Women’s jobs are not luxuries to be ditched along with the second holiday

Forty years on, Government ideology still sees men as breadwinners


I’ve recently played an amusing new party game called Which Minister Said? It is more difficult than you might think.

For example, which Fine Gael transport minister said the following: “There was no reluctance on our part to have married women working. But the situation was that the number of breadwinning jobs was so few that if a married woman worked she was keeping a man [with] a family to support out of a job”?

Skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers. The answer is Dr Peter Barry. (For a bonus two points, the year was 1972; the occasion was the debate on the lifting of the ban on married women in the public service). See, I told you it wasn’t as easy as it looks.

Another Fine Gael transport minister with views on women in the workplace, Leo Varadkar, last week appeared to pull back from his comments suggesting women could be forced out of their jobs under the new insolvency regime.

What he had said was: “I know one or two women . . . who probably don’t make very much money at all from working but they do it to keep their position on the career ladder, if you like. That’s a legitimate thing to do but if you can’t pay your mortgage as a result . . . that’s something that needs to be taken into account in any insolvency arrangement.”

He later reiterated that his stance was the same as the Taoiseach’s – no woman will be forced out of a job but their childcare arrangements will still have to be examined in insolvency situations.

It is not entirely fair to hold Varadkar responsible for the policy when all he has done is draw our attention to this little nugget in the Government’s draft guidelines on insolvency: “Where a person is working and paying for childcare as a consequence of his or her employment, the cost of childcare should not exceed the income from employment.”

Gender-neutral guidelines
The draft insolvency guidelines are gender neutral: they don’t say whether the lower-earning partner might be male or female. But – as evidenced by Varadkar’s comments – society is not. There are some men who work part-time to support their families, or who step out of the workforce altogether, but their numbers are still dwarfed by the proportion of women who do so.

According to the National Women’s Council, only 51.5 per cent of women with children aged between four to five years work; this falls to 42 per cent if they have three children.

This shouldn’t need spelling out a full 40 years after the abolition of the ban on married women in the workplace, but here goes anyway. The problem is not that the women who go on working after having children are delusional, self-indulgent creatures determinedly pursuing a career at the expense of being able to pay their bills. It is that, at an average of €1,000 per month, childcare costs in Ireland are too high, and a woman’s earning power is too low.

Varadkar is right about one thing. Women do make the kind of informed calculations he alluded to all the time, ie “If I can just get through the next couple of years, I’ll be in a better position by the time my children are at school.”

“If I don’t cut back my hours then I’ve got a decent shot at that promotion coming up at work.”

I should know: I’ve done precisely this kind of back-of-the-nappy, cost-benefit analysis myself.

At one point in my working career, roughly one third of what I earned went to my childminder; another third went directly to the taxman; and the remaining third covered the Montessori fees. If I thought about it too much I felt slightly queasy. But I didn’t see it as unsustainable or irrational. I saw it as a short-term cash-flow problem; an investment my partner and I were jointly making in our future.

That’s the first point this policy seems to be missing. Generally speaking, “a” person is not paying for childcare as a result of “his” or “her” employment. Most children have two parents; the cost of the childcare is usually shared.

My husband and I had both made the decision to have children; we shared their care equally outside of work, just as we shared the cost of having them cared for while we worked. At no point did it seriously occur to us that, since I was the lesser earner and effectively working for nothing, I should quit altogether.

The other point that this policy seems to be missing is that, in the long-term, the cost of giving up work completely is much greater than the short-term cost of paying for children in a crèche.

Take two, three or five years out from the workforce in the early years of your children’s lives and you will be financially penalised for this decision forever. Your skills could be out of date and you may have to come back to work at a lower level.

You might have to work part-time because the cost of after-school care is so high. You will climb the career ladder again, but probably more slowly than before. Your pension will shrink accordingly.

At least Varadkar was honest enough to expose the gender bias at the heart of the ideology, a bias that doesn’t appear to have dimmed in the four decades since Peter Barry’s comments: men are the “breadwinners” whose careers must be protected at all costs; women’s careers are luxuries, which can be dispensed with alongside the second holiday and the Sky Sports.

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