Women ‘left in poverty’ due to welfare system built around ‘male breadwinner’

Citizens’ Assembly hears some laws around work ‘bear the stamp of yesterday’s Ireland’

The setup of Ireland's tax and social welfare systems around the concept of the "male breadwinner" was more likely to leave women in poverty when they became pensioners, the Citizens' Assembly has heard.

The forum of 100 people met remotely on Saturday to continue discussion around gender inequality and work, with presentations from a number of academics.

Chair of the assembly, Dr Catherine Day, a former secretary general of the European Commission, said some laws and policy "still bear the stamp of yesterday's Ireland" when it came to the role of women.

“In the vast majority of cases the man was the breadwinner and had a stay-at-home wife, who had no independent income and whose years of family care were never economically valued,” she said.


Women were left in poverty later in life in some cases where they had left school early, took multiple career breaks, or predominantly worked part-time due to other caring responsibilities, she said.

A woman in this situation “may end up a very poor pensioner at the end of her lifetime of working and caring, particularly if she is separated, divorced or widowed,” Ms Day said.

Prof Mary Murphy, from Maynooth University, said there were up to 100,000 "invisible women" in the social welfare system.

This was in part due to the “male breadwinner structure” of the social protection system, where some benefits were means tested as a household.

“Women who are qualified adults in the social welfare system, with no social insurance record in their own right, no PRSI, no employment supports, and that leads them into pension poverty,” Prof Murphy said.

“It is those invisible women who are dependent in a family welfare system, who are dependent on their spouse,” she said.

The alternative was a culture where care responsibilities for children or elderly relatives were more evenly balanced between both partners in a household, she said.

This would mean moves towards better recognition of part-time work in the labour market, to allow “both adults work less than full-time, and both adults share care more equally,” she said.

“At the moment flexible employment is really flexible employment from the perspective of the employer.”

The assembly also heard from Dr Adele Whelan, of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), who has studied the gender gap in retirement income.

Dr Whelan said research showed on average women had a weekly pension income of €280, compared with €433 a week among men.

This gap was primarily due to the fact men were more likely to have a private or occupational pension in retirement. In a sample studied by the ESRI, 55 per cent of men had a private pension, compared with 28 per cent of women, she said.

Reasons for this included the fact women were more likely to have had shorter careers, worked part-time, and had more career interruptions, due to children or other caring responsibilities, she said.

The Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality was set up last year, and its recommendations will come before the Dáil once it is finished in early 2021.

The model was first used to discuss proposed changes to Ireland’s abortion laws, with the assembly recommending the repeal of the constitutional ban on abortion.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is acting Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times