Senator Sharon Keogan — Erasure of "woman" from Maternity Act
Updated: Feb 15
I largely welcome the Bill. It is a hard and often thankless task to balance employer and employee rights, and I know how much of the debate on the legislation in the Dáil and in the committee centred around time periods, whether it would be paid or unpaid, and who would be included or left out of certain provisions. There are those who would tilt the scales entirely in one direction and force employers to pay time and a half to a worker who is out sick for three days, thereby putting the entire country out of business. Likewise, others would love nothing more than to flirt with the opposite extreme and erode workers' rights to flatten profit margins. Neither of these approaches is desirable and it is essential the Government strike a balance, an all-important word in the Bill's Title. To that end, it would be of great interest and importance to analyse and appraise the impact of the Bill on our working economy once it has been in force for some time. Will the Minister speak to that issue? What plans are in place to carry out such an assessment so that we can revise some of the timings in the Bill, if needed?
We must address the fiasco that was the removal of the word "woman" from the Maternity Protection Act 1994. What a ludicrous sentence to even have to say. The Minister may well respond, as he did to Deputy Tóibín in the Dáil, that this Bill does not remove the word "woman" from the legislation. While that is true, it was not always the plan. By the time the Bill was presented to the House on 5 October, the word "woman" was in its rightful place, albeit alongside the term "other person". One would have no idea as to how close we were to that not being the case. The general scheme of the Bill published on 21 April states: "The Maternity Protection Act 1994 is amended (a) in section 16(1) by the replacement of “woman” with “person”." The accompanying explanatory note declares: "For the avoidance of doubt, “woman” is being substituted for a gender neutral term, such as “person”." That was the plan of the Minister's Department, and I presume he and I have no reason to believe it would have changed if I had not flagged it in this Chamber on 6 June. Once people got wind that this was coming down the line, a national dialogue was kick-started and we had three days of back-to-back coverage on the national broadcaster. Joe Duffy quickly saw how passionate the women of Ireland are about themselves, one another, their identities and history, and all the comes with being a woman and recognised as a woman.
This level of honest discussion had many progressives clutching their pearls and reaching for the smelling salts, so aghast were they that both sides of the debate would be given space to talk by our national broadcaster. Indeed, the national conversation that opened up was decried in this very Chamber. It seems, though, that at least one person was paying attention. Whether this was the Minister, or an official in his Department, we can be sure that these few strokes of the pen that turned head 12 of the general scheme into section 16 of this Bill saved his Government even more of a PR headache than he may think.
It is worrying, though, that none of this would have happened if one individual had not spotted a cluster of three heads in the general scheme of a little-known Government Bill, whose Title had nothing to do with the problematic provisions themselves. It is a good thing that Covid-19 taught us to raise the eyebrows any time we see "Miscellaneous Provisions" in a Bill Title and to go and do our own digging. The practice of hiding potentially unpopular provisions in technical, low-profile Bills is concerning and the apparent philosophy of women erasures is even more so. Work-life balance is good, but erasing women is bad. Let us see more of the former and stop with the latter. I thank the Minister.