One hundred years ago, Constance Markievicz became the first woman elected to the British House of Commons, and she became the first woman cabinet minister in the first Irish parliament in January 1919. We had to wait 60 years for the second. I think how much better the course of Irish history might have gone if has there had been women around the Cabinet table through the decades.

We spend a lot of time in Ireland at the moment apologising and atoning for things that happened in the past. And I can’t help thinking that some of those things might have happened differently or perhaps not at all, haD there been women sitting around that table.

In the history of the Irish state, only 19 women have been cabinet ministers; four of them are in the government I lead. That must change and that will change.

You all know the barriers women face before they can have full and equal participation in the political process. Selection committees and money are two obstacles. Lack of encouragement leading to a lack of confidence is another. 

We also know that women with childcare and other caring responsibilities have barriers in the way of a political career. 

 

We need a change in our culture as well as our policies

 

In other countries, for example, it’s possible for women and men to take a year out to take care of their newborn children, with their substitute on their parliamentary list replacing them. To do so in Ireland would require modification of our electoral system, but is perhaps something we could consider, and which I think would be of benefit to women, to men and to society.

I think we could perhaps give consideration to having job sharing roles in government, which is something that is increasingly common in private industry and the public service.

 

Gender equality benefits everyone

 

Gender equality isn’t something for women; it benefits everyone. We get better results when there is a diversity of views around the table. Part of the solution is reducing the barriers faced by many mothers working outside the home.

It’s why the Irish government introduced two years of free pre-school, childcare subsidies, longer maternity leave and paid paternity leave. We recognised that all these things made it easier for people to advance. They help women and men and reflect our idea of what a 21st century society should look like.

 

Paid parental leave for dads, too

 

This is only the start, but is a good start. The next step is to create a system of paid parental leave to allow both mothers and fathers to spend more time with their children in the first stages of their life. Of course, men must be more willing to take on more caring roles, more so than has been the case in the past.

 

State boards must have 40% female presence

 

Visibility really matters. How often do you see a public platform where all the speakers are men? What message does that send to the young women in the audience - that men can aspire to lead, and women should aspire to listen? What message does it send to young men? It’s something that needs to change.

It’s why we have a target for our State boards. At least 40% of the members of our boards must be women. Focused action achieves results.

As of July 2018, women make up 40.6% of members of our State boards in Ireland. And that trend is going upwards all the time.

In fact, 52% of appointees through the PAS system to State Boards in the last year were female – the first time there was a female majority in appointments to State Board. And almost 40% of the most senior positions in our Civil Service, at the rank of Secretary General and Assistant Secretary General, were female in the last year.

However, the figures for the business sector are not so encouraging. Women constitute only 18.1% of members of the boards of leading Irish companies. I want this figure to increase significantly. 

So, the government has established a business-led initiative entitled, Better Balance for Better Business, to promote greater gender balance in business leadership. It’s about changing the mindset and changing the culture.