I thank Members for the opportunity to speak today about the impact of Covid-19 on women. It is important that we have these debates to keep the issue of gender equality live but also to better understand the experiences of women in order that we as legislators can continue to make great strides towards achieving gender equality. I am particularly pleased to have this opportunity in the context of International Women's Day.
The theme chosen this year for International Women's Day by UN Women is Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a Covid-19 World. This theme encourages us to celebrate the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic, and all events that surround it, have had a profound impact on women in Ireland and worldwide. We are experiencing a crisis with health, social and economic dimensions that is having different impacts on women and men. There is an urgent need to understand this gender dimension and factor it into policy responses.
The greatest risk is that it has left us in a situation that could reverse advances for gender equality that have been decades in the making. The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many existing inequalities in society including inequality that disadvantages women.
Ahead of International Women's Day, it is important to recognise the courage shown by women during these past 12 months, the bravery of women in speaking out about their experiences of Covid-19, as well as demanding better from society and from the Government. Women have campaigned, and continue to campaign, and valiantly draw attention to the inequalities in our society. They do so with great determination and success. However, it is not women alone who should be striving for gender equality. We are in privileged positions in the Dáil. We must all use our voices to elevate the struggles of others and advance the rights of women and the more marginalised people in our society. As a Government, we cannot merely choose to be feminists when it suits us or when it looks good. Feminism needs to be at the core of everything we do and every decision we make if we are truly serious about achieving gender equality through our actions. Importantly, our feminism must be inclusive and recognise the unique struggles faced by women of colour, trans women, Traveller women and disabled women.
A patriarchal society still exists. Sexism still exists and women still face misogyny in everyday life. There exist some who are trying to make cracks in our feminist movement as we strive further for equality. There are some who are attempting to exploit perceived weaknesses in order to exclude marginalised voices. The fight for inclusive feminism is a battle that still continues. Activists have worked too hard for inclusive spaces for them to be taken away. Not only do we need to be able to identify these exclusionary tactics but we must also choose to challenge them.
The past year has been particularly difficult for women and families who have experienced pregnancy. Many women have had to experience important milestones, like the 12-week or 20-week scans of their pregnancy, alone or even the birth of their child, moments which would have in normal circumstances been shared with a partner or a close friend or family member. The strength shown by pregnant women during this pandemic has been remarkable. It is important to recognise this today.
Many women have spoken out about their experiences of reproductive healthcare during this pandemic. It is imperative that we listen to these voices in order that we can ensure women are empowered to make their own decisions around reproductive healthcare, as well as making sure they are supported in their journey through pregnancy.
As a result of the pandemic, we are also seeing evidence across Europe that women's labour market participation is impacted to a greater degree than that of men. Women are over-represented in the sectors which have been badly affected in the pandemic. Women are more likely to have reduced working hours, suffer job losses or leave the labour market.
The reasons for this include women experiencing greater conflict between working and their family lives, and having lower entitlements to benefits relating to employment. This may be a temporary pattern but recovery of the female labour market after earlier periods of lockdown has been slower than that of men. If this pattern persists, it could have long-term implications for the female employment rate, for women's progression and pay in general, as well as for the gender pay gap.
Women have carried an unequal share of the unpaid work of keeping families going. We know this is the reality, even though it may not be spoken about openly. For example, the burden of home schooling arising from school closures has fallen disproportionately on women.
Both in the care economy and in unpaid work in the home, the pandemic has highlighted how care work is undervalued in our society but is fundamental to how it functions. It has also shown the value of the care infrastructure we have invested in already and the potential for further investment in services.
For women who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, we must ensure that they are supported to retrain and reskill and continue to participate in the workforce.
The Gender Pay Gap Information Bill 2019, which I intend to progress as a priority, will assist with continuing to highlight the pay gap across companies and in the civil and public service. I intend to monitor the implementation of the legislation, once passed, to ensure that we are on track to achieve our aims.
Further work on developing family leave options will also assist with addressing the assumptions that women are always the primary care giver, and will encourage greater sharing of the care load. On Tuesday, I will bring to Government a Bill which will enact the Government's existing commitment to extend parent's leave and benefit from two weeks to five weeks for each parent and to extend the period in which it can be taken from the first year of a child's life to the first two years. This leave is non-transferable and is aimed at supporting working families with additional leave at this difficult time, but also to encourage parents to share the childcare burden and ensure that fathers also get to spend time with their child in the crucial early years.
Included in these proposals are amendments to the adoptive leave legislation which will address the anomaly whereby married male same-sex couples are excluded from the leave. It will do so by removing the presumption of the gender of the person who will take the adoptive leave, and will give the adoptive family the freedom to choose who is best to provide that primary care. The other parent will be entitled to a paternity leave equivalent.
My Department will also continue to work on examining policy on flexible working and on the implementation of the work-life balance directive to ensure that the opportunities that the changing work environment has presented are fully capitalised on and that remote working does not become gendered and become a barrier to career progression.
I am delighted to have this opportunity today to address these crucial issues - the specific impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on women, particularly in the context of International Women's Day - and I look forward to hearing the points colleagues make across the House. At this point, I will hand over to my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte.