Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Gender equality and the economy

Sinéad Pentony: As we face into years of more austerity, it will be no surprise to learn that the European Union birth rate is dropping, highlighting a longer-term trend of women in developed countries having less children in the countries that help them least.

While Ireland is experiencing a baby boom at the moment the overall trajectory for birth rates is downwards. The OECD average (total) fertility rate is 1.6 births per woman, when 2.1 is needed to stay stable. Immigration will offset some of this decline, but not completely.

In the UK, the Resolution Foundation’s new research, The Price of Motherhood, shows how vital women’s work is to household income: in 1968, women provide 11 per cent of household income while men provided 70 per cent. In 2009, men provided 40 per cent of household income and women provided 24 per cent. The lack of good part-time jobs means that nearly half of mothers take lower-grade jobs than their qualifications – and lose out forever.

The latest report from the European Commission on the Gender Pay Gap shows that the gender pay gap is alive and well, with women in the EU earning 17 per cent less per hour than men. Ireland’s gender pay gap is the same as the EU average. The impact of the gender pay gap means that women earn less over their lifetime and this results in lower pensions and a greater risk of poverty in old age.

A recent study on Older Women Workers’ Access to Pensions clearly illustrates the difficulty of contributing towards pensions due to low pay. Current pension policy also reinforces income inequality in old age due to the regressive nature of pension tax reliefs whereby those who earn more benefit more from such reliefs. The report’s recommendations echo those made by TASC and the NWCI in relation to a universal state pension equal to 40 per cent of average earnings and reducing tax reliefs in a way that eliminates the inequities in this system.

However, ensuring that women do not experience income inequality and poverty in old age means that the right policies need to be in put in place when women start their working lives. The three studies mentioned above identify a wide range of policy responses that are needed to address gender inequality. These include the following:

- A comprehensive gendered approach across all social welfare policies, such as childcare, maternity benefits, paternity leave etc..., along with the introduction of family friendly employment policies aimed at helping parents minimise childcare costs by allowing them to balance caring responsibilities between themselves. The provision of affordable quality childcare and afterschool care, is a decisive factor in improving fertility rates. Most women want and need to work: if having more children prevents them from this they will stop having babies.

- The lack of flexibility offered by full-time employment makes it very difficult to juggle work and family commitments. Access to well paid, high skilled employment on a part-time basis also has form part of the policy mix.

- Even in the midst of the current economic crisis it is important to keep the issue of gender equality and the closing of the gender pay gap alive. Policies aimed at addressing the gender pay gap include legislative measures, transparent pay systems, collective pay agreements the establishment of Equal Pay Commissions along with a range of awareness raising campaigns aimed at closing the gap.

- It is vital that gender equality is not further undermined by budget cuts. TASC’s equality audit of Budget 2011 – Winners and Losers clearly shows how women on low incomes lost proportionately more of their income than other groups following the budgetary measures that were introduced. This research highlights the need for the budget to be equality proofed.

Gender equality is essential for achieving employment growth, competitiveness and economic recovery, so any strategy for growth must include the range of policy measures listed above, as part of the economic engine.


Martin O'Dea said...

This is a superb piece - a real issue that will affect the future and needs to be addressed unlike this will - we won't we pay or not pay for a banking debt - that unfortunately takes up so much time and will continue to do so until the governing bodies actually take the right decision.

Without doing what I have just bemoaned but this issue and others like fossil fuels that require urgent action get left behind in this idiotic adherence to a financial past in the eye of ever increasing change, where real existential risks and potentially vast improvements await effort

Martin O'Dea said...

Last comment was 'conclusionless', to be clear, or very clear on this, as politicians prefer./ here is conclusion and associated rant

We (be that Ireland or Ireland/Europe exact the full extent of the law )as in Iceland)) on those who behaved negligently in burdening Irish state with private banking debt including potential for trial/imprisonment etc of central figures (private sector/civil servant or politician).

That debt is written off as a loss by the system it stems from as would gross theft in any other circumstance

We grow our way out of the remaining most unfortunate current deficit without the overhanging un-payable debt and with investment in education/ reform/innovation etc - - we continue the push towards societal equality and inclusiveness and towards contributing to resolutions of global issues including poverty/disease/ climate etc with enthusiastic renewal in energy innovation and (at the very least) increases in Overseas Development Aid

What we have - are perfectly reasonable politicians (in some cases) completely incapable to open to this route regardless of the broad view logic. There is conservatism and escalation of commitment at play in motivating this inertia.
There is also a sort of 'bayesian' logic being adhered to here - i.e. most of us believe this to be the right path therefore we are going to go with it...of course history is littered with instances where for various collective reasons the majority of people got things very wrong. '08-present' is surely the greatest example of this in Ireland's history as a state.
Occupy Dame Street should be grand masrhelling the thing with their own forty foot container for a float!

Powers that be must engage in the possibility that arguments like these are valid - - I know I have teased out mentally the idea that the current track is correct many times - and though occasionally I can come a little bit close (showing the dangers of the powers of persuasion) in truth, I can never quite buy it!

Laura S. said...

And do we expect from the current economic and political settings? There is a long development towards where we are now. The anterior decrease of child birth was connected to modernity and better health care. Now it continues because of the austerity measures and general concept named by Stiglitz as Privatizing Profits, Socializing Losses.
Austerity is directly opposite to economic growth. It can maybe stabilize the fiscal policies, but it can never maintain a sustainable growth, that would protect our population. Western world is decaying slowly and with its aging population, the burden of fiscal deficits will be bigger and bigger. I suggest you read John McMurtry´s The cancer stage of capitalism. Great book.

Tom McDermott said...

A good first step towards gender equality in work would be to replace maternity leave with parental leave that can be used by either parent.

Sinead Pentony said...

Thanks for your comments. The debt crisis and responses to it (austerity) are having socio-economics impacts that will be felt many years to come.

I don't think capitalism is on its deathbed but I do think we should look at where markets have been successufully regulated in the public interest. The Nordic countries in particular, subscribe to a social market economy, which puts societal goals such as equality on a level playing field with economic goals, such as innovation and competiteness...

I agree completely that we need paid paternity leave, which can be shared between parents - but for obvious reasons women need a certain amount of time off. This is how it works in Denmark - shared paid maternity/parental leave. I thought it was also interesting how they value flexible working arrangements and the absence of a culture of long working hours, which is very much part fo the working culture in Ireland, particularly if you want to progress in your career.