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Pandemic frees up more women to participate in workforce

Countries with higher levels of female empowerment tend to be more productive

One of the more unexpected trends to emerge in the pandemic has been the increased incidence of female employment and female participation in the Irish labour force.

For decades, we've lagged other countries on these metrics. However, the pandemic and the recourse to remote working has changed the dynamic. In its latest quarterly bulletin, the Central Bank noted female participation in the Irish labour force had increased by three and a half percentage points since the start of the pandemic to stand at a record 59.8 per cent.

At the height of Celtic Tiger in 2007-08, it reached 57.6 per cent, but fell in the immediate aftermath of the crash.

Countries with greater levels of female empowerment tend to be more productive and that means more prosperous.


As well as restructuring the daily working life of millions of workers, the pandemic has dragged more people – men and women – into the workforce

The increase here, the Central Bank said, was being driven – in the main – by those with a third-level education entering full-time jobs in high-skilled sectors, such as IT, finance and professional services.

The regulator said it remained to be seen how persistent some of these recent trends will be.

Nonetheless, over the two years that span the pandemic (2020 and 2021), full-time female employment has increased by 7 per cent or 56,000 while part-time female employment has risen by 10 per cent or 34,000.

“Female employment has grown in sectors less adversely-affected by Covid-19 such as professional services and education,” the Central Bank said. “These roles are primarily full-time, higher-skilled and salaried positions. These factors may reduce the possibility of the gains being related to transitory pandemic effects,” it said.

The regulator's director of economics and statistics, Mark Cassidy, speculated as to the reasons. "It's difficult to explain why this has happened but [there are] higher wages in some of these sectors, and higher wages will always draw more people," he said.

Salaries in certain sectors of the Irish jobs market are expected to increase by 5-10 per cent this year, with increases of 15-20 per cent likely for certain in-demand skills, according to a recent report by recruitment firm Morgan McKinley.

The other explanation Cassidy gave and the one that seems anecdotally true is flexibility, in other words remote working.

It may be the case that many women have been attracted into the labour force by the working-from-home arrangements forced on companies by the pandemic as it allows them to balance work with other responsibilities, he said.

In almost every country in the world, men are more likely to participate in labour markets than women, Ireland is no different. The male participation rate was here stood at 70.5 per cent in the third quarter of last year.

However, these gender differences in participation rates have been narrowing.

While demands for greater flexibility were originally associated with women seeking to combine paid work with unpaid childcare, the pandemic has shown that greater flexibility is now a key demand of most workers.

Some 90 per cent of those aged between 35 and 44 who can work remotely would like to do so when pandemic restrictions end, a recent survey by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) found.

Tech companies have – presumably because of the nature of the work – embraced more flexible arrangements and as a result appear to offer workers better work-life balance in ways traditional enterprises don’t.

That’s not to say there aren’t downsides to sitting at home on laptops.

The “Great Resignation” theory has it that countless people have resigned their jobs as a result of the pandemic. It seems more applicable to the US where quit rates hit record levels in September than to here.

Also implicit in the narrative is the idea that Covid has constrained many people, particularly women, from working because of the additional childcare burden. The opposite seems to be the case here.

Economist John FitzGerald, who writes a column for The Irish Times, has highlighted that women formed an important pool of skilled labour when demand for workers grew as the Irish economy expanded in the 1990s. “About a quarter of the growth of the 1990s can be attributed to the rise in women’s economic participation,” he said.

As well as restructuring the daily working life of millions of workers, the pandemic has dragged more people – men and women – into the workforce.

The CSO's latest Labour Force Survey indicated there were 2.47 million, including about 100,000 people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP), employed in the Republic, the highest level of employment on record.

The Central Bank’s report also highlighted much greater participation by young people in the workforce: they appear to be taking on more part-time roles in the hospitality sector.

Part of the increased participation must relate to more flexible arrangements, another may relate to the lack of overseas employees available to consumer-facing sectors such as retail and hospitality, which typically rely on migrant labour.

As the Central Bank says, it remains to be seen if these trends stick when the pandemic period ends.

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times