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Liz Kearney: 'Women still between rock and hard place when it comes to work and having a family'

 

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Family time: Mothers are penalised in various ways if they choose to take time out to spend with their family

Family time: Mothers are penalised in various ways if they choose to take time out to spend with their family

Family time: Mothers are penalised in various ways if they choose to take time out to spend with their family

Two headlines from this week's newspapers reminded us in pretty stark terms just how precarious a financial position many women are still in, despite all the advances we've made in recent decades.

As the week kicked off, CSO statistics underlined the fact that it remains far more likely for mums to stay at home with the kids, rather than their partners opting to be the stay-at-home parent. The figures show that the vast majority of men - 88pc - who are part of a couple with children are in the workforce, compared to just 68pc of women.

What is frequently referred to as the workforce gender gap might more accurately be described as a parent gap, as the gap between men and women in the workforce who don't have children is much smaller.

The second headline - which is closely related to the first - came yesterday; ESRI findings, reported in Independent.ie by Charlie Weston, show that women's pension pots are a startling three times smaller than men's when they reach retirement.

This makes for frightening reading, and while some analysts predict that the pension gap will eventually close, it is difficult to see this happening in the near future.

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A mother and child. Stock image

A mother and child. Stock image

A mother and child. Stock image

The reality remains that the burden of caring, whether that be for children or for elderly relatives, still falls largely to women.

And even for women who remain at work, it is easy to see how quickly you can fall behind financially. I'm just back at my desk this week after six weeks' parental leave. It was a fantastic and welcome break from the usual helter-skelter, breakneck pace of family life when both parents are working. It was a chance to collectively catch our breaths, enjoy the last few weeks of the holidays, and then settle into the rhythms of a new school year.

I had time to make the best of the long, sunny afternoons of the Indian summer; spending hours at the playground or simply playing with the kids in the back garden. As a family, we all had some much-needed respite from the super-early starts of working days, the headache of juggling childcare and deadlines and work commitments.

The kids seemed happier and life seemed easier all around. It was a thoroughly worthwhile exercise for us as a family, and I would highly recommend it to anyone - except, of course, for the fact that you'll end up broke.

Parental leave is unpaid - which is why the take-up remains low, particularly among men, where rates are falling. For us as a family, affording it meant some radical last-minute financial restructuring of repayments, and a little bit of understanding benevolence from our bank manager.

It's also interesting to consider how taking a break from work affects your own personal finances as a mum, as distinct from that of the family. Though I'm in full-time employment and have a similar income to my husband, over the past six years my annual take-home pay has varied wildly, thanks to two extended maternity leaves, a period of reduced working hours, and the aforementioned parental leave.

Over that period, and even in spite of generous maternity leave at my own workplace, my earnings have taken a significant hit, while my husband's income has remained the same. That same situation is mirrored in families across the country, and is even more pronounced the more children you have.

Taken over time, all of this adds up. Because it's not just your annual pay in a given year that takes a knock, it's also your long-term finances.

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Mother and daughter at the playground. Stock image

Mother and daughter at the playground. Stock image

Mother and daughter at the playground. Stock image

Even if you're lucky enough to have a pension in the first place, the less you earn per annum, the less is in your pension pot long-term. Looking at it like this, it's easy to see how quickly women can fall behind.

And that's before you take into account the more obscure career penalties that you might pay in the future. Let's face it: lengthy periods of absence from the office are not going to do your long-term prospects any favours.

In a good workplace they won't harm them, but they're not going to fast-track you to the top. It would be unreasonable to expect otherwise. So your earning potential five or 10 years down the line might also be damaged.

The hard truth about all of this is that there is no solution. Many point out that if more men stepped up to the plate and took on more childcare commitments, then all of the financial ramifications wouldn't be carried by women.

That might be true, but it would simply transfer the financial burden to the dads of this world. Fairer from a gender equality point of view, but not so helpful when it comes to family finances.

Similarly, suggesting that the State step in and subsidise parents who stay at home with kids would mean an additional tax burden on the child-free. That doesn't seem fair either.

So women are still caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to having families. We've worked hard to get where we are. We like having financial independence as much as anyone else does. And many of us love our jobs. But we love our kids too, and we know they're growing up quickly.

Life as a working mum can frequently become an endless circular conversation about time spent with the kids versus time spent on your career, and the general impossibility of finding the right balance.

For the women who choose to give up hard-won positions to care for small children, it's often the result of years of weighing up the pros and cons.

They are all too aware of the long-term financial implications of stepping away from their desks. But not everything in life can be measured with a euro sign. My time with my kids might have hit our bank balance, but it was worth it. And I would do it all again, in a heartbeat.

Irish Independent