VICTORIA WHITE: Economic order has no desire to give mothers a real choice

As Will Das Weib? What do women want? That was a question which vexed the great mind of Sigmund Freud to his dying day.

The obvious answer — “Ask them” — doesn’t seem to have occurred to him as a solution.

He didn’t believe what women said about themselves, anyway, easily classing them as “hysterical” or “deluded”.

I wonder how much better we are today at asking women what they want and listening to their answers?

As the ERSI’s very welcome report on the cost of childcare, published this week, made clear, Irish women have not yet been asked when and how they would prefer to work after they have children.

Such research, they say, “would provide additional insights into this important social and economic question”.

A poll sponsored by Sudocrem and published in the Irish Independent last year showed 62% of mothers wanting to stay home rather than go out to work.

This hardly matches the quality of research you would get from the ERSI, and the question has to be asked why women’s preferences when it comes to work and childcare are considered so little?

Could it be that they’re too dangerous to economic output?

Focussed too little on the kind of uninterrupted work which brings in steady tax returns, boosting the labour market and keeping immigrant workers out?

This year’s census returns in the UK featured a question on happiness which showed that parents at home count themselves happier than any other workers, probably because they do more of what they want and less of what they don’t want than their employed peers.

They are beaten to the happiness post only by students and retired people, which suggests few of us like working for other people terribly much.

Research from around the developed world makes it clear that a majority of mothers will opt for part-time or down-shifted work, or none at all, if they get the chance.

It is not surprising that the ERSI found a premium being paid for part-time or flexible childcare.

Large numbers opt for childminders who, says the report, must — along with care by relations — be considered as part of any review of childcare the Government makes.

I would add care by parents, used by half of the children in the Growing Up in Ireland study which is the basis of this report, as a childcare option worthy of consideration.

The report shows that mothers of young children will drop the number of hours they work if they can. It says that women in high income households work fewer hours when their children are five than less well-off peers “probably because the need to work longer hours is lower”.

This is despite the fact that the cost of childcare is much less significant for them.

It is clear from comparative studies that the cost of childcare has very little effect on the choices well-funded women make about their working hours and we are no different.

It is also clear that decreasing the cost of childcare has a small, but measurable effect on the working patterns of lower income women.

Overall, the report concludes that “there is almost always a negative effect of higher childcare costs on mothers’ employment though the effect is not large and is sometimes insignificant”.

They quote the example of universal free preschool, which was introduced in Spain in the 1990s helping the working rate of mothers of three-year-olds to go up by 3%.

The ERSI found that a 1% decrease in the cost of childcare results in 0.049 hours more work per week for mothers.

They did the maths and reckoned that a 50% reduction in the cost of childcare would cause mothers to work two-and-a-half more hours per week.

It can be argued that simple multiplication is too unsophisticated a measurement in this
context: Mammies often have an instinctive sense of how much they should be away from their kids.

Even if we accept the calculation, though, you still wonder how the report could have generated newspaper headlines such as “Childcare costs biggest barrier to mothers working?” in this newspaper and shriller still in The Irish Times, “High childcare costs keeping women out of workplace”.

The reason is that the guiding scripture of our economic system is that women should all be at work full-time and if they aren’t, the only acceptable reason is that their childcare costs are “a second mortgage”.

We don’t have a problem with the first mortgage, mind, only the second — despite the fact that it is often needed to pay the first mortgage.

We have accepted the new definition of “human capital”, used by the ERSI, to mean the education, skills and knowledge a person has to “produce goods or ideas in market circumstances”.

This is not the dictionary definition of “human capital” which sees it as the skills a person brings to his or her society.

It is no wonder, when it defines peoples’ worth essentially by how well they can be traded, that the OECD calls a parent working at home “a waste of human capital”.

In fact, it is having no choice which is the biggest factor pushing Irish women out to work early. We have the same “polarised pattern” as exists internationally.

Young mothers, lone mothers and white, immigrant mothers, tend to return to work even before the end of statutory maternity leave.

They are less likely to be at work nine months later when presumably, for some, their whole attempt at work/life balance has gone belly-up.

The evidence in the report which should have generated the banner headlines was that Irish lone mothers are paying a bigger proportion of their income on childcare than in any of the other 20 developed countries studied, except the US.

The treatment of these women who are parenting alone and need long maternity leaves, paid parental leave, flexible work and flexible childcare, shows up exactly how much we really care about mothers in this country.

In countries like Germany and Austria, for instance, lone mothers pay a much lower percentage of their income on childcare.

But does the fact that Germany and Austria have the among the lowest childcare costs for couples among all the countries studied lead to more mothers in the workplace?

No it doesn’t. Germany and Austria have low numbers of mothers of young children in the workplace, and the two of the widest gender pay gaps in the EU.

Both have long, paid maternity leaves and good support for home-based parents, as noted critically by the OECD.

The lesson is that giving women too much choice poses the danger of disrupting the economic order.


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