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We need more female leaders - it's just good business practice

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Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald

Like almost every woman in this country, I fill a number of different roles. We all do. In my case: mother, TD, minister.

As a TD, I am one of a small minority of women who have been elected to the Dail.

Being a woman sets me apart from many of my peers who sit in Dail Eireann, because, of course, in the Irish Parliament there are 27 women and 139 men. Since the foundation of the State, of all of those elected to the Dail, 2pc have been women, and in the entire history of the State, there have been 14 female ministers.

There are 166 seats in the Dail so out of a total of hundreds of elected representatives since the foundation of our State, only 14 women have made it to Cabinet. Over the past 100 years, the Irish electorate has elected just 95 women to parliament. Our current female representation rate of 16pc in Dail Eireann is the highest in the history of the State.

These figures are quite shocking. The EU average for female representation in national parliaments is 27pc. Such figures are not unique to politics. Across all sectors in Ireland, at the highest decision-making levels, there is not yet a critical mass of 30-40pc of women.

It is difficult to understand how this remains the case when females represent the majority of the population. Since joining the European Union in 1973, women in Ireland have been entering the labour market in ever-increasing numbers and are now 46pc of the total workforce. Initially, the discussion focused largely on how women - and not men - could balance work and family life.

Now - at least in theory - we recognise that each parent has child-rearing and family responsibilities.

Now we acknowledge that, as a society, we need to put in place structures that facilitate women and men to play active roles in home and family life while also enabling both genders to reach their full potential in their careers. My interest in gender equality, which pre-dates my entry into politics, means I have been an eyewitness to many points of progress on equality matters.

In 1988, I was elected as Chair of the National Women's Council of Ireland. This coincided with a period when gender equality was becoming prominent in political thinking, both nationally and internationally. In 1992, I served on the Second Commission on Women in Ireland, chairing the Employment Sub-Committee. Many of its recommendations helped to create a working environment which removed many barriers to female employment.

In 1995, I attended the historic signing of the Beijing Declaration and its Platform for Action at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. While many important advances have been made in the 20 years since Beijing, particularly around female employment and educational attainment, we have not yet achieved or come close to achieving gender parity in decision-making.

Achieving gender balance in decision-making positions is not just a question of fairness or even of equality, although both are undoubtedly valid reasons. It is also a matter of sound business practice. As a nation striving to move from recession towards the goal of sustained economic growth, we need to ensure that we utilise the full potential of our talented workforce.

Gender equality and the promotion of gender-balanced leadership is a key contributor to economic growth and competitiveness.

Significant steps have already been taken. From the next general election, political parties have to comply with legislation, introduced by this Government, to address the under-representation of women in politics. Political parties who do not put forward 30pc candidates of each gender at the next general election will face financial penalties. Seven years later, the target will rise to 40pc.

In my own department, I am piloting a talent bank of women to serve on state boards, with the support of the Public Appointments Service. At 36pc overall, the percentage of women on state boards is among the highest in our decision-making sectors. However, half of our state boards still do not comply with the 40pc target. We continue to address that. In July this year, our Government restated its commitment to reaching this target.

Tomorrow, my department is hosting a unique conference and we are bringing together key decision-makers from the public and private sectors to discuss practical measures on how to support and achieve gender-balanced leadership.

This conference, 'Investing in Talent - Promoting Gender-Balanced Leadership', is being jointly organised with IBEC and is receiving assistance from the EU under its PROGRESS programme (2007-2013). The conference presents a rare opportunity to debate why gender balance is so important in our decision-making structures and how we can make this a reality.

In measuring Ireland's progress over the last two decades since Beijing, there is much that we can be proud of. Women in Ireland are among the most highly educated in Europe, while the number of women in employment has increased by almost 50pc.

Our challenge now is to take the next steps to ensure that a critical mass of women take their place in leadership positions across all sectors.

Gender-balanced leadership, which has at its heart a diversity of voices, opinions, knowledge and experience, will lead to more inclusive and better decision-making. It will make a major contribution to our economic growth and prosperity.

Frances Fitzgerald is Minister for Justice

Irish Independent