Committee Reports::Report No. 01 - Changing Attitudes to the Role of Women in Ireland Attitudes Towards the Role and Status of Women 1975-1986::31 May, 1988::Report


Changing Attitudes to the Role of Women in Ireland

Attitudes towards the Role and Status of Women, 1975 - 1986


1.Joint Oireachtas Committee on Women’s Rights have recognised over the years that Irish women will not be able to take their rightful place in society in general, and in the workplace in particular, until there is a fundamental change of attitude by the population at large in regard to the role of women.

2.Traditional attitudes have discouraged women from entering trades and professions and educational barriers have prevented them from pursuing courses and training which would allow them to maximise their talents. This has led to discontent among women and has deprived society of a valuable contribution from a large section of the population.

3.The First Joint Committee’s Report on Education (First Report on Education, Pl.2671), published in October 1984, tackled this issue and made a series of recommendations aimed at eliminating sexism in schools and at providing opportunities for girls to obtain a broadly based education free from discrimination which would enable them to face the challenges of the modern world and play a full part in modern society. The Joint Committee feel that, if a fundamental change is to take place, opportunities should be enlarged to give young women a wider choice in the educational courses and subjects they wish to pursue and to offer them the possibility of entry to all levels of education consistent with their ability.

4.In their Report on Social Welfare issued in May 1985 (Second Report on Social Welfare, Pl.3204) the First Joint Committee pointed out that the status of women in society in Ireland will remain diminished until they are guaranteed equality of opportunity in all spheres of activity and until changes take place in the deep-rooted attitudes which compartmentalise men and women into specific roles.

5.Equality legislation, however welcome, is not sufficient unless it receives positive support from all sections of the community and operates against a background which regards equality as the accepted norm.

6.The media play an important part in influencing and changing attitudes. In their Report on Women in the Media (Third Report on the Portrayal of Women in the Media, Pl. 3797) published in April, 1986 the First Joint Committee sought to bring about improvements which would eliminate sexism in advertising and encourage the portrayal of women as intelligent human beings with a wide range of interests and attitudes which match those of men.

Study on Changing Attitudes in Ireland.

7.Since the 1960’s there has been a rapid change, particularly among young people, in social values and in attitudes to formal religion and moral issues. It would be surprising if changes were not also taking place in attitudes to the role of women in society although there has been a general impression that Irish attitudes to the role of women have not greatly changed, that the traditional outlook was based on the natural conservatism of a population which for the most part had its roots in the land and which was greatly influenced by the Church.

8.In these circumstances, the Joint Committee felt, that there was need for an expert evaluation of changes in traditional outlook which would indicate how far people were prepared to accept and support positive action in favour of improving the role of women in society. In 1986 the Joint Committee asked Dr. Margret Fine-Davis, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Psychology, Trinity College, Dublin, to measure the change in attitude towards the role and status of women in Ireland which has taken place over the period 1975 to 1986. Dr. Fine-Davis had already carried out a study in 1975 which was subsequently published in 1977 as a report to the Department of Labour under the title ‘Attitudes towards the status of women: Implications for equal employment opportunity.’ The aim was to up-date data on attitudes which that study had revealed.

9.General attitudes are important in determining the extent to which women participate fully in the social and economic life of the country, the progress which can be made in improving their role and status and the obstacles which have to be overcome before this goal can be achieved. Progress on women’s rights cannot be made in a vacuum. It must take account of the reaction, both favourable and unfavourable, of the community at large.

10.In December 1987 Dr. Fine-Davis produced a comprehensive study which is based on a detailed survey and evaluation of changes in attitudes. The Joint Committee regard this study as an important social document which is a valuable contribution to the debate on equal rights for women. The views expressed by Dr. Fine-Davis are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Joint Committee.

11.The study is a survey of attitudes people had and how they have changed over a period of time. These changes are obtained by means of surveys of evaluations by individuals of aspects of their life and their attitudes to social issues at different times. In this paper they relate particularly to equality.

12.The survey was carried out in late September 1986 as an 11-year follow-up to a survey of attitudes toward the role and status of women in Ireland, carried out in 1975 by Dr. Fine Davis. The original 1975 study was based on a sample of 420 male and female Dublin adults, aged 18 to 65, who were selected using stratified quota sampling procedures. The 1986 study involved a repeat and extension of the original 1975 study. The sampling and data collection procedures were identical to those used in the original study, except for the addition of 300 rural subjects and a consequent slight diminution of urban respondents, resulting in a total of 600 respondents. The content of the 1986 questionnaire was identical to that used in the 1975 study with regard to the key sets of items, and additional items concerning more current issues were added.

13.As the sample was based on stratified quotas, it does not constitute a national representative sample; however, every attempt was made to maximise randomness in subject selection within the context of the stratification design. The results may be generalised to the groups studied, but not to the country as a whole. Differences measured between groups are quite reliable indicators, since the sampling techniques used to obtain respondents within categories were essentially random, based on addresses taken from the Electoral Register by means of the ESRI’s random sampling system RANSAM, and strict quota sampling procedures were used.

14. In addition to the 1975 and 1986 studies, several key items measuring attitudes toward gender roles from the original 1975 study were repeated in a larger nationwide representative study (N = 1,862) of the quality of working life and attitudes to social issues in Ireland, which was carried out in 1978 by Dr. Fine-Davis and co-workers. The availability of this data enabled comparisons to be made between 1978 and 1986 and specifically enabled rural - urban comparisons to be examined with regard to attitude change during this period.

15.The sampling, fieldwork and data processing for all three of the studies were carried out by the Survey Unit of the Economic and Social Research Institute. Final responsibility for the design of the study and the interpretation of the results rests with Dr. Fine Davis.


16.The Joint Committee have decided to make a series of four reports to the Houses of the Oireachtas based on Dr. Fine-Davis’s study. The Joint Committee are taking this course because the study deals with four distinct aspects, each of which draws attention to developments which merit separate consideration and separate comment. These aspects are:

(a)Attitudes towards the Role and Status of Women, 1975-1986

(b)Issues related to Equal Employment Opportunity

(c)Attitudes towards Moral issues in relation to voting behaviour in recent referenda and

(d)Environmental and Peace issues.

17.During the course of this year the intention is to publish four reports under the general heading “Changing Attitudes to the Role of Women in Ireland” and to publish Dr. Fine-Davis’s study in full as a series of appendices to these reports. Thus the reports will be divided as follows:

1.The present report deals with (a) above which has been added as an appendix.

2.A second report will deal with (b) above which will be added as an appendix.

3.A third report will deal with (c) above which will be added as an appendix and

4.A final report will deal with (d) above which will be added as an appendix. This report will also draw together the appendices to the previous three reports into one integrated appendix and will contain comment on the study as a whole.

18.This procedure will allow the Joint Committee to highlight aspects of the study which might be lost sight of if it were dealt with in one report. For convenience, the final report will enable the Houses to have one comprehensive document together with an overview by the Joint Committee of the study as a whole.

Views of Joint Committee

19.The Joint Committee note with satisfaction that in the first part of her study - see Appendix. Dr. Fine-Davis found that changes in attitude towards the role and status of women have been generally in a positive direction. Most people no longer believe that a woman’s only role should be that of wife and mother, with the man playing the dominant role both inside and outside the home. The Joint Committee welcome growing support for equal opportunities and a belief that women should play an active role in the political and business life of the community.

20.Attitudes in the population are more favourable to equality not only in the public sphere but also in the private domain. This includes the home, the Church and private clubs and facilities.

21.Social change in other countries has shown that a firm official policy can result in large changes in behaviour and attitudes despite initial resistance to that policy. Dr. Fine-Davis supports this view by pointing out that legislation on employment equality had a very significant impact not only on attitudes to equal pay, but also in other related areas. Moreover, this legislation contributed to the increased acceptability of married women working and to the notable decrease in traditional attitudes to the role of women in the workplace and in society in general.

22. Given that non-employed married women are no longer content with a passive, traditional role, the Joint Committee accept that they will enter the labour force in increasing numbers in future. The Joint Committee do not see any reason why the current participation rate of 20% should not approach the level of 50% which is common in the US and much of Europe.

23.As Dr. Fine-Davis remarks, this development will create pressure for social supports which will help women to fulfil the dual role of wife/mother and worker. This aspect will be covered in a wide-ranging report on women at work which the Joint Committee hope to issue by the end of the year.

24.The Joint Committee recommend that members of both Houses of the Oireachtas, as legislators, should support legislation which is designed to remove discrimination against women in both the public and private sphere. The Joint Committee are concerned that anachronistic and discriminatory rules still prevail against women in some private sporting clubs in Ireland.

25.In this regard Article 13 of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women provides that States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, the right to participate in recreational activities, sports and all aspects of cultural life.

26.A report on the measures adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention was prepared by the Department of the Taoiseach and submitted to the United Nations Secretariat in February 1987. This report pointed out that

“There is no evidence to suggest that women are prohibited from participation in certain sports in Ireland. Instances of discrimination do arise, however, in relation to membership of certain sports clubs which are clearly not single sex institutions but which deny full membership status to one of the sexes. In Ireland, golf clubs are the prime example where such practices exist although other sports clubs are also known to apply similar rules. it should be mentioned in the case of golf clubs that the discrimination described above is not applied universally.

Golf Clubs in rural areas, in particular, are receptive to the idea of offering full membership to women for reasons such as ensuring the full use of facilities and obtaining a better financial return to the club. These reasons do not, generally, apply to golf clubs in urban areas which find little difficulty in securing their full membership quota and whose membership is often over-subscribed.”

27.Moreover a resolution adopted by the European Parliament on 14 October, 1987 called on member states, which allow the exemption of sporting activities from the scope of equal opportunities and anti-discrimination legislation, to remove this exemption, so that equal opportunities for women may be promoted in sport as in all other areas of life. It also called on authorities at national, regional and local levels, to bring pressure to bear on sporting organisations to amend discriminatory provisions, notably by refusing grants to sporting clubs and organisations which discriminate against women. This policy is being applied in Ireland and the Joint Committee support its continuance in the future.

28.Dr. Fine-Davis’s study found that there was a surprisingly high level of agreement (90%) that discrimination against women should be prohibited not only in public places but in private facilities as well, such as athletic clubs.

29.The Joint Committee recommend therefore, that the State should take all the measures which are open to it, including legislation, if possible, to remove barriers to equal treatment in private sporting clubs, particularly in those clubs which insist on remaining single sex.

30.The Joint Committee note that single men tend to be more discriminatory than other groups whereas married men have more egaliterian attitudes which probably reflect the positive influence of marriage where most of them come to appreciate women more as equals.

31.Dr. Fine-Davis suggests that attitudes of men might be influenced in a more egaliterian direction through women’s studies which contribute to a new awareness of male and female attitude and outlook. In this regard, a submission has already been made by the Women’s Studies Association of Ireland to the Curriculum and Examination Board and the Joint Committee recommend that the Board should give serious consideration to the proposals contained in this submission.

32.The Joint Committee feel that studies like that carried out by Dr. Fine-Davis’s, which measure such important topics as changes in gender role attitudes and women’s experience of discrimination, should not be carried out on an ad hoc basis. Such vital information should be part of the usual statistical data that is compiled and analysed on a regular basis by official Government agencies and Government-funded research institutes.

33.There has been increasing recognition of how women’s role has been “omitted” by official demographic statistics, with the result that their contribution to the economy - the domestic economy, the family farm and the labour force - has either been invisible or underestimated. While the statistical position is slowly being rectified, there has been a lack of data on the position of women. The traditional emphasis on the collection of a wide range of economic indicators has meant that social indicators have been neglected. Such indicators, including those of an attitudinal nature, are vitally important in helping to assess and guide social policy and legislation, particularly in the area of equality. The Joint Committee thus recommend that the collection of social indicator data in the area of gender equality - as well as in other areas of social concern - be given greater priority by the appropriate State or State-funded bodies in the future.

34.The Joint Committee would welcome constructive comment on this Report which could be considered in the context of any recommendations which the Joint Committee may make at a future date.


The Joint Committee wish to thank Dr. Margret Fine-Davis, Trinity College, Dublin, for the considerable time and effort she has devoted to the research study published in the appendix to this report. Without her invaluable assistance, this present series of reports would not be possible. The Joint Committee also express their appreciation of the capable assistance given by their Clerk, Mr. Seamus Killeen and by Ms. Aisling Hart in preparing this report.

Approved by the Joint committee on 4th May, 1988.

Monica Barnes, T.D.


6 May, 1988.