Writing in July, I flagged four policy pillars crucial to reducing inequality in Ireland. First of these was to increase women’s participation in economic life. Far from being a women’s issue, society as a whole stands to gain from stronger growth, less inequality and an off-set to the impact of ageing on our workforce. In some jurisdictions, this has been christened ‘womenomics’.
Despite the very real advances in recent decades, the table remains tilted in men’s favour both in the Irish workplace and at home. On average, women do more housework, spend more time taking care of the kids, are less likely to be in employment and, when they are employed, they get paid less. For every 8 euro Irish men earn, mná na h’Éireann earn only 7. While nearly 7 in 10 Irish men participate in the labour force, barely 5 in 10 Irish women do.
On average, girls get better exam results than boys through secondary and third-level education, and young women are more likely to be graduates. So, clearly neither ability nor application is the root cause. Certainly, there remain challenging social and cultural barriers to women getting on in the workplace, legacies of our more patriarchal past. Indeed, it’s not so long ago that women in were expected to resign their civil service jobs upon getting married. Public policy contributed to the problem, but it can also be part of the solution.
In Ireland, we would do well to start with our out-dated constitution, repealing Article 41.2 which recognises the importance of a woman’s ‘life within the home’. This may well be symbolic, but symbols are sometimes important. Repeal should be a symbol of what progressives want to achieve: real social, economic and political equality between men and women.
Ireland is a relatively young country by the standards of advanced economies, with relatively favourable demographics, but our society is in the early stages of an ageing process that will last decades. Eventually, this will mean a declining workforce having to support a greater number of dependents – even though we will all be working longer. Narrowing the gender participation gap will slow the increase in this so-called dependency ratio, allowing for stronger economic growth and more sustainable public finances.
At a minimum, the next government should unilaterally adopt the G20 gender target of reducing the participation gap by 25% by 2025. This would mean bringing an extra 35,000 women into the Irish workforce.
Female labour market participation is particularly low for women over the age of 30, and for single parents. A major reason is the astronomical cost of childcare, which is over 40% of the average wage in Ireland – several multiples of the cost seen in comparable economies. Part of the reason is that the Irish government spends roughly three times as much on child benefit as it does on childcare services, whereas the split is more even in other countries. More cash is not the answer. We need more and better state-subsidised childcare and after-school places that target parents on low-to-middle incomes. Introducing the Early Child Care and Education (ECCE) pre-school year was a step in the right direction, but it needs to be extended, better targeted and better funded.
We also need to broaden the availability and take-up of paid paternity leave. Moving towards gender-neutral parental leave, which could be shared according to the needs and wishes of the couple, should be the ultimate aim. This could be piloted in the public service, then rolled out nationally. Working for yourself is another way to take charge of your work-life balance. We could do more to encourage budding female entrepreneurs to take the plunge through enhanced mentoring, dedicated financing and better supports for social entrepreneurship.
In the political sphere, it remains to be seen whether the introduction of de facto gender quotas – where political parties’ public funding is reduced if they don’t achieve a minimum of 30% of both genders as candidates – will prove successful in ensuring a more gender balanced Dáil, and ultimately a more gender balanced government. Again, this is more than symbolism. More women having their hands on the levers of power surely lends itself to more constructive and balanced public policy debate.
Not only is it unacceptable that modern Ireland is still riddled with glass ceilings, it is unfortunate that we are not doing more about it. It’s not just a women’s issue, or even just a family issue. It affects us all.