A record number of women were in the workforce last year, according to the latest figures from Eurostat, with 78,000 more women at work than in 2014.

Overall, there was in excess of 804,700 women in the labour market, resulting in a participation rate of 77.2%, up from 72.5% in the decade since 2009. 

Despite the increase last year, the female participation rate in the workforce in Ireland continues to remain below that of the EU average of 80.1%.

"We have come from a low base," according to Dr Kara McGann, senior executive with Ibec, which represents Irish business.

"We only got rid of the marriage bar in 1973. Female labour market participation was not great by 1980. But we really saw rapid progress then as labour shortages kicked in, and women really contributed to economic growth during the Celtic Tiger years." 

Dr McGann said there are huge benefits to having more women in the workforce.

She said: "We are seeing a move by employers to embrace diversity and inclusion, and greater gender balance in our work places.

"We don't have group think when we have that diversity of thought. We see higher productivity and higher engagement from that diversity within the workplace."

The cost of childcare is a major problem for women, who are mothers, joining and remaining in the workforce. Ireland has one of the highest costs of childcare in the OECD.

Dr McGann said more than half of the average wage goes towards childcare costs, and while there has been improvements by the Government and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, which introduced the National Childcare Scheme, formal childcare is still beyond the reach of many families.

"Not just lower income families but all income levels, so this is a constant and recurring problem," she said. "We know that culturally this is an issue that falls more to women than to men, so it is women that we see step out of the work place."

Other European countries have very heavily subsidised childcare, and Ibec recommends the same for Ireland by restructuring child benefit payments.

"We do have one of the highest direct payments in the form of child benefit to parents," Dr McGann said.

"While the payments are there, they are not very well directed. €330 million is directed towards families that have incomes in excess of €100,000 per annum. If we could look at means testing this child benefit payment for higher income families and ring-fencing that saving into childcare services, this would go a long way."

It is a recommendation that has been made a number of times in the past, but it is one that successive governments have avoided implementing.

Ibec also encourages its members to consider more flexible working arrangements for employees.

"We are seeing a move within employers to really look at that idea, that people bring their whole selves to work so having that flexibility, that work life balance, where we can manage our lives within work and outside of work. Not every arrangement can bring that flexibility but where it can we are seeing huge successes," Dr McGann said.