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'Childcare: a women’s issue' by Rachel Powell – Women’s Sector Lobbyist at WRDA

Childcare is a women’s issue. Unpaid domestic labour is a women’s issue. “Economic inactivity” is a women’s issue. The unequal distribution of caring responsibility is a women’s issue. Yet, childcare is more often than not treated as being an issue only about early years education and a private sector childcare economy in Northern Ireland.


The Childcare for All campaign calls for universal, child-centred childcare that meets the needs of children, families, childcare workers and providers, and that benefits society. The Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WRDA) and Employers For Childcare co-convene the Childcare for All campaign, with a wide range of organisations represented. We have developed a Childcare for All Charter setting out our vision of a childcare system that is affordable, accessible, flexible, high quality, and which supports children’s education and development. We also want to see the value of childcare work recognised with decent pay and terms and conditions.


As Women’s Sector Lobbyist, I am proud to be a part of this campaign and to work towards addressing one of the biggest barriers to women accessing education, training and employment; unaffordable childcare.



Women’s Access to Education, Training and Employment:


In the Women’s Policy Group Women’s Manifesto 2019, we highlighted several concerning points about women’s access to work, education and training; alongside the precarious conditions women often work under. Women’s employment in Northern Ireland is characterised by gender segregated labour-markets, gender pay gaps, disproportionate levels of part-time work and high levels of low-paid work with low job-security.


The ‘motherhood gap’ in Northern Ireland is severe as the interruption of women’s work for unpaid care, gendered discrimination based on pregnancy and maternity and unaffordable/inaccessible childcare significantly undermine women’s career progression, lifetime earnings and pensions. Inflexible parental leave alongside inadequate childcare provisions in Northern Ireland penalises working parents; with women bearing the brunt of this cost. These penalties are much greater for rural women, who need longer childcare hours due to lengthy commutes, and lone parents, of which 91% are women in Northern Ireland.


As a result of this, women are over-represented in part-time work and temporary employment. In addition, having one or more children reduces women’s likelihood of being in a permanent full time job by almost a third; with only 45% of women with dependent children working in a permanent, full-time job.



“Economic Inactivity” and “voluntary unemployment” – The Flaws with Gender-Neutral Economics:


I take great issue with the terms “economic inactivity” and “voluntary unemployment”. Not only do these terms undervalue the unpaid domestic work of women, they completely ignore the barriers that are also keeping women out of the workforce. The responsibility of caring for dependents, which includes young children or disabled family members, overwhelmingly falls to women in Northern Ireland. Not only do many women face discrimination due to pregnancy and maternity, they are also often forced to leave the workforce due to inaccessible and unaffordable childcare, or forced to leave paid work to cover the majority of unpaid care of family members. In addition, domestic labour may be unpaid, but it is still an economic activity, performed by women in the majority of cases, that our society would not function without. These factors, alongside the statistic above on the ‘Motherhood Gap’, highlight the need to step away from gender-neutral economic planning and policy making; particularly in relation to childcare provisions. Ignoring the structural and systemic barriers that prevent women from accessing the workforce, and considering these women as “voluntarily unemployed” for the purpose of gathering statistics, further embeds these issues into society and does nothing to address the barriers at hand.


In addition to all of the above information, a decade of unnecessary austerity has greatly worsened the economic situation for women; particularly disabled women and lone parents. Research carried out by the Women’s Support Network, alongside information in the Women’s Policy Group Election Manifesto 2019, highlights the dire situation many women in Northern Ireland are facing due to poverty and austerity. Systemic issues often see women more than twice as dependent on welfare reform as men, and as a result, women have been disproportionately impacted by the austerity agenda. Hunger and foodbank use has risen dramatically and single mothers represent a third of all foodbank users. Furthermore, it is estimated that austerity since 2010 will have cost women a total of £79bn; as women have borne 86% of all costs. The group now with the highest poverty rate in Northern Ireland over the past decade are lone parents, of which 91% are women. This situation has been even worse for disabled single mothers and disabled single mothers who also have a disabled child, as by 2021 they will have lost 21% and 32% of their net income respectively.



With all of the above examples of inadequate economic terminology, examples of workforce discrimination, disproportionate negative impacts of cuts, it is evident that women are not “economically inactive” or “voluntarily unemployed”; they are facing high levels of discrimination outside and within the workforce. With deeply inadequate childcare provisions in Northern, combined with greater barriers to work, education and training, ongoing discrimination against mothers and increasing poverty, it is clear that descriptions of “economic inactivity” or “voluntary unemployment” are not depicting the full picture.

Structural change is needed on a whole to remove the many barriers mothers face. By implementing models of gender-budgeting, particularly when reforming any existing childcare provisions, a holistic approach to tackling gender inequality, the ‘motherhood gap’ and inadequate childcare provisions can be reached. Through a gender lens, it is possible to remove barriers women face to secure work, education, and training and ensure all children can access quality childcare.


Gendered Stereotypes of Childcare:


To further address the structural inequalities within the childcare provision in Northern Ireland, we need to encourage a diverse range of people to pursue childcare as a career in order to meet the diverse needs of children and families; with a particular focus on recruiting more men, BME people and those trained to support disabled children. To ensure the childcare workforce is valued, we also need to address gendered stereotypes of how “women’s work” is valued and how young people are directed to different paths; with girls being directed to low-paid work and caring roles being considered a “woman’s job”.


Conclusion:


To create childcare for all, we need to work together to understand the perspectives of parents, the requirements of providers, the needs of children and the barriers in society as a whole. Gender is crucial to any planning or proposals in relation to childcare provision or Strategy in Northern Ireland. By adopting a gender-neutral approach, the barriers women face are ignored and women are often considered “economically inactive”. We know that women are economically active, either through domestic work or in the paid workforce. This needs to be recognised, discrimination needs to be tackled, and childcare needs to be accessible for all families in Northern Ireland.

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