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Opinion: Women are working for free from today until 2018

It’s all well and good to deplore the fact a pay gap exists and not all workplaces promote equality, but what can be done about it, asks Angela Smith.

Image: Festa via Shutterstock

IN IRELAND, THE gender pay gap is just under 14%. That’s the difference between the average gross earnings of women and men. If you shave 14% off the end of the year, you land roughly on today’s date: 10 November.

So, we’re designating today as Ireland’s Equal Pay Day – the day on which women effectively stop earning for the rest of the year.

In the past few months, the extent of the gender pay gap at the BBC was revealed, followed swiftly by reports of a similar situation at RTÉ. More recently still, the revelations emerging from the film and theatre industries in the US, the UK and here at home have brought into sharp focus the discrimination, ill-treatment and challenges faced by women at work.

Progress on equal pay

It’s all well and good to deplore the fact a pay gap exists and not all workplaces promote equality, but what can be done about it? For the past two years, we’ve run an annual Equal Pay campaign and one of the solutions we’ve highlighted is greater wage transparency.

A Bill is currently working its way through the Oireachtas, which – if passed into law – will go some way towards achieving this. Mirroring existing regulations in the UK, it will give the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission power to compel employers of 50 or more to regularly report on their gender pay gap.

Alongside this legislative development, the government has recently run a public consultation on tackling the gender pay gap. Dress for Success Dublin made a submission to this consultation, outlining the actions we believe need to be taken.

These include:

  • Introducing mandatory shared parental leave and addressing gender stereotypes;
  • Making childcare more affordable; and
  • Undertaking research on how the gender pay gap impacts on lower-income earners and those with lower levels of educational attainment.

Mandatory shared parental leave

In Ireland, mothers are entitled to 26 weeks’ paid maternity leave, and a further 16 weeks’ unpaid leave. Fathers are entitled to just two weeks’ paternity leave. In contrast, in Sweden, for example, parents get 480 days’ leave to split between them and it is mandatory for fathers to take at least 90 days of this allocation.

In the UK, the mandatory maternity leave period is 12 weeks, with a further 40 weeks to be split between parents as they wish. Similar models are in place in Norway, Iceland, Denmark and elsewhere. The introduction of mandatory shared parental leave – to be split between couples as they see fit – is a key step in addressing the gender pay gap.

Furthermore, men must be encouraged and supported to avail of their parental leave entitlements: in August of this year, it emerged only one-third of new fathers had taken their two weeks’ paternity benefit since it was introduced last year.

If fathers are supported to play a more equitable role in childcare, there are obvious benefits for women. Firstly, it makes it less likely that women will miss out on promotions or pay rises because of gaps in their CVs. Secondly, it makes it less likely that employers will discriminate against women when hiring or awarding promotions. Thirdly, it societally embeds a culture of equality, empathy and understanding in the home, mitigating against cultural inequalities in the workplace.

Shared parental leave will also contribute to addressing gender stereotypes, which can limit women’s and girls’ educational and occupational opportunities from the youngest age.

Impact for lower-income earners

One concern we have about the debate on pay equality is that women in more precarious jobs and on lower salaries are often overlooked. In the media and in public discourse, the focus tends to be on high-income earners in high-profile roles or corporate boardroom settings.

The experiences of the poorest and most vulnerable women are not as well documented, for example women in lower-income roles, part-time positions, on zero-hour contracts, and with lower levels of educational attainment.

The majority of low-paid and part-time workers in Ireland are women. Women also typically enter retirement with lower pensions than men, often because they assumed caring duties for children or other family-members over the course of their working lives.

As part of our Equal Pay campaign, we’re engaging with politicians in national and local government. We’re highlighting to them the steps that can be taken to proactively tackle the gender pay gap, and to promote workplace equality – in all types of workplaces and at all levels.

Angela Smith is CEO of Dress for Success Dublin. Further information about Dress for Success Dublin’s Equal Pay campaign is available here. #EqualPayDfSD

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