Are working mothers under attack?
With Budget cuts to maternity benefit, more women are finding it increasingly difficult to sustain a proper work/home balance, writes Gabrielle Monaghan
– Sylda Dwyer, mother and public servant
Forty years after the ban on the employment of married women was lifted, mums who want to work outside the home are once again scratching their heads and wondering just what the government wants them to do.
Does it want them to stay in employment, or would it prefer them to retreat, 1950s-style, to domesticity? Because this government's policies – which include a cut to maternity benefit and a new tax on maternity payments – coupled with some of the highest childcare costs in Europe look set to drive women out of the workplace.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan yesterday confirmed that the top rate of maternity benefit would fall from €262 to €230 a week, leaving mothers €832 out of pocket over their 26-week leave period. The Budget cut comes just three months after a new tax of up to 41pc on employer top-ups of maternity benefit, leaving mums down as much as €2,700 per child.
While Budget 2014 gave some reprieve to families with the announcement of free GP care for children aged five and under, that measure is paltry compared to lost income from maternity benefit and previous cuts in child benefit.
Under the move, the proportion of children covered by a doctor-only medical card rises to 53pc from 47pc. But it would only save parents of a child under five an average of €232.79 a year, according to a survey by Laya Healthcare, a private health insurer.
Despite Noonan's description of the budget as "pro-families", the Government is at risk of turning motherhood from a rewarding, personal rite of passage into an anxiety-ridden financial choice.
"It is going to put more pressure on mothers to give up work," says Mark Fielding, the chief executive of ISME, which represents small and medium-sized businesses.
"The real cost comes in where a lady has a second child. You'll find that women will just leave work altogether. Small businesses find it hard to get someone who's good and train them up. If women leave because of finance, it is so soul-destroying for a small business."
Further austerity has come at the worst time possible for working mothers. Despite the battles fought by previous generations for the right to work outside the home, a growing number were already discouraged by the high cost of childcare and lower financial supports, says Andrea Mara, a mother of three who works in a Dublin city-centre office and spends €1,800 a month on crèche and pre-school fees.
The 39-year-old set up a blog called 'Office Mum' in March to helping working mothers share their frustration about everything from sleepless nights to the lack of government-subsidised childcare.
"I went back to work after my third maternity leave a year ago and like so many mothers, I'm trying to balance childcare, my commute and work. My family is haemorrhaging money for childcare and mortgage payments every month, but we can't afford to stop working."
Child benefit fell by almost 22pc between 2008 and 2013, from a monthly payment of €166 in 2008 to €130 now. To make matters worse, the OECD estimates the childcare cost in Ireland accounts for 29pc of a family's net income, more than double the OECD average of 13pc and the third-most expensive behind the UK and Switzerland.
Before the budget, the state was paying a maximum of €262 per week to a woman on maternity leave for six months – or a total of €6,812. Around 90pc of women on maternity leave get this amount.
About three quarters of large employers pay a "top up" to ensure female staff get their full salary while on maternity leave. However, one in four companies in Ireland have cut back on top-ups in recent years, as research carried out by the Irish Independent and published in July showed. Just a quarter of ISME members, or those with fewer than 250 employees, top up statutory maternity benefit, Fielding says.
These cutbacks are compelling more mothers to leave the workplace altogether. In 2011, 85.7pc of women without children were employed, slightly more than the percentage of men, Central Statistics Office figures show. But women whose youngest child was under three were less likely to work, with just 57pc in the workplace compared with 79pc of men.
The OECD has attributed this discrepancy to a lack of affordable childcare, inflexible working conditions and women's concerns that men won't share childrearing and housework.
The financial pressure may also be having an effect on the birth rate. While Ireland enjoyed an unexpected baby boom in the first half of the recession and the birth rate was the highest in the EU, at 2.05 births per woman in 2011, the number of births that year fell for the second successive year.
"Women are saying 'I really want more children but I can't afford them," Mara says.
Leo Varadkar, the Minister for Transport, attracted the ire of many a working woman in March when he opined that under the new insolvency regime, which came into effect last month, female workers may have to abandon career ambitions if childcare costs exceed their salaries. The CSO has predicted the downward trend in the average number of children will continue to as low as 1.5 children per woman, the European norm. This may leave Ireland with a shortage of future workers to pay for the health services and pensions which will be needed by our increasingly ageing population.
Sylda Dwyer, a 34-year-old public servant from Blackrock, Co Dublin who blogs under Mindthebaby.ie, believes there is too little government support for working mothers and fathers.
She combined her statutory maternity leave of 26 weeks and unpaid statutory leave of 16 weeks with untaken holiday leave to stay at home with her son Jonah until he was 11 months old.
'Maternity leave is too short and women are under huge pressure to wean their babies too early so that their babies are crèche-ready," Sylda says. "I was very aware that I was privileged to be able to afford such a generous maternity leave. But I know many women who couldn't avail of the unpaid leave for financial reasons. Now that maternity benefit is taxed, I think very few women will be able to avail of it."
At present, mothers are entitled to six months' paid maternity leave and further three months' unpaid leave. An expert group advising the Government has sought to address that.
The group on the national Early Years Strategy last week advised Frances Fitzgerald, the Minister for Children, that the Government should extend paid parental leave to a full year and that fathers should be allowed share it with mothers.
The recommendation, echoed by Fianna Fáil, would bring Ireland up to the UN's international target of 12 months' paternal leave.
The expert group also said that after a six-month period, families should be allowed to choose which parent takes the remainder of parental leave, as is the case in a growing number of European countries. The report will form the foundation of a blueprint that will guide the development of children's services over the next five years.
However, ISME's Mark Fielding says extended parental leave would serve only to cause more "hassle" for employers.
"If a lady goes out on maternity leave in a business with 10 people, you can't pass the work on to the other eight or nine people so they have to hire a replacement," he says. "If that's increased to 52 weeks, it will cause more planning issues.
"If you've a man working for you, you don't realise there's a baby coming and then a claim for paternal leave is made. At least when a lady is working for you, you know she's pregnant... the danger is that with a fella, you might not hear about his plan for leave until baby is 26 weeks old."