Turning back the clock on women: Northern Ireland and the recession

‘The model of society being held up for women is, “go back to the home, pick up the unpaid caring role that we, the governments, cannot cover and we will focus on incentivising your husband to support you”.’

(The Northern Ireland Economy: Women on the Edge, Women’s Resource and Development Agency 2011)

This is the message being sent by the government to the women of Northern Ireland according to a new 160 page report on women and the recession – The Northern Ireland Economy: Women on the edge? – a comprehensive analysis of the impact of the financial crisis on women.

It examines a range of issues including childcare, lone parents, older and younger women, migrant women, pensions, welfare reform, debt and housing.

The report, published at the beginning of July by the Women’s Resource and Development Agency and funded by the Office of the First Minster and Deputy First Minister,  provides evidence that women are being disproportionately impacted by the financial crisis and ensuing budget cuts.

The dry statistics of job losses and low wages are brought to life by quotations from interviews and focus groups held with a range of women across the region. One said, “my wages are not going anywhere. Diesel has gone up. I’ve had to use the tumble dryer in bad weather. The cost of nappies has gone up. And I’m expecting another child.”

Another said, “I go and stay with my mum 2/3 nights a week because I cannot afford to keep the heating on. The price of oil is terrible and I have to cut back until I get paid again.”

The report also warns of the potentially damaging effects of the government’s proposed Universal Tax Credit which, the report says, is likely to make things worse because it only encourages the main earner to stay in work.

It effectively pushes secondary earners (who tend to be women) out of work by giving little support for childcare and removing benefits when the household income (rather than individual income) rises above a certain level. The Northern Ireland Assembly are seemingly unapologetic about this as well saying, “the Government believes that any such risk of decreased work incentives for women in couples is justified.”

Bronagh Hinds, author of the report, said the most important recommendation was the need for work appropriate childcare. Currently there is no government department in Northern Ireland devoted to childcare and no requirement for public authorities to provide adequate childcare. Nor has the Northern Ireland Assembly agreed a strategy for provision.

Until these things are in place, Hinds says, women will be economically on the back foot. It’s not just about providing any childcare but giving women a chance to work. A few hours a day will not allow women to enter the labour market, she explained.

The report outlines other reasons women have suffered under the recession. The Northern Ireland economy has historically been dependent on its large public sector. No OECD member (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 30 high income countries) has more than 25% of employment by the state, but in Northern Ireland the public sector makes up 30% of jobs.

But a new economic strategy being proposed by the Assembly will see public spending slashed by £4bn by 2015. These cuts are likely to result in job losses in the public sector where two thirds of employees are women.

At the same time, the Assembly is proposing to shift its focus to the private sector with an economic strategy driven by export-led growth and foreign direct investment. A shift to the private sector is likely to help business owners and entrepreneurs but Northern Ireland has a startlingly low proportion of women in these sectors (just 2.4% of women and 8% of men compared to 30% of women the rest of Europe).

The report calls for more specific targets to ensure women in business benefit from the new economic model. This will only happen if there are more women leading Northern Ireland’s new ‘Investment Strategy’ and by increasing female representation on the boards of businesses and in senior management roles. Without a clear strategy as to how to ensure women can benefit from this new economic direction it seems likely they will bear the brunt of the recession and reap none of the its rewards.

There are some potential opportunities. Part of the new economic strategy is to encourage foreign direct investment – where foreign companies, states or individuals invest in or buy productive assets like raw materials or other companies. Foreign companies investing in Northern Ireland may bring better employment practices and more progressive policies that could benefit women, including better maternity leave, policies to promote more women to senior management roles and flexible working patterns to support families.

But, without a clear strategy as to how the changes will benefit women as well as men, Hinds thinks we can’t rely on the benefits of such changes automatically reaching women.

The problem doesn’t lie solely with women’s representation in business. Women in Northern Ireland are also poorly represented in politics with women making up just 18.5% of Assembly members.  Hinds makes the point that the parties in Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff have all made significant efforts to improve the representation of women in parliament such as all-women shortlists but Northern Ireland has not. And if women aren’t involved in making legislation then their needs are unlikely to be reflected in the resulting policies.

One tool that governments could use to understand the impact of their policies on women and go further to advance women’s empowerment is Gender Responsive Budgeting. This is not about creating separate budgets for women or increasing spending on women’s programmes. Instead it’s about ensuring states spend money in ways that advance rather than impair women.

Evidence from Scotland, Canada and the city of San Francisco have shown how Gender Responsive Budgeting can reveal the unequal impact of economic policies and budget allocation and the new women’s rights organisation at the United Nations, UN Women, has already illustrated how gender budgeting projects have had excellent results worldwide.

However, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been slow to even consider Gender Responsive Budgeting. Hinds says this stems from the failure of civil servants and ministers to take representations from the women’s sector seriously. So does that mean that processes like gender budgeting are being sidelined? Yes, says Hinds, just at the point when governments should be assessing budgets the most and especially the impact of cuts.

Ruth Sutherland, business editor of the Guardian, says “We can’t undo the crisis, but we can change the terms of the analysis so we think and talk about it in a more rounded way; so that we listen to the voices of women; and so that we bring some humanity into economic discourse.”

With Northern Ireland’s women facing a bleak future it is high time we embraced the necessity to include them in the restoration of the country’s economy.

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