Marking both International Women’s Day and the 25th anniversary of IMPACT, this blog post looks back at some of the union’s advocacy on behalf of women’s rights throughout the 1990s.
In 1991, IMPACT official Kevin O’Driscoll was quoted in The Irish Times as saying that “exceptional measures would have to be taken to appoint women to senior positions in local government”. At that year’s IMPACT conference in Tralee, O’Driscoll said that women in local government were victims of “blatant discrimination” resulting from a “system of apartheid”. He recommended that there be an annual equality audit to ensure that enough women were promoted into senior positions. At that time, there had never been a female county manager, assistant county manager, county secretary or finance officer.
Later that same year, in the week that he became the body’s vice-president, Phil Flynn spoke at the ICTU conference in Killarney. He noted that the number of women delegates at the conference had trebled from 50 to 149 from the previous year. He called for “a real growth of equality in the trade union movement”, stating that “if it did not develop in the unions then it would develop nowhere”.
In 1993 IMPACT organised an equality conference, launching a campaign to eliminate sexism in primary and second-level school books.
In March 1994 Bernie Lillis of IMPACT told the ICTU conference that “not a penny more of taxpayers’ money” should go to men-only golf clubs. She said that these clubs were “set up by men for men” and functioned as “power bases for men”. She argued that men-only clubs “should be refused grants by the Government unless they give full membership to women”.
In June of 1994 the Minister for Agriculture, Joe Walsh wrote to IMPACT seeking a nomination to replace P.J. Woulfe as the staff / union representative for Teagasc. In his request, the Minister outlined the Government’s aspiration to fill at least 40% of State Board vacancies with women. Accordingly, IMPACT nominated a female representative. The minister, however, despite the wording of his own request, appointed a man to the board. IMPACT passed a motion at conference deploring the Government’s failure to live up to their own gender quota standards.
In September 1996 the first equality audit (as had been called for by IMPACT in 1991) was carried out in Dublin Corporation. IMPACT’s Peter McLoone praised the audit as “an example of what could be achieved for staff and service users when unions and management work together”. The audit found that women earned significantly less in pay and worked primarily in indoor, low-skilled positions.
IMPACT issued a report based on the findings of the audit. The report found that the dominance of men on interview boards was having a deleterious effect on women’s chances of promotion. IMPACT called for “balanced male/female representation on all interview panels”. The report outlined a series of equality policies as a blueprint for achieving gender balance in local authorities.
Minister for Local Government, Noel Dempsey, addressed an IMPACT-organised conference in October 1997. He announced a “major drive to boost the number of women running councils”. This drive would involve a special development programme to attract more women into senior positions in Local Government.
In January 1998 IMPACT published a sample-document entitled ‘Stand Up’ to serve as a model for formal workplace bullying policies. IMPACT’s Matt Staunton said, in relation to the document, that cases of sexual harassment needed to be dealt with speedily, seriously and in confidence.
The following month, Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mary Wallace, addressed an IMPACT Equal Opportunities seminar. She said that the trade union movement was an ally in the struggle to create a system in which work and family life could co-exist successfully.
In July of 1998 Paddy Keating was quoted in the Irish Independent regarding the acceptance – or otherwise – of pregnancy in the workplace. He said that “a lot more needs to be done to change attitudes. In the same way that many women still take off their wedding rings before they go to interviews, there is a view that getting pregnant will limit your chances of promotion”.
Also in 1998, Carmel Donnelly of the Probation and Welfare Officers’ Branch of IMPACT called for urgent action on the increasing numbers in Mountjoy Women’s Prison. Due to a lack of new resources to address increasing numbers of inmates, Donnelly said that the women’s prison was a “time bomb waiting to go off”. Donnelly said that the understaffing of the prison was a symptom of “sexist policy practice” in the prison service.
In April 2000, Sylvia Meehan told an IMPACT equality conference that a ‘baby bar’ had taken the place of the old ‘marriage bar’ for women. The burden and cost of childcare, she said, was the driving force behind income inequality between the genders.
Since its inception, IMPACT has been continued the fight for equality and for parity of esteem for women in the workplace. This snapshot of advocacy initiatives during the 1990s serves as a reminder that the work is ongoing for IMPACT and for the entire trade union movement.
See also: Gender inequality remains a persistent feature of life on this island – Patricia King, general secretary, Irish Congress of Trade Unions
Lughan Odlum Deane
Lughan Odlum Deane is researching and compiling a history of IMPACT’s 25 years