Elaine Dewhurst

Senior Lecturer in Employment Law

Elaine Dewhurst

Elaine Dewhurst has always been hugely interested in society injustices, a passion first sparked by her experience volunteering at a migrant centre in Cork while studying for her law degree.

"At that time Ireland was changing from a country of emigration to a country of immigration and these issues were really beginning to come to the fore across society. I actually went on to do a PhD on the rights of migrant workers, specifically looking at how the legal system often puts obstacles in the way to those rights."

Uncertain futures

Today that passion remains evident across her research work. A particularly good example is an ongoing collaboration with the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing (MICRA), Manchester Metropolitan University and Manchester Art Gallery looking at the inequalities that women over 50 face around work and retirement.

The ‘Uncertain Futures' project recently interviewed 100 women aged over 50 across Greater Manchester about their experiences of paid and unpaid work. It found that while women make significant and often extraordinary voluntary contributions to their communities, they are seldom paid or recognised for this labour. The team spoke to women ranging from magistrates, community activists, managers and administrators, through to carers, childminders, teachers, mothers and grandparents.

As Elaine explains: "The voluntary contributions of older women can be categorised into three groups. Those who are carers for relatives, friends and family members; those who are community activists or ‘neighbourhood keepers'; and those who can be described as more traditional ‘volunteers', working in a variety of capacities within businesses, organisations, and state bodies.

"However, in practice the distinction is more blurred with many women taking on multiple roles. Women's voluntary contributions are many, varied and multi-faceted meaning that their contribution to society is immense yet still wildly undervalued."


Elaine says recognition of the value older women bring to society, their employers, their communities, and their families through their significant voluntary contributions is an important first step in improving these economic and social outcomes.

"It is clear from speaking to these women that their voluntary work is performing a vital community and societal service by propping up already overstretched public services and community organisations."

However, she says recognition alone will not be sufficient to bridge the ever-increasing gap in pension and retirement security for women. "Economically there is a disconnect between the contribution made by older women and the economic value they receive in return. For example, carers' allowance can be reduced or discontinued once a woman reaches pension age meaning she still retains the expenses of a carer but now has more limited resources. In fact, this can be easily redressed through ensuring that the carers' allowance is maintained in full after pension age."

Meanwhile she says that the pandemic has only further exacerbated these inequalities, not only because of the health impact of Covid-19 itself but also because a lot of women didn't receive NHS treatment for existing health conditions during the pandemic and now face a huge NHS backlog.

Pension mapping

In terms of other research work, a notable recent project saw Elaine help complete a major pension mapping exercise with the German Max Planck Institute where she previously undertook a research fellowship in law.

The initiative looked at gaps in pension provision across Europe with Elaine's work focusing on Ireland, and specifically created digital maps showing what percentage of people are covered by pension provision and who has top-up pensions.

Adds Elaine: "The project showed clearly the gaps that exist in economic equality when it comes to pensions. The Institute now has a specific pensions map on its website and this is a very useful tool for policymakers."

Another project with Max Planck is ‘A life in Dignity' which is looking at how different countries across Europe are dealing with minimum income protections such as universal credit and social protection payments.

European network

Elaine has built up an extensive network across Europe. For instance, she also works with the European Equality Law network where she is a senior ground expert on ageing, preparing reports annually for the European Commission. All European countries report to this network which collects data on how countries are implementing equality protections.

"It is a really good way of seeing exactly what is happening on the ground. All countries have basic equality provisions, some better than others, so it is about identifying where the problems are," she adds.

She has worked as a Course Director and a Parliamentary and Law Reform Executive at the Law Society of Ireland, while she has also been a scholar in residence at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and a visiting lecturer at CEU Cardenal Herrera University in Spain.

"I really enjoy travelling to other countries and understanding how different legal systems work. This comparative work is another reason why my work fits so well with the Work and Equalities Institute."

*Read more about the Uncertain Futures project.