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Opinon: This Nollaig na mBan, let's recognise that women shoulder the majority of care work

Historically, societies assumed that women did the caring and men were breadwinners. While things are changing, the responsibility for work within the home still falls predominantly to women.

Orla O’Connor Director, NWCI

JANUARY 6th IS Nollaig na mBan, where tradition in Ireland, particularly in Cork and Kerry, dictates that women get together and enjoy their own Christmas while men stay at home and handle all the chores. Last year, the idea that women only have one day of the year where they are relieved of household duties was met with some scorn, but in reality, the majority of housework still lies with women.

Historically, societies assumed a simple division of labour: women doing the caring, men as breadwinners. While things are changing, the responsibility for work within the home still falls predominantly to women. Nollaig na mBan provides a great opportunity to discuss how Ireland can find a new relationship between paid employment, care and gender roles, underpinned by measures to support employed parents and other carers.

This work is socially and economically essential – but our society doesn’t place a value on it

Women do the majority of the care work in families; they care for children, the elderly, the sick, and those with disabilities. Data from the 2011 Census reveals that 61% of carers are women. They provide 66% of all care hours, while 86% of childcare is carried out by women.

This work is socially and economically essential, but our society does not place a value on it. The fact that women do far more care and care work, paid and unpaid, than men plays a significant part in women’s lower economics status. Women who work in childcare, for example, are also vastly underpaid, earning wages just above the minimum wage for challenging work requiring a high level of skills and knowledge.

On average, women are paid less than men, and are vastly underrepresented in senior-decision making positions. The labour market and the workplace remain less than accommodating to women and families who are trying to combine work and family commitments. Both these factors help to explain why women are less likely to be in employment and – when employed – are more likely to work in part-time or precarious work. Recent ESRI research has shown that women on lower incomes have been particularly affected by the erosion of social welfare payments, cuts to Child Benefit and reductions in wages and job security. Figures tell us that 50% of women earn less than €20,000 a year.

The fact that women are paid less than men and are often employed in part-time and precarious work affects women throughout their whole life and has cumulative effects when women come to pension age. It is women who have been hardest hit by a rise in contributory pension requirements, as they find it more difficult to build up consistent contributions. In the absence of a comprehensive homemakers’ credit, women with more than one break in their career due to care responsibilities are also losing out on contributions. Every week the NWCI is contacted by older women who are shocked and angry by the ongoing inequalities in our pension system.

No paternity leave in Ireland: bad for fathers, mothers and children

Ireland’s family leave policies – policies which determine the relationship between work and family life – are still based on the notion that women are the primary carers for young children. Ireland’s maternity leave, although 26 weeks in length, is low paid; we provide only 18 weeks per parent of parental leave, all unpaid, and there are currently no provisions for paternity leave.

The Government will introduce a new Family Leave Bill in 2015, this will be an opportunity to show political leadership by introducing legislation which will enable families in Ireland to finally make choices with regard to balancing work and family life in way that suits their needs and that redistributes care responsibilities between women and men. NWCI will continue to work with Irish Congress of Trade Unions, our member Start Strong, and with women throughout this year to ensure the Government delivers paid parental leave and paternity leave and provides supports to mothers on returning to work.

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National Women’s Council of Ireland has consistently flagged the importance of investment of an affordable, accessible childcare model. The opportunity to develop a quality, publicly subsidised model of childcare on par with other European countries is one which we must grasp as we enter a period of economic recovery. The burden on families who are paying between €800-€1,000 per month for a full-time childcare place is financially crippling for families and has been consistently ignored by Government. A second free pre-school year would start to address this issue and deliver real economic and social dividends.

Nollaig na mBan brings with it the opportunity to highlight the fact that care always costs. That these costs are mainly borne by women in the home or women in badly paid care work means we can pretend that this work doesn’t come at a price. The failure of our policies to give visibility, value, and support to care work is a huge factor in economic inequality between women and men. Until care work is adequately valued, women will remain vastly over-represented in unpaid and low paid work, and hugely under-represented in high-paid work.

Orla O’Connor is Director of National Women’s Council of Ireland. To become a member of NWCI and become part of the movement for change, see www.nwci.ie.

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About the author:

Orla O’Connor  / Director, NWCI

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