Women and work… and Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar TD at a Fine Gael press conferenc...

Leo Varadkar TD at a Fine Gael press conference during the 2011 General Election Campaign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A straw poll of friends and colleagues a recently revealed that many of the women I know are the primary – or the only – breadwinners in their families.

The recession has caused a huge amount of male unemployment in construction and related sectors. Despite that, more women are living in poverty, or at risk of poverty, than men. Those two statements are true, and they’re not mutually exclusive.

In the discussion following this week’s revelations about the personal insolvency guidelines, it was assumed that childcare costs are the sole responsibility of one person in every household; the woman.

Many men take responsibility for childcare, and its cost, but for some reason the Government is ignoring their role in this babymaking business. Perhaps Deputy Michelle Mulherin can fill Minister Leo Varadkar in about the role of fornication in all of it.

The minister told yesterday’s Irish Examiner that women who earn less than the price of childcare would have to give up their jobs, under the banks’ new guidelines.

Women of childbearing age bear the brunt of successive governments’ failure to tackle the inequity of Irish childcare. Across Europe, one-third of single parents live in poverty, and of those single parents, approximately 85 per cent are women.

Childcare costs might be bothering the bank managers of the mortgage-defaulting women Minister Varadkar knows, with their ‘pin money’ jobs and gadabout ‘career girl’ lifestyles.

(Reading his comments, I was sorry he didn’t get the chance to meet legendary advertising executive Jane Maas, a speaker for Network Cork’s International Women’s Day event, who worked in 1960s New York, and saw pregnant colleagues “disappear quietly” before they were fired.)

Childcare costs, though, are even more of an issue to a single mother trying to keep herself at work in order to avoid the social welfare / single mother stigma and to retain those precious PRSI stamps that will entitle her to a contributory pension when she does retire.

Taking some time off to look after children can be a privilege for many women. But the career gap necessitated by having children is a major contributory factor to women’s increased risk of poverty.

However, for many families, Minister Varadkar’s vision is correct – women, or in rare cases men who have children, realise they will be working purely to pay somebody else and decide to remain at home themselves. But it means that when they do go back to work, they are years behind colleagues in pay and experience. That pay gap represents a massive loss of earnings over a person’s career, as well as affecting their pension entitlements.

This does not have to be the natural state of affairs. It is not the state of affairs in many European countries, where childcare is heavily subsidised and parental leave is more generous, for both parents.

Yesterday, Enda Kenny said in the Dáil that “nobody” would be forced to give up their job under the guidelines. However, he failed to follow the problem to its source; the cost of childcare. Perhaps he – and Leo Varadkar – should talk to their cabinet colleague Frances Fitzgerald, who has been talking about reforming childcare for quite a while now.

It would be ironic if mortgage defaults were the reason we finally got a functional, fair, affordable childcare system up and running in this country. But it seems to be the only reason anything gets done around here, so if I were the minister for children, I’d be bringing any proposals straight to my real bosses at the troika.

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