? It is up to us, women and men alike, to work so that it can become a reality.