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Speech of An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD, The #WorkEqual Conference

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Good morning everyone.

Thank you Mark for the introduction and thank you Sonya for the invitation to speak to you this morning.

According to the European Institute for Gender Equality Ireland is now ranked 7th in the EU on the gender equality index. That’s out of 28 countries. In sporting terms we are in the first division but by no means on the podium yet. 

We have made progress but we need to do more and we will. 

I know from talking to my sisters, to my friends, to women I work with how difficult things can be.  The barriers that still exist and the obstacles in your way.

On the 11th of November your #WorkEqual campaign highlighted a remarkable statistic.

Many women would effectively be ‘working for free’ for the rest of the year, due to the disparity in pay between men and women. 

The gender pay gap needs to be closed and the Government is determined to help that happen. 

Not everyone has grasped the message yet, but the old ways of doing things are not acceptable anymore.  

Change must come and change is coming. So, on the 8th March we held a special meeting of the Cabinet to mark International Women’s Day.

At the meeting we ratified the international convention on violence against women, the Istanbul Convention. There is an epidemic of violence against women and that needs to stop.

Our agenda focussed on gender equality and we discussed new initiatives to promote increased participation by women in the local elections and greater gender equality on local councils.

We also evaluated our progress to date in achieving workplace equality and what more we need to do.

Part of the challenge is removing the barriers to women staying in the workplace.   Our mission over the past two-and-a-half years has been to develop better work-life balance, for example, bringing in better parental leave, paternity benefit, greater financial support for childcare and early childhood education (pre-school) thus enabling more men to spend more time caring and more women and men to return to work more easily. 

Achieving workplace equality requires that we act now.

So we are raising awareness among women and employers alike of employment rights and redress mechanisms.

Every six months we publish statistics on employment equality decisions by the Workplace Relations Commission that relate to discrimination. 

On the initiative of Minister Regina Doherty we are also developing ‘returnships’ for women who have been out of the workplace for a prolonged period of time – usually to raise a family or care for a relative so we can help them rejoin the workforce.

Gender diversity is better for business.  We all know that instinctively and international evidence backs us up.

And, through our “Balance for Better Business” initiative we are improving gender balance in senior business leadership. 

The first report of its Review Group examined Irish-registered companies listed on the Stock Exchange.  We have set targets over a five-year period for the achievement of gender balance on the boards of these companies, as well as interim annual targets.

The targets are ambitious but achievable.  We want 33% female directors for ISEQ 20 companies by 2023 and 25% for all other Irish-listed companies.

In 35 days’ time – on the 1st of January 2020 - not a single company traded on the Euronext Dublin markets should have an all-male board.

Last year the overall percentage of women on Irish publicly listed boards increased from 14% to 16.4%. And, two ISEQ 20 companies appointed women to their boards for the first time. So, figures are moving in the right direction, but we are below the EU28 average of 24.6%. 

As a country, we should be doing better than this.

As a society, we need to do better than this.

We all need to show leadership.

When it comes to State boards almost half now meet or exceed the 40% gender target and we’ve raised the target to 50%.  Almost 30% of the people who chair Boards are female, and over 40% of the Board members in total are female.  And that is going upwards all the time.

As you all know, in the civil service there is still a gap when it comes to the higher management levels.  With the Civil Service Renewal Plan we are working to change this.  Something that is making a major difference is our executive leadership programme and thanks to encouragement and mentoring more and more women are taking part.  Since 2010 we have seen a doubling of the number of women at Deputy and Assistant Secretaries levels and, while we still have further to go at Secretary General level, we will get there. 

Political parties need to show leadership as well.

My party has more female TDs, more female MEPs and more female councillors than any other party. But its nothing to crow about. With the exception of our European Parliament delegation which is 4:1 female, women are very much an under-represented group.

Through the work of Minister Phelan, the Government introduced a funding scheme to incentivise political parties to field more women candidates in the 2019 local elections.  It builds on the changes previously introduced linking State funding for political parties to the percentage of male and female candidates they run in general elections.

It has made a difference in terms of how parties select candidates and is starting to make Dáil Éireann and Council chambers more representative of our society as a whole.

It is painfully slow.

Legislation can also help direct change in other ways.

The Gender Pay Gap Information Bill is currently going through the Oireachtas and will require employers to publish gender pay gap information.  The regulations will initially apply to firms with 250 or more employees but this will become 50 employees in time. 

Information on differences in bonus pay will be among the data, which must also be published.  And the regulations will apply to the public as well as the private sector. 

The legislation is about more than gathering information. It requires employers to set out the steps they are taking to eliminate or reduce any pay gap. This will incentivise employers to do whatever they can to reduce the gender pay gap. 

In terms of gender pay gap metrics we will publish mean and median statistics, data on part-time employees, as well as information on bonus pay and benefits in kind.

I know you have a panel discussion on this legislation later this morning and I look forward to hearing back your thoughts and ideas. 

We need to approach the issue of gender equality with a spirit of innovation and use methods that have worked so well in other contexts.

In recent years we have had considerable success in Ireland with Citizens Assemblies – bold exercises in deliberative democracy which have brought real results.  99 randomly selected Irish citizens, balanced for age, gender and location, with a respected figure chairing the meetings.  As we know, they helped paved the way for marriage equality, and other major social and political changes like the repeal of the 8th amendment.

Building consensus, reducing division, and helping us make real progress.

Most recently, our Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change called for Climate Action to be at the heart of Government, and sent a strong message that people wanted us to be ambitious.  Our Climate Action Plan builds on that work.

Now the Government is establishing a Citizens Assembly on gender equality.

The inaugural meeting is scheduled for Saturday 25 January 2020 and the first weekend meeting is scheduled for the 14th to the 16th of February 2020.  

We are asking it to bring forward proposals to increase women’s full and effective participation at all levels of decision-making in the workplace, politics and public life and ensure equal opportunities for leadership.  The Assembly will be chaired by Dr. Catherine Day, a former Secretary-General of the European Commission, and the first woman to hold that post.

I want the Assembly to specifically examine pay inequalities across our economy because all too often they result in women being disproportionately represented in low pay sectors.

I also want it to challenge the remaining barriers and social norms and attitudes that facilitate gender discrimination towards girls and boys, women and men.

The Assembly’s reports will go to an All-Party Oireachtas Committee and from there we will drive actions.

I look forward to seeing the results of their deliberations and acting on them.

Finally, congratulations to Sonya and everyone at Dress for Success on hosting this event and on all your activities this past year.

Your interesting, innovative and inspirational leadership is making a difference.  The best ideas do not emerge out of thin air – they come from debate, discussion and the honest sharing of views.   I look forward to hearing what comes out of today. 

Thank you.