Did you know that until 1973 if a woman got married in the Irish civil service, she had to resign so that a man or single woman could take her job? Married men got higher pay than singles as the “providers.” Until Ireland joined the EEC (EU) there was widespread state and private discrimination against women for not being men. Entry to the EU changed the role of women radically, outlawing widespread sexism and discrimination.
Bye Bye Daddy Male Bread-winner!
Maxime Bercholz and John Fitzgerald have written a very interesting article on women at work in Ireland in the latest ESRI quarterly (pages 49-81). Back in 1980 Ireland had a very low level of labour force participation by women, even though as they point out, women were better educated than men. However, from then on there was a steady rise in women at work.
They argue that this “rise, and the related increase in female labour supply, was an important factor contributing to the exceptional rate of economic growth in the Celtic Tiger years.” They look at the factors behind the rise from the early 1990s until it ended with the Crash of 2008, and they also look forward to the next five years. They believe that participation rates will revert to 2007 levels by 2020 for those aged up to 55 (provided childcare costs are contained). This is positive but what a loss there has been in those intervening years for women, families and the economy, thanks to our self-induced Crash.
In under thirty years, the participation of women aged 25 to 64 rose from slightly above 20 per cent in 1971 to nearly 50 per cent in 1996, with most of the increase occurring in the late 1980s and 1990s, particularly among married women
The barriers to fuller participation by women included legal and administrative obstacles and there were also cultural barriers in that womens’ place was seen to be in the home and this has changed. In addition to these changes, women’s education plays an important role in determining whether or not they participate in the labour market. Women in Ireland had been better educated than men and still are.
On the demand side, there has been a continuing growth in employment of well-educated workers in Ireland and with a large number of well-educated women who were not in the labour market and with higher wages paid to well-educated workers, there was a rapid rise in female labour supply to meet this growing demand for skilled labour. They also found that favourable tax changes for women boosted participation, as did the decision whether to remain in education or to enter the labour market.
Bercholz and Fitzgerald found that the share of the female population with less than a Leaving Certificate more than halved from 1995 to 2015, while that of women holding a third-level qualification increased from 18 per cent to 41 per cent. So with older women who have lower educational levels retire and as “younger women with higher qualifications enter the labour force, these changes will continue to affect the labour market for some time to come.”
It was found that rising educational levels and favourable economic conditions played an important role in raising female labour supply in the decade preceding the crisis. However they say that “children continued to be a major barrier to the participation of mothers, partly due to cost of childcare compared to other countries.”
This is a point made repeatedly by trade unions over decades. State support for childcare is part of the “social wage” and it also contributes to the defusion of the so-called pensions’ time bomb. The authors find that higher paid women are more likely to work than lower paid, which is unsurprising with the cost of childcare in Ireland and the lack of public support for it.
“Controlling for a range of other factors, in 1994 women with a university degree earned twice as much as women with an upper secondary educational level, and nearly three times as much as a woman with no qualification.” But as more women with a third-level entered the labour market, the return to those with tertiary education fell.
Overall interesting progress but a lot more could be done if Irish political leaders were less hostile to taxation (it is low here compared to most EU countries) to fund and subsidise childcare which is an enabler of greater female participation and which has other positive impacts on society too.
Paul Sweeney, Chair TASC’s Economists Network.
Paul Sweeney is former Chief Economist of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. He was a President of the Statistical and Social Enquiry Society of Ireland, former member of the Economic Committee of the ETUC, a member of the National Competitiveness Council of Ireland, the National Statistics Board, the ESB, TUAC, (advisor to OECD) and several other bodies. He has written three books on the Irish economy and two on public enterprise, including The Celtic Tiger; Ireland’s Economic Miracle Explained and Selling Out: Privatisation in Ireland, chapters in other books and many articles on economics.