A dhaoine uaisle,
I am delighted to be speaking at this important event, which falls in the centenary year of women's suffrage.
And, without a doubt, Irish women have come a very long way in the last century.
In fact, we have come a long way even since I was born, and further again since my two daughters were born.
And now, 2018 gives us an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come, but also to look at what still needs to be done.
As Minister Flanagan mentioned, the Programme for a Partnership Government includes a commitment on reducing the gender pay gap, and this is reflected in the Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020.
Because, in spite of the progress that has been made, men are still paid 13.9% more than women.
But before we go any further, it’s important to remember that this is not a “women’s issue” – it is an issue that affects all of society.
Because, in order to grow and develop as an economy, we need to maximise and utilise the potential of all of our people.
Having previously worked in male-dominated sectors like banking, gender equality is something I have actively pursued in public life, including in my former Department, and for the same reasons.
Last April, as Minister for Arts, I hosted a gender-policy workshop, which brought together the bodies answering to my Department, senior officials and Waking the Feminists.
I also worked to promote gender balance on the Department’s state boards, and introduced measures to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace in the arts sector.
But let me assure you - I don’t intend to leave gender equality behind in my new role as Minister for Business, Enterprise & Innovation.
And while the gender pay gap falls under Minister Flanagan’s remit, it goes without saying that it’s hugely relevant to the business world.
For my part, I am currently developing the Action Plan for Jobs for 2018, and will be listening carefully to the outcomes of today’s symposium.
Your expert views will inform my work as I set out to further progress gender equality through the Action Plan.
This, in turn, will assist me in promoting actions that contribute to increasing female participation in the workforce and closing the gender pay gap.
An example of an area where the Government has seen real progress already, through my Department and its Agencies, is female entrepreneurship.
Because, in order to close the gap, we need women not just to work, but to work in quality employment, and to become leaders in their roles.
The reason for that is clear -
If women start as leaders in business, we know that they will continue to be leaders, and also act as role models to budding female entrepreneurs, and other ambitious female workers.
The number of new, female-led companies or start-ups has increased from 416 in the 12 months up to Quarter 1 of 2015, to 701 during the same period in 2017. That is a 68% increase.
Enterprise Ireland has a key role to play – and its dedicated Unit for female entrepreneurship is evidence that we are committed to tackling the issue.
Since the introduction of its female only Fund in 2013, the Government agency has seen a huge increase in the number of women participating in the Competitive Start Funds, and the High Potential Start-Ups programmes.
2012 saw the agency supporting 16 start-ups led by women, while 2017 saw 63 start-ups led by women.
28% of High Potential Start-Up approvals came from women last year, as did 42% of approvals for the Competitive Start Funds.
I want that figure to grow considerably over the coming years, because, in spite of the positive trends, there is still work to be done.
The most recent Global Entrepreneurship Monitor showed that while Ireland’s rate of entrepreneurship among women is the seventh highest in Europe, men are twice as likely to be entrepreneurs as women.
I hope to see figures where women are near parity with men in business creation, and maybe even exceed them – and why not?
In tandem with this, through the Action Plan for Jobs, the Government is committed to ensuring that women can access business services right across the country.
Our network of Local Enterprise Offices has a clear focus on female-led businesses, and run a number of Women in Business Networks.
Also through the Action Plan for Jobs, last year’s National Women’s Enterprise Day was rolled out on a regional basis through the LEOs.
But both Government and individual businesses have a part to play, and elsewhere, there are a number of organisations working to help women rise in the businesses they are already in.
But why should businesses care about this? What’s in it for them?
Well, apart from the crucial point that it will contribute to a better and fairer society, the answer is simple: more profit!
A global survey undertaken by EY and The Peterson Institute for International Economics has shown a clear link between women in corporate leadership and profitability.
So, closing the gender pay gap makes good business sense, and brings greater profitability to the economy as a whole.
But, in order to tackle this issue, we need to take an all-of-government approach.
The Taoiseach has spoken about Fine Gael’s aspiration to have paid family leave that can be shared between parents in the first year of their child’s life, and how we are determined to make it a reality.
That, to me, will be a crucial step along the way, as we work to level the playing field for women in the workplace, and close the gap.
I am thrilled that so many organisations and experts are here today to bring forward the agenda of equal pay for equal work.
It is through these dynamic consultations and feedback that we can advance women’s pay.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh.