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.