When I look back, I sometimes wonder how things might have been if we had not joined the European Economic Community in 1973. In Ireland at that time, it was taken for granted that men should be paid more than women for doing exactly the same job because they had a family to support. The ban on married women working in the civil service, second level teaching and in other public service jobs (the ‘Marriage Bar’) was another ‘natural’ arrangement. Social attitudes were such that women’s participation in any kind of paid employment after marriage was seen as a reflection on their husband’s ability to provide for them. The government was busy attracting foreign companies that would only employ men. Women were publicly addressed by their husband’s first as well as second name. So, my mother was officially Mrs Denis O’Connor- all vestiges of her own identity being obliterated. As a young woman, who had graduated from UCD with a first-class honours’ degree at 19 years, none of this seemed at all ‘natural’.
When Ireland joined the European Economic Community, it became bound by a series of directives related to equal pay and equal treatment as regards access to employment and social security. The state’s compliance with these Directives appeared prompt. But the devil was in the detail. The way the Employment Equality Act (1977) was applied meant that indirect discrimination was effectively perpetuated. Discrimination was so embedded in state practices that it was not seen as such. Thus, the Irish state introduced ‘compensatory payments’ for married men in 1985 and they continued until 1992 as part of its attempt to implement the EU Directive on equal treatment for men and women in social security. They were judged to be discriminatory by the European Court of Justice in 1995. The fact that they could have been seen as acceptable illustrates the extent to which institutionalised discrimination was embedded in ‘normal’ procedures by the male dominated Irish political system and the civil service. Of course, changes were also facilitated by the women’s movement, particularly in the 1970s, and by local and sectoral skirmishing since then. But without the EU directives in the 1970s, how effective might they have been?
More recently the EU has continued to provide ‘incentives’ to national governments to move forward on gender equality. In the 1990s it did this through requiring gender mainstreaming of EU funds i.e. that gender equality be incorporated into the development, implementation and evaluation of all EU funded activities. This established the legitimacy of a focus on gender equality. At this time the civil service, local authorities and a variety of state and semi-state organisations developed a sudden interest in gender equality and there was a blossoming of women’s studies in virtually all higher educational institutions. Both of these developments contributed to undermining taken-for-granted assumptions about male power and privilege.
The EU has continued to ‘encourage’ nation states to deliver on gender equality through linking it to much sought after tranches of EU research funding. Gender equality in research and innovation is a particular priority of the EU and since 2012 it has been committed to working with national governments to move this forward. The first steps in this direction at EU level were taken by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn when she was European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science. Over time, the EU has moved from a focus on ‘fixing the women’ to ‘fixing the organisations’ and ‘fixing the knowledge’. The EU research funding programme 2014-2020, Horizon 2020, with a budget of €80 billion was particularly concerned with promoting gender equality in scientific careers, in decision making and in the integration of gender into the content of research and innovation. Horizon Europe, the Programme for Research and Innovation 2021-2027 with a budget of €95.5 billion requires organisational gender equality plans as part of the eligibility criteria for those applying for funding, with such applicants also being required to integrate a gender dimension into the content of their research. No longer can research on the symptoms of heart attacks ignore women, or seat belts ignore ‘minor details’ such as pregnancy.
Ireland led the way in being the first county in the world to pass a referendum on same sex marriage. But our history is littered with the names of the many women who were victims of a misogynistic society determined to control and restrict women’s lives (Eileen Flynn, Ann Lovett, X, Y, A, B, C, D cases, Miss P, Savita Halappanavar etc.). Abortion became legal only after 30 years and six referenda and is still not available in all parts of the country. Women are the high educational achievers, but men make up almost three quarters of those in the most senior academic positions (i.e full professors) in the universities; 30 per cent of girls in a national survey of higher education students indicated that an attempt had been made to rape them. Yes: discrimination and misogyny are less obvious now- but they have not disappeared. But without 50 years of EU membership, I shudder to think where we might be.
Inspired and assisted by the Irish Foreign Affairs as part of the Communication Europe Initiative, our Ireland EU 50 series is a selection of unique stories from writers from Ireland and elsewhere. The CEI was established in 1995 to raise awareness about the European Union and to improve the quality and accessibility of public information on European issues.