Wednesday 17 July 2019

Would the world of work be a better place if men had babies?

Steve Guttenberg, Tom Selleck and Ted Danson in the 1987 Hollywood movie, ‘Three Men and a Baby’
Steve Guttenberg, Tom Selleck and Ted Danson in the 1987 Hollywood movie, ‘Three Men and a Baby’
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

What if men had babies?

It's a question I had to grapple with recently for What If? A Chronicle of What Might Have Been.

What If? is a collection of essays ilustrated by the award-winning cartoonist Annie West that includes alternative endings to burning questions such as What if Roy Keane had gone back to Saipan? and What if Joyce had never met Nora?

Annie threw me the curveball of What If Men Had Babies?

In my fantasy if-men-had-babies world, the human race faces the threat of extinction as men, yet to discover a cure for man flu, enter into a noble and fearless battle with natural childbirth.

The World Bank and IMF intervene with emergency fiscal measures to subdue mass public order protests against incredulous, outrageous taxes on "luxury goods" such as breastfeeding aids and sanitary pads.

Historians, I wrote (with tears streaming down my face with laughter and a large glass of red wine in hand), will later describe this revolutionary period as the Menstrual Spring, which gives birth to the 'Period Power' era.

In my alternative world, after a special meeting of the 'U-Men' in Geneva, affordable and flexible childcare is written into Constitutions. The world welcomes the four-day working week and strict employment laws mean that no man's career shall ever suffer as a result of his Having Babies.

If only, I lament, if only men had babies.

The essay is utter satire, of course.

But even that satirical jaunt, imagining an alternative world where men have babies, brought me on a more depressing journey through the many obstacles that women in the workplace still face, especially when they have children.

The business and economic case for gender diversity in the workplace has not just been met, it is beyond dispute.

Advancing women's equality can add $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025 according to the McKinsey Global Institute, while Goldman Sachs calculates that closing the gap between female and male employment rates would boost Eurozone GDP by as much as 13pc.

Irish women have gained extraordinary ground in the last 40 years, but labour market participation rates are 14 percentage points lower than their male counterparts - one of the widest gaps of any European country.

Only 14pc of Irish CEOs and 10.5pc of publicly listed company board members are female, our gender pay gap is widening as other jurisdictions decrease and many of society's challenges - including childcare and caregiving - are still framed as women's rather than societal issues.

All of which makes a new report on labour market participation of women by business group Ibec, launched days before Tuesday's budget, a most timely review of a highly pressing issue.

The Ibec report makes for sober reading.

It highlights a shocking dropout rate for women aged between 25 and 39, not helped by the fact that childcare costs in Ireland account for more than 50pc of the average wage in Ireland compared to the 27.6pc average in other OECD countries.

The industry lobby group also calculates that second earners in a family (mostly married women who return to work after having children) can lose up to 92pc of their second income.

Working for 8pc? Sure why would any second earner, male or female, do that? Ibec's recommendations, including the means-testing of child benefit, should provoke debate. Successive governments will not touch the universal nature of child benefit with a proverbial bargepole, even if better off parents are saving it for third-level education or the annual ski holiday.

Its recommendations for the extension of the Early Childhood Care and Education scheme to include children aged one to three years - and to increase the duration to four hours - are well made. So too the recommendation that the implementation of a formal out-of-school hours care system to address the needs of working parents and the atypical work day.

A recommendation to explore the feasibility and possible benefits of a tax-saver childcare voucher model to encourage the retention of parent in the labour market is a worthwhile exercise. So too is the recommendation for a broader-based system for income tax and linking the entry point to the top marginal rate to above the average wage.

The report aims its policy guns at the joint taxation of married couples, noting [as various studies have found] that "the treatment of married couples often results in married females being taxed more heavily than males or single females".

But does this overlook the benefits, taxation and otherwise, that the constitutionally enshrined family based on marriage enjoys and wields over all other taxpayers, including cohabitees as well as the single man or woman, with or without children?

The report wisely acknowledges that there are a range of possible structural and policy causes for the differences in participation rates and the significant employment gaps between the genders embedded in the economic, social and cultural makeup of the country, "some beyond the scope of this [the Ibec] paper".

These include the unequal division of unpaid work; occupational segregation; care responsibilities predominantly residing with women, availability of flexible working arrangements; parental leave arrangements, social norms and attitudes, preferences to remain in the home with young children.

But can any assessment, let alone reform of the labour-market participation of Irish women, be divorced from our deeply embedded culture, not least the Constitutional diktat that the woman's place is still in the home?

That culture won't change until (predominantly male) lawmakers and corporate leaders insist that parenting and caregiving (of elderly or sick relatives) is blind to gender and should be shared equally among the sexes.

It's not such a tall ask, all we have to do is close our eyes and imagine what society would look like if men had babies too.

I'll reserve my position on insurance fraud

Spare a compassionate thought for Ireland's beleagured insurance industry.

Facing into an investigation into suspected cartel activity in the motor insurance market by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, it is also incurring the wrath of angry drivers facing increased premiums despite a 70pc surge in the average motor insurance premium in the last three years alone.

Something has gone catastrophically wrong in the Irish insurance market despite the introduction, 12 years ago, of radical reforms designed to reduce legal costs in personal-injuries claims generally and to specifically tackle the scourge of fraudulent and exaggerated claims.

It is the latter which will be discussed on Wednesday at Insurance Ireland's fourth annual fraud conference, with yours truly throwing her thruppence worth in.

Have we set the bar too high for insurers to prove fraud? And should a little hyperbole kill off a plaintiff's claim entirely?

I'll 'reserve my position' until Wednesday, as our learned friends might say.

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