Financial independence still an issue for Irish women

Strides have been made but women still earn 12.6% less than men


This week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI Women at Work poll shows that just half of women in employment reckon their earnings alone are sufficient to finance a “reasonable standard of living”. Forty-nine per cent said they would require additional income. By contrast, 68 per cent of men said they were paid enough to be financially independent.

It’s a long time since newly married women were urged to hold on to their “running away money” when setting up home with their new husband, but the concept has persisted through the decades. A survey carried out by this paper back in 2007 found that of the 19 issues researched, themost important one for Irish women was financial independence - ahead of care of children or equality of sexes.

In the Ireland of the early 1960s, while women accounted for about a quarter of the workforce, just 5 per cent of married women were in paid employment. In 1969, women earned, on average, less than half that of a man. Now, some 56 per cent of women work outside the home, and the wage gap has narrowed to 12.6 per cent, less than the EU average of 17.4 per cent.

Marriage breakdown has been a key factor in the growing participation of women in the workplace. A recent survey from the Economic Social and Research Institute (ESRI) indicates that the divorce legislation of 1996 led to increased numbers of women working – as a form of “self-insurance” in case their marriage should break-down.

Family-law specialist Marion Campbell qualified as a solicitor in 1976. She recalls that it was then “extraordinarily difficult to leave a marriage” and she estimates that at the time, about 90 per cent of married women were “completely dependent” on their spouses.

“There has been a complete sea-change since then,” she asserts, pointing to the growing numbers of women at work. In her practice, she has even come across cases where high-earning women have granted maintenance orders to their husbands, who may have assumed the role of a stay at home parent.

Brian Weber, head of Quilter’s Dublin office, has been working in the financial advisory business for more than 20 years. During this time he has seen “a significant increase” in the involvement of women, pointing to a significant growth in joint accounts, with “the vast majority of accounts for married couples are now in joint names”.

An increasing number of women who control their own investments, and often perform better than men. As Weber notes, “ it is my experience that women generally tend to take a more prudent approach to investing, capital preservation is higher on their list of priorities”.

More female breadwinners

Across Europe, women are now the main earners in about 10 per cent of households. For Ursula Barry, head of women’s studies at UCD, who contributed to the EU-wide study, women’s emergence at the head of households across Ireland has less to do with a growing equality however, and more to do with the impact of the recession.

“It’s at the expense of dual income families,” she says, pointing to the “significant number of situations where men have lost their jobs but women have held onto theirs”.

Such a situation can put unwanted pressure on women, as they are left to carry the burden of providing for a household. It can also put stress on a relationship.

“Unemployment among men has a particularly devastating effect on men’s self-esteem and their expected role within a household. So women have to manage that stressful situation,” says Barry.

Not only that, but courts are now far less inclined to impose long-term maintenance payments on a husband, and instead try and look for a more equitable approach.

The difficult economic environment is also reinforcing the importance of wives and mothers participating in the family finances. Vincent Martin, of the debt assistance collective New Beginnings, says that as a result of the recession, some women are finding themselves “suddenly on the front line”.

Martin says some women are now dealing with the fall-out of businesses failing and men having put up the family home as security on loans which are in default. In some cases they would have signed legal documents without taking their own legal advice

“Unfortunately in many incidences it’s legally very difficult to undo the decisions which were taken on a woman’s behalf and which she didn’t know were happening at the time,” he says.

So if women have made great strides over the past four decades, the evidence also suggests that there is still ground to cover.

“I can tell you now, if I had daughters I would say to them ‘get out there and get your own job and qualifications so you are never dependent on anyone’. It’s an absolute disaster to be dependent on someone,” warns Campbell.