Year of the woman: 2018 has been a roller coaster when it comes to women’s advancement

From the Belfast rape trial to the historic referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment, to the shocking CervicalCheck scandal and concerted interventions to address the gender pay gap, 2018 has been quite the roller coaster when it comes to women’s advancement, writes Political Correspondent Elaine Loughlin

Year of the woman: 2018 has been a roller coaster when it comes to women’s advancement

From the Belfast rape trial to the historic referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment, to the shocking CervicalCheck scandal and concerted interventions to address the gender pay gap, 2018 has been quite the roller coaster when it comes to women’s advancement, writes Political Correspondent Elaine Loughlin

‘Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver.’

Almost 110 years after Constance Markievicz uttered those rabble-rousing words women have undoubtedly made considerable advances but in many instances they still have a fight on their hands.

In the year that we celebrated a century since women were given the right to vote, just 22% of our TDs are female.

Irish women are now more likely to have a third-level qualification than men, with over half (55.1%) of women aged 25-34 having a third-level qualification in 2016 compared to just 42.9% of men in this age group.

However, the 2016 census showed that the employment rate for women was at 59.5% — over 10 percentage points lower than the male employment rate of 69.9%.

And even when females do enter employment it appears that their career progression can often be stunted.

While 51% of university lecturers were female in 2017, only 24% of professors were female. In the Institute of Technology sector, 45% of lecturers are female, but only 36% of senior lecturer positions were held by females last year.

Again the latest census tells us that women accounted for over four out of five employees in the health sector. However, the proportions of women at senior levels in health are lower with women accounting for 39% of medical and dental consultants.

The Korn Ferry Irish Board Index published this year revealed that 42% of Iseq-listed companies sampled have a single woman on their board.

In the coming months we will mark another historic moment — 100 years since Countess Markievicz became the first female minister in a modern democracy, having been appointed minister for labour at the first meeting of the Dáil in 1919.

But it seems that for much of the intervening time we have failed to progress at the same pace.

Many of those interviewed for this piece still see Markievicz as a benchmark for what can be achieved.

Constance Markievicz: Almost 100 years since the rebel countess became the first female cabinet minister, women have undoubtedly made considerable advances but in many instances they still have a fight on their hands

Constance Markievicz: Almost 100 years since the rebel countess became the first female cabinet minister, women have undoubtedly made considerable advances but in many instances they still have a fight on their hands

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone referred to a sketch portrait of her predecessor which hangs in the Cabinet room in Government Buildings.

“I am two people to the right of the Taoiseach and she is on the wall opposite where I sit, so every Tuesday when I sit down I take a look at her and really do take inspiration and heart from her and the extraordinary way in which she operated, not all of which I would agree with in terms of the type of approach that she took, but she was so radical.

“She was determined and she also crossed classes.”

While we have repealed the Eighth Amendment, have highlighted issues around sexual consent, the gender pay gap and women’s health in 2018, for many change is something that comes dropping too slow.

“There were times when you felt ‘yes! This is progress’ and then as a woman there were petrifying stories of women still dying in our health system, women who should not have lost their lives, women whose lives are still at risk,” said Green Party TD Catherine Martin.

In the centenary, I look back to 100 years after Markievicz became the first cabinet minister and I wonder what Markievicz would say 100 years on?

“114 women versus 1,179 men have been elected to Dáil Éireann and I have been told more men with the name John have been elected than women to Dáil Éireann, we have a long way to go.”

But Ms Martin like many other present day female leaders across all sectors remains determined to continue with the fight.

“We must remember nothing is insurmountable.”


On a damp Sunday afternoon, a young woman stood in solitary silence on Cork’s bustling St Patrick’s St.

One by one strangers began to approach her and soon a line had formed by those queuing up to embrace the woman who, bereft of clothing, was making her own powerful stance.

Jena Keating’s mouth was taped shut and scrawled all over her body in marker were the words ‘this is not consent’.

Her protest came just days after a case in Cork sparked controversy when a senior defence counsel had asked the jury to consider the 17-year-old’s complainant’s choice of underwear in a closing speech.

That a woman’s item of clothing, and more accurately her underwear, be dragged up and used as a defence argument in a bid to taint her name, question her credibility or suggest consent had been given, provoked anger, lead to protests in Cork and Dublin and also provoked Solidarity-BPB TD Ruth Coppinger to produce a thong in the Dáil chamber.

“Clothes, fake tan and even contraception have recently been used to discredit women who had the bravery to go to court,” Ms Coppinger told the Dáil.

Either the judiciary believes these rape myths, in which case they should be forced to undergo education, or lawyers are using them to introduce sexist stereotypes which they know resonate with some in society and on juries. I suspect the latter is the case.

Eight months earlier and another trial — that of international rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding — sparked a similar debate which led to thousands of people coming out to march chanting #suemepaddy and #ibelieveher as they listened to many others who shared their own personal stories.

The trial, which had gripped the nation and for nine weeks dominated the media, came to an end in March with both men being acquitted of all charges, however, it caused a wider discussion around sexual consent, the protections and supports provided to victims, and the low reporting rates of sexual crimes.

Labour Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin who got himself into hot water for a tweet sent out earlier this year with the hashtag #suemepaddy said it can only be seen as a positive that these discussions are now happening.

“I also think most Irish men’s eyes would have been opened up during the debate around the Eighth Amendment and rape came into focus in that campaign.

“When you are involved in the equality sphere you begin to realise that women are doubly disadvantaged. It always seems to be that if you in a vulnerable situation you are even more at risk if you are a women. Gender plays into everything,” he said.

In mid-September, it emerged that three female college students had been raped in Cork in the first weeks of the university term.

What should have been the start of an exciting and enjoyable first semester of their third-level education had undoubtedly been tainted and ruined for those three young women.

In November, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan announced that a second Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (Savi) report will get under way early next year.

But the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) said it was very concerned about the long timeline, which will mean the report will only be published in 2023 at the earliest — 21 years after the first one in 2002.

Orla O’Connor, director of NWCI, said there is an urgent need to have up-to-date data on sexual violence in order to develop effective responses and prevention measures.

Women simply cannot wait.


Vicky Phelan should not be a household name.

Vicky Phelan, like most other mothers in Ireland, should be living in relative obscurity, juggling family with work, school runs, grocery shopping, homework, mortgage repayments and football training.

Instead the mother-of-two, diagnosed with terminal cancer, this year found herself in the middle of a High Court battle and it was her gritty and courageous decision to waive anonymity which led to the uncovering of the CervicalCheck scandal.

As more details began to drip out it emerged that many more women — some of whom have since died — were not told of an audit into their smear tests which showed up different results from the initial reading.

More women and their families came forward — Lorraine Walsh, Stephen Teap and the late Emma Mhic Mhathúna despite their own personal turmoils publicly campaigned for the 221 families caught up in the horrific controversy.

In his review of the scandal Dr Gabriel Scally found a culture of misogyny and paternalism along with a widespread disregard for patients which was “damaging, hurtful, and offensive”. There was “no compelling requirement” on doctors to provide information to women, Dr Scally said.

The 170-page document, containing 50 recommendations, revealed a “total systems failure” with no one person in charge of the cervical screening service.

He documented the personal accounts of women who had been dismissed by doctors even after the CervicalCheck controversy emerged.

After publishing his report in September he recounted the experience of the family of a deceased woman who were recently told of the smear test audit.

They said they went into their disclosure meeting and the consultant said several times about the late woman’s smoking habit and also told them that ‘nuns don’t get cervical cancer’. Now if that isn’t paternalism, what is? It’s verging on misogyny.

Calling for an overhaul of the system Dr Cliona Loughnane, women’s health co-ordinator with the NWCI said Dr Scally’s report vindicated what was consistently heard from the women affected and by patient advocates.

“One of the most stark comments contained in Dr Scally’s report is ‘Why does this always happen to women?’ From now on, the Government needs to prioritise women’s health, to ensure another health scandal is not allowed to happen,” Dr Loughnane said.

She added: “The testimony and actions of the women and their families affected by CervicalCheck has been a huge inspiration, and we will remain forever grateful to Vicky Phelan for refusing to sign a non-disclosure agreement and for bringing these failings to light.”

If there can be any silver lining from the scandal it is that there is now an increased awareness around the importance of screening in detecting early abnormalities which hopefully will encourage all women to attend for smear checks.

The importance of screening has been emphasised by Ms Phelan since the issues first came to light.

We certainly owe an awful lot to Vicky Phelan and others who have come forward in 2018.


For generations in Ireland, women who had sex outside marriage brought about punishments which were religious, carceral and often corporeal.

We are now trying to acknowledge and address the many ruined lives from Tuam to Bessborough to Bethany.

In October, the Government agreed to go ahead with a full exhumation of the remains of hundreds of infants buried in a mass grave at the former mother-and-baby home in Tuam, Co Galway. This type of process could be expanded to other mother and baby home sites.

In his report Dr Geoffrey Shannon referred to the need to treat people with decency and dignity, both of which had been absent in the past when those who were thrown into mother and baby homes were shunned and shamed.

He recommended that the State now needs to have regard for the distress and anguish caused to family members and for the extreme delicacy of exhumation.

There is a common law duty to bury with decency and dignity and that principal of treating remains decently and with dignity is a core principle that is at the very heart of the recommendations that I have advanced.

“It’s very clearly a balancing exercise,” he said.

This balancing exercise will require far more than simply exhuming and assessing the remains of the many babies who were placed in mass graves. In a speech made in Boston College in March Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone spoke of the need for a system of transitional justice.

Transitional justice, she said, will not only allow us to understand where we are coming from but also what we as a country, a society and a community want to be.

“Our shared aspiration must be to make a tangible transition from those punitive, paternalistic and misogynistic underpinnings that continue to work themselves out in our state — from institutions of criminal justice, to education, medicine and welfare,” she told the audience.

It can be easy to confine the great injustices and wrongs that were done to innocent women and their children in past to a dark period in history, but Ms Zappone said women are still being shamed today for different reasons.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner for this piece, Ms Zappone said that we need to “move to a place, not just where we apologise, but that the apology means that society changes to become a freer space for women and girls.”

She added: “We have to change our systems and our structures and our forms of political representation in order to ensure that the policies and the laws and practices and the way we fund all of those ensure that never again is this going to happen.”


It was a groundswell that had been gathering for more than three decades.

On May 25 the Irish people came out in a display of compassion, empathy and support for the women of Ireland to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

In what has become a social-media and selfie obsessed world, it was not slick advertising, poster campaigns, political messaging or even televised debates that swayed minds and hearts.

It was the conversations had in kitchens, offices and cafes with normal women, the courageous mothers, daughters, girlfriends, colleagues, sisters and wives of Ireland who came forward to tell their stories.

The result came from years of work by activists and civil society groups, and some politicians who continuously raised the issue in the Oireachtas, said Orla O’Connor, director of NWCI and co-director of Together for Yes.

Women’s lives and experiences were placed at the centre of the Together for Yes campaign, and the personal testimonies of women, couples and their families who travelled to access abortion care, or imported illegal abortion pills contributed hugely to the public awareness of the immense harm and hardship caused by the Eighth Amendment.

But the road to the overwhelming result of the referendum was not an easy journey.

Independent Minister Katherine Zappone remembers meeting Leo Varadkar just before he became Taoiseach when he was asking for her support after winning the Fine Gael leadership contest in May 2017.

“I had my meeting with him, my memory is that he wasn’t quite as gung-ho about repeal at that stage, he was open to it, I said ‘look we have to keep moving in this direction we need to do it as quickly as possible’ and he said ‘ok, that’s fine’.

“But in terms of his own personal conversion to being out there and being strongly in favour of the issue, he wasn’t quite there yet,” said Ms Zappone who had cited a referendum to repeal the Eighth as a key political priority.

On January 18, Micheál Martin rose to his feet. A debate on the holding of a referendum was underway in a sparsely populated Dáil when the Fianna Fáil leader unexpectedly entered the chamber.

In a measured but deeply frank contribution, Mr Martin said he had read the report of the abortion committee over the Christmas break and most importantly had listened to the diverse contributions of women.

After a “long period of reflection and assessment of evidence before the Oireachtas committee” he had reached the decision that the Eighth should be removed from our Constitution.

“The Eighth Amendment has been shown to cause real damage to Irish women. It has caused real harm to the quality of care available to pregnant women at critical moments. It has not and cannot change the reality that abortion is a present and permanent part of Irish life.

“If we are sincere in our compassion for women and if we are sincere in respecting their choices, then we must act,” said Mr Martin.

His 20-minute speech caused some disquiet in the party, especially among those who still remain staunchly pro-life, who were livid at their leader’s unexpected ambush.

But Mr Martin’s contribution was a key indicator, a pivotal moment in the campaign which highlighted the evolving mood amongst middle Ireland that there was a willingness and appetite for change.

In the following months many women and men would come forward with often harrowing personal experiences. But no one could have expected the landslide result of May’s referendum.

Now, 35 years after the Eighth Amendment was inserted into the Constitution, we are reforming our abortion laws and providing women in Ireland with access to the reproductive healthcare they need.


There are now a record number of women in our Dáil.

But with just 35 female TDs and 18 senators those representing the people of Ireland are not representative of the population.

“We have to accept the fact that when we look around here in Leinster House, this is not reflective of outside. If you walk from Leinster House to Grafton Street and you look around you there is a huge difference, we are not reflected and the parliament should be reflective,” said Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly.

This stark lack of female leadership is sadly apparent in senior roles across all sectors of our society, be it education, business, the media or the legal profession.

In November, Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor took what could be seen as drastic but required action to rebalance some of the power in our universities and ITs.

She announced the roll-out of 45 female-only senior academic positions which will made available over the next three years in a bid to tackle gender inequality in third-level education.

But like them or not, it appears that gender quotas are working. The introduction of gender quotas resulted in a 40% increase in the number of women elected to the Dáil in 2016 meaning women now take up 22% of the seats.

The establishment of the the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus in 2017 has also given our elected females scope to discuss and campaign on issues predominantly affecting women on a cross-party basis.

Chair of the caucus, Catherine Martin said: “It’s really evident even in the corridors when we meet, it’s not just at caucus meetings that we are working cross-party, relationships have developed cross-party.

I would emphasise that the caucus are meant to work together cross-party to improve the lives of women outside Leinster House, but relationships are developed here where there is a safe space to talk together so if there is a problem within your own party you can turn to the woman in the other party and I think that’s really important.

But significant work is still required to catch up, especially at local council level, where male representation remains close to 80%.

“We have a county council in Offaly that is all male, here we are in 2018 and we have an all-male council where a woman’s voice is not being heard there. It’s pretty incredible,” Ms Martin said.

“That phrase ‘young girls cannot aim to be what they cannot see’, we are definitely not seeing them in Offaly anyway.”

The caucus hosted the first International Congress of Parliamentary Women’s Caucuses in Dublin Castle in September.

Speaking at the conference, which brought together female parliamentarians from more than 40 countries, former UK Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman made a bold statement: “It appears only men are able to rule the Labour Party. Next time, we have to have a woman.

“Don’t get me wrong, we have many brilliant men, and I encourage their ambition, I tell them: ‘You are an asset, I want to encourage you to aspire because one day, you could be deputy leader’.”

In this country there has still never been a female tánaiste, female minister for finance or a female minister for foreign affairs.

Women, when they are elevated to a ministerial position, are often given what are regarded as the soft or caring positions.

Those surveyed as part of the Irish Examiner’s annual poll in conjunction with the ICMSA had the most difficulty in ranking the four female ministers in Leo Varadkar’s Cabinet.

It would be impossible to pinpoint the exact reason for what appears to be a significant lack of public awareness of our female ministers and the role they play in Government, but political scientist Theresa Reidy surmised that their elevation to “soft” or “gender-related” portfolios plays some part.

Even when women make it into senior roles, there is still a significant difference in pay between males and females.

Speaking in the Dáil in November, Labour leader Brendan Howlin worked the gender pay gap out in simple terms, he said that on average if a man earns €100 a woman at the same level will earn €86.89.

While the gap may be narrowing it will take some time before it is fully closed.


Almost nine in 10 women murdered in Ireland are killed by a man known to them.

This was one of many startling facts contained in the Women’s Aid Femicide Watch 2018 report which revealed the extent of violence against women in this country.

Calling for a formal review of domestic killings as a matter of urgency to help protect women and children and save lives, Women’s Aid said that since records began in 1996 and up until their report was published on November 23, a total of 225 women had died violently, an average of 10 each year.

Perhaps more shocking was the fact that in that time 16 children had died alongside their mothers.

In cases that have been resolved, it was found that over half of women were murdered by their current or former boyfriend and 61% were killed in their own homes.

The big thing that sticks out in my mind when I think of 2018, is the awful level of domestic violence and that needs to be addressed. It has been a very violent year for women.

“The number of women who are dying in their own homes is horrifying,” Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee said.

“It’s a problem that goes right across the country, urban and rural, rich and poor families and it’s very very prevalent.”

Orla O’Connor, director of NWCI, said a massive cultural shift is urgently needed to reduce the number of women being killed by men they know.

“It’s really hard to say if things are getting safer for women, because quite simply when it comes to domestic and sexual violence, the data is very poor. A combination of stronger legislation, increased effectiveness of State frontline services and significant investment of resources to increase women’s safety is fundamental to get to the heart of the problem.”

One encouraging factor was the passage of the Domestic Violence Act 2018 into law by the President in May of this year.

The bill provides for a new criminal offence of coercive control, which for the first time recognises psychological abuse in an intimate relationship. It also allows victims to give evidence by live television link to avoid the risk of intimidation.

Victims will be able to bring a friend, family member or support worker into court to support them during proceedings.

But campaigners say the Government urgently needs to ratify and implement the Istanbul Convention, which is a blueprint for best practice in the area violence against women.

“It is an opportunity for Ireland to rise to the challenge of violence against women and meet the scale of the problem,” said Ms O’Connor.

More in this section

IE Logo


Your guide to staying at home


Join us for our International Women’s Day virtual lunchtime celebration on Monday, March 8 from 1pm


Have the Irish Examiner delivered to your door. No delivery charge. Just pay the cover price.

Discover the

Install our free app today

Available on