As in previous recessions, concern about gender equality has been one of the first casualties of this one.  On International Women’s Day, let’s take a moment to reflect on how, and why, topics popularly called “women’s issues” have disappeared from the front pages, and consider how the gender-blind implementation of austerity is reversing some hard fought gains.

The conundrum of care – and women’s roles in providing it – is at the heart of gender inequality.  When Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique inspired a second wave of feminist activism, the expectation that most care would be provided by unpaid, full-time homemakers was the principal obstacle to equality for women.  Since that time, changed social values and a dramatic increase in female labour force participation have transformed the lives of women and men.  But that transformation also brought changes in the provision of care that created new pathways to differences amongst women, and to the reproduction of gender inequality in society as a whole.  There are three parts to the story.

First, more women in the workplace means greater demand for services to support families as they strive to look after children, the elderly and others who require additional care because of illness or disability.  (We all require care, of course). In ‘liberal’ welfare systems like that of Ireland, many of these services are provided by low wage workers, workers in the informal or black market, and extended family members, including grandparents.  Most of these poorly paid or unpaid workers are women.

Second, much of the growth of comparatively ‘good’ female jobs can be attributed to the rapid expansion of professional care systems – particularly in health and education, and mainly in the public sector.  There is unequivocal international evidence that where the proportions of women employees are high, wages tend to be lower.  However, across Europe, public sector employment has helped to reduce the wage gap for women.  So as care work has expanded outside the home, it has tended to reinforce occupational segregation by gender – which has been shown to put downward pressure on women’s earnings in the long run – and to create (or worsen) sectoral divisions amongst women.

Third, even in good times, the challenges of combining paid work with family caring put significant pressure on women and their families, as they struggled to cope with the ‘second shift.’

The measures that have made Ireland the ‘poster-boy’ (sic) for the austerity agenda in Europe have worsened the situation for women and families across the board.  Cuts to home help for the elderly have directly hit comparatively poorly paid and unprotected female carers, and increased pressure on the families of those older people who are fortunate enough to have family members living nearby.  Reductions in pay and deteriorating conditions of work in the public sector will increase the gender wage gap.  The ‘reform’ whereby public sector pensions are calculated according to career average earnings, rather than final salary, will disproportionately affect women who tend to have lower lifetime earnings than men, largely because of how childbearing affects their careers.  Deteriorating public services push the burden of care back onto families, a burden which in practice falls disproportionately on women.

When I teach about gender inequality, I am often at pains to emphasize the degree to which women’s lives have improved in countries like Ireland.  There are legitimate concerns that opportunities for young working-class men have diminished.  However, our failure to address the conundrum of care – and its obliteration from public discourse in the crisis – means that gender inequality remains, and is worsening, in these sorry times.

Jane Gray