The most up-to-date figures on wage levels in Ireland show a gap of approximately 15% in the average hourly earnings of women when compared with men. This data is compiled by the Economic and Social Research Institute from the Living in Ireland survey. The ESRI research found that the greater part of the gender pay gap is because women interrupt their careers to care for children with consequent loss of job experience and promotion opportunities. Women's over-representation in low paid positions and their under-representation in senior levels were also significant factors.
The gender pay gap is an indicator of progress towards the achievement of gender equality in the labour market. Research by the ESRI indicates that the gap has been reduced from 20% in 1987, to 18% in 1994, and to 15% in 1997. Preliminary figures for 2000 indicate a further narrowing by 0.3% to 14.7% in the period 1997 to 2000. The figures indicate that women's pay levels have improved relative to men's in the period, although the rate of progress has slowed.
Our existing wage data sets do not permit annual monitoring of the gender wage gap. The national employment survey which has been introduced by the Central Statistics Office will provide regular economy-wide data on the gender pay gap. The first results from this new survey are due for publication in mid-2004. This is a significant development and will allow us to track the gender wage gap and also to understand movements in the figure.
My Department chaired the consultative group, set up under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, to report to Government on actions required to address the gender pay gap. The group's report has been finalised and was formally presented to Government in November 2003. It contains a number of recommendations addressing a wide range of Government policies including child care, the development of family friendly policies, the promotion of equal opportunities policies, statutory minimum wages and taxation. The consultative group has also overseen sectoral studies on the gender pay gap in the IT — electrical and electronic, retail, food and local government sectors. My Department has recently commissioned research on the gender wage gap among graduates. It is expected that this research, which is being carried out by the ESRI, will be completed by the end of 2004.
A significant part of the work of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, including the ongoing implementation of the equal opportunities child care programme and the proposals to strengthen the provisions of the Maternity, Parental and Adoptive Leave Acts, will have a positive impact on the gender pay gap. Also relevant is the work of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, in overseeing the implementation of the Government commitment to gender balance on State boards. Currently women constitute 30% of state board nominees and 35% of Government nominees. In addition, the equality for women measure is also making an important contribution to addressing the gender pay gap through the identification of best practice on gender equality. More generally, Government support for equal opportunities in education and training and for the equal opportunities infrastructure, together with the statutory minimum wage, are important elements of our overall strategy to address the gender wage gap and to ensure equal opportunities for women and men at work.