The complex gender economy

Basically, tax, labour-market and benefit changes that hit low-income groups damage women hardestSinéad Pentony 


Ireland has been consumed by the economic crisis for nearly four years and we are grinding our way through the terms of the bailout deal agreed with the ‘troika’.  The focus has remained firmly on dealing with the banking crisis and on reducing the gap between revenue and expenditure. The crisis and the policy responses to it  are having a profound effect on the structure of our economy and on society.  The fact that these responses are not informed by a gender analysis is problematic in both the short and the long term for women.

Economic inequality between women and men remains entrenched in Ireland. Women work fewer hours, earn less (17 per cent), own less and are more likely to live in poverty than men.  This not only limits women’s financial power and freedom, but also hinders their full participation in public life. It diminishes their ability to attain positions of power and influence and it’s those who are in positions of power and influence who determine the choices made in response to the crisis.

Unemployment now stands at 14.8 per cent (309,000 people). 338,000 jobs have been lost over the last four years.  Men represent two-thirds of those who are unemployed, reflecting the collapse in the construction and related industries.  Women have been to some extent protected by the gender segregation in the labour market. However, in the last year there has been an acceleration in the number of women becoming unemployed. Women represent three-quarters of those who have been made unemployed over the last 12 months. This reflects the collapse in domestic demand, which has a direct impact on the retail and services sectors where women are concentrated.

The employment rate for women and men continues to fall and now stands at 54.9 per cent for women and 62.4 per cent for men. Both are well below the EU average. Changes in employment have generated new gender patterns including a narrowing of the gender gap in employment rates.

There has been some degree of ‘levelling down’ of gender gaps in employment and unemployment. This is due to lower rates of employment, higher rates of unemployment and reduced earnings for both women and men. This should not be confused with gender equality which requires a ‘levelling up’, by increasing employment participation rates, reducing unemployment and addressing the income gap between women and men.

Research from the Resolution Foundation in the UK shows how vital women’s work is to household income: in 1968, women provided 11 per cent of household income while men provided 70 per cent; in 2009, women provided 24 per cent of household income and men provided 40 per cent. The contribution of women’s income to the household is likely to have increased since 2009, reflecting the dominant trend towards dual-earner couples.

Unlike in previous crises the labour-market choices being made by women over this crisis can be seen as remarkably similar to men’s. There has not been the withdrawal of women from the labour market that was evident in previous crises. This is reflected in   a small decrease across Europe in dual-earner couples and this decrease has been in favour of female-breadwinner couples.

TASC’s research into the gender impacts of budgetary measures, which included an analysis of the income distribution between women and men, illustrates the extent to which women are concentrated in lower-income groups.  Consequently, tax and benefit changes that disproportionately damage low-income groups have hit women the hardest.

The research found that lone-parent households had the lowest average income of all households examined, and that they lost proportionately more of their income as a result of budgetary measures.   Lone-parent households are predominantly headed by women and are least able to absorb a reduction in their income.

In terms of public policy, it is not only budgetary measures which have disproportionately impacted on women. Women are also particularly vulnerable to any moves to ‘increase labour market flexibility’ – to dilute the regulations designed to protect vulnerable workers.

Women have been affected by the growth of the so-called ‘precariat’.  Precarious workers tend to be underemployed and low-paid.  Their hours of work are often unsocial and unpredictable.  Their employment patterns may be such that they are unable to build up sufficient social insurance entitlements. The ‘precariat’ are disproportionately likely to be women, working in areas such as cleaning, retail and hospitality.

The income reductions suffered by low-income groups in general, and women in particular, have been compounded by cuts in the public services on which such groups disproportionately depend.  Such cuts, and cuts in state-provided facilities such as those offered by Community Employment schemes, have affected women in multiple ways.  Cuts to community-childcare schemes, for example, have affected the women working in such schemes as well as the women who depend on them to participate in the labour market.

The current economic strategy is generating unemployment, income inequality, and poverty.  This has given rise to a false narrowing of the gender gaps – a false equality in that it is based on growing deprivation and disadvantage. It is clear that this narrowing of gender gaps could be a temporary phenomenon as the initial protections that resulted from labour-market segregation are undermined as the areas where women are concentrated come under pressure.

Closing the equality gap – in the first instance by protecting those on low incomes – will not only enhance the wellbeing of individuals and in particular women, but will also help boost demand in the economy.  That’s one reason why it is important to keep the issue of equality – including gender equality – on the policy agenda.

There needs to be a comprehensive, gendered and equality-proofed approach across all policies including  social-welfare policies. The budget needs to be equality-proofed and budgetary measures to be audited for their impact on gender equality. This needs to acknowledge the changed reality of a predominance of dual-earner couples. There needs to be a particular focus on policies that impact on caring. While women continue to be in charge of the economy of care, it is going to be very difficult for women to realise their full potential.


Sinéad Pentony is Head of Policy with TASC, an independent think-tank dedicated to addressing Ireland’s high level of economic inequality