Sunday 19 November 2017

Evolution of working women in eyes of State

Changing times: Mothers queue outside Ballymun post office to collect Child Benefit in 1984. A decade earlier, only men could collect the allowance
Changing times: Mothers queue outside Ballymun post office to collect Child Benefit in 1984. A decade earlier, only men could collect the allowance
John Meagher

John Meagher

The mother may have been seen as the primary care giver in Ireland - a role still enshrined in the contentious Article 41.2 of the Constitution - but when it came to collecting Child Benefit, she was regarded as a second-class citizen.

Until the Children's Allowance Act of 1974, the person designated to collect the monthly payment was the father. The repeal of the law was viewed as one of the enduring achievements of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement - an organisation that helped overthrow much that was sexist and chauvinistic about an Irish state that was only half-a-century old.

The previous year, 1973, had seen the removal of the so-called Marriage Bar, which prohibited many women from continuing in employment in the Civil Service, local authorities and health boards as soon as they married. When one considers that the average age of brides in Ireland for much of the 1970s was 24, many saw their careers end around the same time as some of today's graduates are only getting started.

The Marriage Bar - repealed in the Civil Service [Employment of Married Women] Act - had been a source of enormous frustration for career-minded women and those who wished to make their own money for much of the 1950s and 1960s, and seemed to represent the way women in treated in Ireland.

There had been signs that things were changing in 1957, when Ban Gardaí were first recruited to the police force and, a year later, when women teachers could continue in the job after their marriage, but the floodgates for greater parity at home and in work truly opened in the 1970s.

In 1973, the Social Welfare Act made provision for the payment of a deserted wives' benefit, and for the payment of an unmarried mother's allowance, while in 1976 the Family Home Protection Act prevented the husband from disposing of the family home without the consent of his wife.

In 1977, the government effected the EEC's directive on equity by passing the Employment Equality Act, which also established the Employment Equality Agency. And, that same year, employees - including pregnant workers - were protected from wrongful dismissal under the Unfair Dismissals Act. While such legislation was necessary - and welcomed - women's pay continued to lag way behind their male counterparts. At the beginning of the decade, the Commission on the Status of Women had called for equal pay as a result of some extraordinary statistics. In the manufacturing industry, women, who made up a third of the work force, were paid 43pc less per hour than men. Women teachers were paid 20pc less than married male teachers (though the same as single men) and female civil servants received 20pc less than both their married and single male colleagues.

As author Eamonn Sweeney notes in Down, Down Deeper and Down, his social history of Ireland in the 1970s and 80s: "The relative situation had actually disproved for women, who were earning less compared with men in 1971 than they had done in 1938."

The 1980s saw signs of further improvements, especially for working mothers. The Civil Service introduced a scheme of job sharing and career breaks in 1984, a move that was soon widely extended through the public sector, while the 1989 Social Welfare Act meant that, for the first-time, married women in Ireland were to be treated equally with men and single women in the social-welfare code.

In 1990, the European Commission launched the NOW (New Opportunities for Women) Programme, with the explicit aim of creating equal access for women to jobs and professional training.

Working mothers were finally acknowledged in 1998 with the Parental Leave Act giving parents an entitlement to unpaid leave from work to take care of young children.

In just 24 years, Ireland had gone from a country where mothers could not collect their children's allowance to being able to take recognised leave from work in order to spend more time with their children.

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