Wednesday 21 August 2019

Lorraine Courtney: 'Gender equality is about more choices for women - including option to stay at home'

Action plan: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor, and Marie O’Connor, chair of the gender equality taskforce, at the launch of the Gender Action Plan 2018-2020 at the National Museum in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Action plan: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor, and Marie O’Connor, chair of the gender equality taskforce, at the launch of the Gender Action Plan 2018-2020 at the National Museum in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

More than two-thirds of women who work in the home and have a third-level education don't want to go back to work, according to a recent Solas survey. It has been called a "punch in the gut" for feminism but it really isn't. Since when did working a dead-end job that you resent just to pay the bills become a badge of honour?

These numbers make you think women are perfectly happy being strapped to the kitchen table but that's not the whole story. It's what happens when there is a lack of systemic policies that promote gender equity and reduce barriers to a mother's workplace success.

The lack of proper maternity leave pay, the rising costs of childcare, unsupportive or non-existent family policies and the ever-present wage gap make balancing a job and a baby very hard. Too many employers impose stringent schedules that don't let mothers work flexible hours - whether it's needing the flexibility to pick up your child by 6pm or wanting the space to take a sick day with your feverish two-year-old without worrying you'll be fired. It's no wonder that many working mothers sacrifice the personal and financial benefits of a job.

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The problems start right after giving birth. In a report released last year, Ireland ranked 23 out of 24 European countries on statutory maternity leave. The report also outlined that new mothers in Ireland do not get "decently paid" maternity leave. Decently paid leave is defined by the study as time-off paid at two-thirds of women's pre-maternity leave earnings or more, or a rate of pay higher than €1,000 per month.

Childcare is wildly expensive here - in many places, it costs almost as much as rent - making outside jobs a logic-defying choice or financial impossibility for many parents. Many of us are forced to stay at home because paying someone else to take care of our children costs too much - averaging over €700 a month - so working doesn't make financial sense.

Figures show that the number of women in Ireland in part-time employment is at 16pc for those with no children. This rises to 33pc for working women with one child and 47pc for mothers with more than three children.

The gender pay gap means that women are unpaid for almost two hours of work every day. Since 1976, every woman here is entitled to equal pay for equal work, but on average, women are paid 14pc less than men, as the latest data from the Central Statistics Office shows. The figures from 2014 are based on gross hourly earnings and compare with a 12pc difference between men and women's pay in 2012.

This female pay-slippage starts kicking in shortly after women turn 30, which is the same time many women trail off to start families. We are not demanding the exact same division of work and childcare we have now with more money thrown in. All we are asking for is what men have always had: the right to have both a family and a fair wage and to not have to compete in workplace cultures that place too much emphasis on hours worked, rather than output.

In the push to shoehorn women out of the home and into the workforce, we also seem to forget that most of us don't have fancy careers, we have jobs. We have jobs that mean we have to wake up at an ungodly hour every morning, squeeze onto an overcrowded bus and go to an office where we work for 40-plus hours a week so that we can scrape together barely enough money to pay for the crèche and mortgage.

Telling stay-at-home mothers (an expression I don't like but there doesn't seem to be an alternative) that they should want to go out to work isn't fair. When you grow up in a society that celebrates the joys of crashing through glass ceilings from the day dot, we can forget that it's not a path every woman wants and not always best for young children. There's a lot of research on this topic and, unsurprisingly, a lot of it is fairly biased against a mother's desire to keep working. Study after study shows that babies do better if they are at home with their mother (or father) in the early years.

If two-thirds of Irish women with kids and a college degree want to stay home for longer than, say, an extended maternity leave, that's a totally legitimate choice to make. In the past, many mothers didn't have the same education as dads did, and staying home after having kids was often in reaction to that. Now, a lot more mothers have the qualifications and skillset to do well in the workplace but are choosing to stay home anyway.

We shouldn't freak out about the implications of it all when it comes to feminism and women's rights. It's a move that might translate to things like better family policies, or more of a demand for maternity leave that is more flexible about letting mothers stay at home with their children, at least for a little while.

In the end, it's all about having choices, and if more women feel that they have the choice to stay home than our mothers did, that's really a win for all mothers and women.

Irish Independent

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