One of the more interesting labour market trends to emerge during the pandemic was the increased level of female participation in the Irish workforce. For reasons that are not quite clear, we have lagged peer countries in terms of the proportion of women working.

Countries with higher levels of female empowerment tend to be more productive and therefore more prosperous. At the height of Celtic Tiger in 2007-08, the level of female participation reached 57.6 per cent in the Irish workforce before falling in the immediate aftermath of the crash. The pandemic had appeared to change this pattern, however.

In 2020 and 2021, female participation here increased by 3½ percentage points to stand at a record 59.8 per cent (male participation is typically about 70 per cent).

This was a significant shift. Could it be that remote working was the key – all along – to freeing up more women to enter the workforce. The assumption is that many women take up responsibility for caring roles in the family, which limits their ability to attend workplaces, at least in person.

In a study, the Central Bank said the pandemic increase in female participation was driven – in the main – by those with a third-level education entering full-time jobs in high-skilled sectors, such as IT, finance and professional services. “Female employment has grown in sectors less adversely-affected by Covid-19 such as professional services and education,” it said.

During the two-year span of the pandemic, full-time female employment increased by 7 per cent, or 56,000, while part-time female employment jumped by 10 per cent or 34,000. The regulator said it remained to be seen how persistent some of these recent trends will be.

The latest Labour Force Survey from the Central Statistics Office, published this week, suggests not particularly, with the female participation rate in third quarter falling back to 58.9 per cent.

Is this the beginning of a reversal of the pandemic trend? A reflection of a return to the office? It’s too early to say, but it would be a pity if Ireland didn’t capitalise on the increased productivity brought about by having more women working.