The Budget must protect women

Equality must trump austerityOrla O’Connor and Ann Irwin 


Women in Ireland earn on average 17.1 per cent less than men and twice as many men compared to women earn over €50,000 a year.

Gender inequality is still deeply rooted in Irish society. Women earn less than men; they are under-represented in the decision-making structures at all levels; they are overrepresented in low-paid, ‘precarious’ work; they are more dependent on social welfare; and they experience higher levels of poverty and deprivation.

Budgets are not gender neutral. They can either increase income gaps and other forms of inequality between women and men, or they can reduce them.  The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) has recommended that all Budgetary measures be assessed for their impact on women before their introduction. Gender Budgeting has become even more critical in a time of austerity.

There was a difference of over €10,000 in annual average household disposable income between households headed by a male and households headed by a female in 2010. Households headed by a lone parent (86.5% of which are headed by a woman) had significantly lower levels again. In Ireland women are under-represented in decision-making structures at all levels. In 2011, only 15.1% of TDs in Dáil Éireann were women and less than a fifth of members of local authorities were women.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) has consistently highlighted the need to consider the different impact of the recession and responses to recession on women and men.   The effects of the recession on men and male-dominated employment sectors has been well documented – and rightly so. The effects and impacts on women are less well documented.

In the initial stages of the recession, male unemployment more than doubled from 73,100 in 2008 to 158,400 in 2009 to 194,900 in 2010. Since then the increases have continued, albeit at a slower pace, from 201,800 in 2011 to 205,400 in 2012. In contrast, female unemployment increased slowly in the initial stages of recession from 37,600 in 2007 to 36,300 in 2008, and 64,500 in 2009. In more recent years, as the effects of the recession, austerity and cutbacks impact on the public service, and retail and services industries where women are disproportionately represented, the impact on female unemployment is becoming more significant. It rose from 80,200 in 2010 to 93,800 in 2011 and to 103,600 in 2012. In the year ending March 2012, female unemployment increased by 10.4%, while male employment increased by 1.8%. Figures for Quarter 2 2012 show a continuation of this trend with an increase of 4,000 unemployed people, 3,600 of whom were female. This suggests that for every newly unemployed man there were nine women.

Austerity has particularly hit women on low and middle incomes and those dependent on social protection. The past three Budgets have left women with significantly reduced incomes, through cuts to social welfare and child benefit, cuts to earnings, and the introduction of the highly regressive Universal Social Charge.

The outcomes are stark. Poverty, indebtedness and deprivation are increasing. There are now almost 725,000 people living in Ireland at risk of poverty. Those reporting enforced deprivation of two or more items increased from 13.8% in 2008 to 17.1% in 2009 and 22.5% in 2010. The rates were higher for women (23.4%) than for men (21.6%) and significantly higher for households headed by a female (26.7%) and for lone parent households (49.8%).

Research by TASC found that single-parent households (the vast majority of which are headed by a woman) lost proportionately more of their income compared to other households, as a result of the measures introduced in Budget 2011. ESRI research confirms that contrary to previous Budgets (2008 to 2011), Budget 2012’s combination of indirect tax increases and welfare cuts imposed greater percentage losses on those with low incomes, cuts of about 2 to 2.5 per cent, compared to losses for those on the highest incomes, of about ¾ per cent.

Budgets are one of the most influential policy instruments governments have. Decisions made by Government in relation to Budget priorities are a powerful tool that can be used to protect those on the lowest incomes but also to contribute to equality, particularly gender equality. In order to do this, however, the Government needs to introduce gender equality Budgeting.

A gender Budget is not a separate Budget for women. Rather, it is an attempt to assess government priorities, as reflected in the Budget, for their impact on women and men and, within that, on certain groups of women and men. Gender Budgets do not assess whether the same is spent on men and women, but the impact of the spending is on men and women and whether Budgets respond adequately to the particular needs of both.

There are choices. In Iceland, for example, the protection of gender equality was prioritised during austerity. No gender-equality institutions or measures were abolished, and, in addition, the implementation of gender Budgeting in stages was agreed.  Gender Equality Watch was established to predict the gender effects of austerity measures. The development of an Equal Pay Standard, and the introduction of new legislation banning the purchase of sexual ‘services’ and other gender-based violence were prioritised. This experience demonstrated that, when governments prioritise gender equality, the subsequent budgetary choices protect those on the lowest incomes and focus on those with the ability to pay.

The NWCI is calling on the Government to increase revenue in Budget 2013 by increasing the tax burden on those with most ability to pay rather than placing the emphasis on expenditure cuts. Expecially on those with fewest resources. As women rely more heavily on public services, cuts to those services disproportionately affect them. The NWCI is also calling on Government to introduce gender Budgeting to ensure that the needs of women and men are both protected by Budgetary measures.


Orla O’Connor has been appointed Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland and Ann Irwin provides policy advice to NWCI on a freelance basis