A Silicon Valley bro has been fired from Google for posting a ten-page memo about the biological inferiority of women in the tech industry. In the document – which doesn’t seem sure if it’s a rant or political manifesto, neither of which seem like a good idea for a communal work memo – James Damore hints that a woman’s place is in the home, by saying that top leadership roles are unsuitable to women because the “positions often require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life”. So patronizing, it’s almost soothing.
Comfort can at least be taken from the fact that overdue light is being shed on one of the most enduring facets of institutionalised sexism. Talk about women’s pay has dominated the last few weeks, ranging from the inane comments of B-list celebrities such as Tom Chamberlain (who suggested that men deserve higher wages than women in order to support their families) to gender disparity in the White House (where women earn only 80% of what men earn).
Wage transparency is a welcome step in bridging the pay gap. Nevertheless, there are multiple contributors to pay disparity between genders that go beyond employer legislation.
Unwittingly, Tom Chamberlain and James Damore have hit on one of these issues in that the pay gap is not solely a result of attitudes that permeate the labour market but is also a result of the configuration of the domestic sphere. Far from being the result of flippant comments or ten-page memos, these views are, unfortunately, firmly embedded in our society. The value of what is predominantly considered women’s labour – such as care and work in the home – is still laid out in our constitution. Article 41.2.1 states that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.”
Until 1973, women civil servants were forced to give up their careers and were relegated solely to the private sphere after marriage. Women in the private sector were encouraged to follow suit. A huge portion of life’s daily labour was delegated to women who did it for free and were dependent on their husbands’ economic buoyancy.
Due to of a lack of remuneration for childcare and work in the home, the bulk of women’s labour is still, economically speaking, invisible. Women in Ireland still constitute much of the back-end mechanics contributing to the success of the economy, by taking on financially unrecognised labour, saving the state on social expenditure. The long-held illusion that women outside the workforce are dependents in society is flawed. In fact, society, in many ways, is unfairly reliant on the unpaid work of women.
Today’s wage gap bears the hangover of Ireland’s traditional, segregated past. Many women feel pushed out of work after childbirth because of the unequal distribution of labour at home. The European Commission’s 2016 report on the gender pay gap in Ireland estimates that men, on average, spend nine hours doing unpaid care and household work each week, while the average woman completes twenty-six hours of the same work per week.
This is further reflected in the number of women resorting to part-time paid labour: 1 in 3 in comparison to men’s 1 in 10. Women, it reports, also spend more time out of the labour market as a result of caring for children. A study conducted by Citrix in 2016 found that around 3,000 new mothers leave the work force each year due to unaffordable childcare, while approximately 8,200 returned to work seeking more flexible working hour arrangements to accommodate their family life.
Women’s career breaks as a result of home labour have detrimental effects on their pensions, too, leaving older women at higher risk of poverty than their male counterparts, who are more likely to enjoy the pension benefits of an uninterrupted career. A report published by Mercer in June of this year indicated that Ireland’s pension pay gap is 30% or more.
Another consequence of these inequalities is that women are at the forefront of poverty. The visibility of social inequity is never more apparent than in times of economic difficulty and the recession in Ireland exposed the ugliness of our own. A report by the NWCI in 2015 found that women largely bore the brunt of it, showing that 50% of all female workers were earning €20,000 less as a result.
It also showed that 63% of lone parents were experiencing deprivation, 86.4% of which are mothers, according to the 2016 census. TASC’s Economic Inequality in Ireland 2016 report showed that Ireland has the second highest cost of childcare for couples in the OECD and the highest for lone parents. For many in low income families, paying for childcare is not a feasible option, leaving many mothers to take up the role of full-time care-giver.
That there is not more support from the government for work in the home indicates that both the importance of the work itself and the people who perform it are of peripheral value. Whether this is intended or not is irrelevant. Unequal pay and employment opportunities, and the uneven distribution of poverty suggests that the ease of allowing women to continue to take on this work at their own expense is more important than the women themselves and those that they care for.
Significant changes for women will require strong structural support from the government rather than transparency alone, which is only the first step. Real change means that the issue of childcare will not be left weighing down on women’s shoulders. Whether this involves subsidised childcare for working parents, incentivised childcare facilities for companies, or a Swedish-style cap on childcare costs per month, the state should no longer be passive. Women can contribute to the “common good” laid out in the constitution without being collateral to it.