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Time to stop paying lip service to notions of gender equality, and start investing

Policy and political rhetoric in recent times has too often paid lip service to goals of gender equality and to the contribution made to society by those in unpaid work, without making any significant moves to improve the lot of those, typically women, who play the economically and socially imperative roles that so often go unremunerated.

Social Justice Ireland has long advocated the recognition of all work, including:

  • Work done in the home;
  • Work done by voluntary carers;
  • Work done by volunteers in the community and voluntary sector.

We have also encouraged the implenentation of policies that would narrow the gender pay gap and increase the participation of women in the Irish labour force. Government can improve the current situation by pursuing policies and enacting legislation that would ensure that:

  • People in work that is traditionally unpaid have sufficient income to live life with dignity;
  • The services and social infrastructure required by those working in the home or as carers are robust and well-funded;
  • Women do not have to shoulder an unfair share of unpaid responsibilities such as housework and child-rearing;
  • The decision of whether to return to employment or work in the home does not have to be solely a financial one;
  • Unpaid work is more accurately valued, and is reflected in measures of social progress.

Social Justice Ireland believes that much of the above this can be achieved through:

  1. The broadening of State pension coverage to all residents with a Universal State Social Welfare Pension;
  2. The expansion of paternity leave, and a re-structuring of the parental leave system;
  3. Real investment in Ireland’s childcare infrastructure;
  4. The introduction of new social indicators to measure progress;
  5. The introduction of a system of Basic Income.

1. Universal Pension

At present, eligibility for the State pension is tied to labour market participation and the so-called ‘contributory principle’. The introduction of a Universal State Social Welfare Pension would help to redefine what constitutes a ‘contribution’ to society. It would also remove the current anomaly by which a large number of our elderly, the majority of whom are women, do not have an individual entitlement to a State benefit but - if they're fortunate - have one instead through their spouse. Many of these women are being doubly discriminated against, as they may have had to leave their jobs due to the old 'Marriage Bar' and now find themselves without access to a State pension in retirement due to having spent most of their subsequent working-lives working in the home.

The introduction of a non-means-tested universal pension would alleviate poverty among the elderly, having a particularly positive effect on women. Social Justice Ireland has published a fully costed proposal for a Universal State Pension, which can be accessed here.

2. Paternity Leave

The dual benefits – economic and social – of encouraging more women to join the workforce whilst simultaneously allowing working mothers to spend time with their children are no longer debated. Most countries (of 185 countries surveyed by the International Labour Organisation, only the United States and Papua New Guinea do not have paid maternity leave as standard) have paid maternity leave, but many of these countries have failed to expand this initiative. Studies indicate that the gains from paid maternity leave would be multiplied if countries extended paternity leave for new fathers too.

Much of Europe introduced paid maternity leave in the 1970s. Scandinavian countries have long been at the vanguard of policies that encourage gender equality. For example Sweden grants more than a year’s paid maternity leave, including to women who were not previously employed. 40 years ago, Sweden became the first country in the world to introduce a gender-neutral paid parental-leave allowance. This involves paying 90 per cent of wages for 180 days per child, and parents were free to divide this between them in whatever way they pleased.

While this did not have a huge impact at first - in the scheme's first year men took only 0.5 per cent of all paid parental leave - now men take approximately a quarter of all parental leave in Sweden. This is partly because the scheme has become more generous, with the number of paid leave days for the first child increasing from 180 to 480. But it has also been restructured to encourage a more equal sharing of this time. In 1995, a new reform granted an additional month to the total allowance to families where each parent took at least one month of leave. This was expanded further in 2002 so that an additional two months can be attained where the mother and father each took at least two months' leave. Close to 90 per cent of Swedish fathers take paternity leave. Each year some 340,000 fathers take a total of around 12 million days of leave, which is an average of seven weeks each. Women take even more leave days to spend time with their children, but the gap is shrinking.

Unsurprisingly, Sweden figures highly on international scales for gender equality. One of the most powerful arguments in favour of splitting parental leave more equally is that it has positive ripple effects for women. Since Swedish men started to take more responsibility for child rearing, increases have been recorded in both the incomes and self-reported happiness of Swedish women.

3. Childcare

Childcare costs in Ireland as a percentage of income are by some measures the second highest in the OECD. In many instances, the high cost of childcare makes it economically unviable for women to return to the workplace. A report last year from the ESRI showed that all else being equal, mothers with higher childcare costs at age three tended to work fewer hours when their child was aged five. It should be the aim of government to develop an affordable childcare network that will remove the necessity for people, mainly women, to make the choice between staying at home and returning to the workforce on a purely financial basis.

Budget 2017 announced the introduction of a new Single Affordable Childcare Scheme to replace all existing targeted schemes. This was thought to be the beginning of significant investment in Ireland's underdeveloped childcare infrastructure, but those efforts seem to have now stalled. It is time to start investing in this area and moving Ireland's chlidcare infrastructure in the direction of the European norm.

4. New Social Indicators

One of the biggest contradictions in using GDP as a measurement of wellbeing and productivity is the treatment of unpaid work. GDP counts household work and childcare when it is remunerated, but not when it is unpaid. From a social point of view, this is an arbitrary distinction. Measuring unpaid work is difficult, but not impossible. In Census 2016 more than 195,000 people in Ireland identified themselves as unpaid carers.

Women in the OECD spend roughly 5% more time working than men, but spend roughly twice as much time on unpaid work, and only two-thirds the time men do in paid work. By leaving unpaid work out of the national accounts we are diminishing the contribution to society of the people who do it, more often than not women. Ignoring unpaid work also misrepresents the significance of particular kinds of economic and social activity. There are few more important jobs in society than caring for and raising children, yet this activity is only included in measures of GDP if the person doing it is being paid.

Despite decades of social progress, women still do much more child-rearing than men. It is, therefore, women who are disadvantaged by a failure to measure the value of these activities properly. Moreover, reducing the significance of this activity has likely contributed to underinvestment in this area. Social Justice Ireland has long advocated the development of Satellite National Accounts that would complement GDP/GNP/GNI by counting other things that contribute to our overall wellbeing. This should include all forms of unpaid work. As Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz recently noted, ‘GDP is not a good measure of wellbeing. What we measure affects what we do, and if we measure the wrong thing, we will do the wrong thing’.

5. Basic Income

Social Justice Ireland has long advocated for the introduction of a Basic Income system in Ireland. This would be a radical step towards a desirable future where nobody would be excluded. It would also provide a practical solution to several of the major challenges faced by our societies today, ensuring that every man, woman and child has sufficient income to live life with dignity, has access to meaningful work and can genuinely participate in shaping the world around them and the decisions that impact on them.

There are many arguments in favour of a Basic Income system, and they have been well-covered in other publications by Social Justice Ireland - see here for more information - but among other things, Basic Income would acknowledge the contribution of all to our society, particularly the contribution of those who presently work in unpaid roles while doing economically and socially important work.

The benefits from implementing these policy recommendations would be felt across society; economically, politically and socially:

Economic

Irish women are now better educated than their male peers, so a policy framework that diminishes their long-term participation in the labour force, or indeed excludes them from it altogether, is detrimental to the economy. An expansion of paternity leave and a reconceptualisation of the role of men in child-rearing would have many benefits, including:

  • Reducing the extent to which salary and career progression opportunities are foregone by women. This would potentially reduce instances of women feeling that, given their diminished prospects as a result of leave taken, it may not be worth their while returning to employment;
  • Changing employer attitudes towards potential parents. Gender discrimination at work is illegal but some employers may still avoid hiring women they believe are likely to take multiple periods of maternity leave in the short to medium term. At a very basic level, discrimination in the hiring and promotion process will be greatly reduced if employers believe that there is likely to be a less significant difference in the parental leave that male and female candidates are likely to take.
  • Reducing the instance of women returning to the workplace after an extended period away to find their skills are outdated.

Time-use studies show that even when both parents work the same amount outside of the home, the woman usually bears a larger share of the housework and childcare responsibilities. More hands-on fathering would help share this burden more evenly, and reduce the extent to which many women must instead work part-time or in jobs for which they are overqualified.

Political

The political sphere benefits from a greater input from all sectors of society: men and women; young and old; native and non-national. It results in greater consensus among stakeholders, and the system benefits from a broader spectrum of ideas, opinions and experiences. To exclude, wholly or even in part, one half of the population is damaging to the process.

The same can be said for the world of business, where women are underrepresented in upper management roles and on company boards. More women involved in the decision-making process in a wider part of society can only be a positive thing. Changing attitudes towards gender roles, while providing the means for all to subsist, will assist in keeping more women involved in politics and business.

Social

Studies from CITE indicate that children perform better when their fathers take a more active part in all aspects of child rearing, including parental leave. Many of the findings indicate that:

  • Fathers who take paternity leave are more likely to take an active role in child-care tasks even after this leave has finished. According to a study of four countries – Australia, Denmark, the United Kingdom and the United States – fathers who had taken paternity leave are more likely to feed, dress, bathe and play with their child long after the period of leave has ended.
  • This early interaction has longer-term benefits for a child’s learning abilities. Children whose fathers take paternity leave go on to do better in cognitive tests at school.

A study by the University of Oslo found that paternity leave improved children’s performance at secondary school.

These five points are just some of the ways in which policymakers can make real moves towards gender equality and the recognition of the contribution made to society by those in unpaid work.

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