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Working for women, parents and growth

17 April 2015
Working for women, parents and growth

Over the past two decades, centre-left parties have managed to close the gender gap that traditionally favoured the right, opening up a consistent – though sometimes small and volatile – lead among women voters. In the UK, several pre-election surveys have recently documented the extent to which Labour benefits from female support. Yet this support cannot be taken for granted.

As Kimberly Morgan of George Washington University explains, a willingness to promise and deliver policies to support working parents has been key to this shift – a shift that has even resulted in signs that some conservative parties are starting to raise their game. Angela Merkel’s CDU has managed to win back many younger women voters by championing better policies for working parents, while strong support for more public childcare pushed all of the major candidates in France’s 2012 presidential election to promise expansionary reforms.

The case for policies that break down barriers to women’s participation in the labour market is not just about smart politics or fairness. Gender equality is key to growth. Mari Kiviniemi, deputy secretary-general of the OECD, makes clear that “investment in women boosts economic development, competitiveness, job creation and GDP”: a 50 per cent reduction in the gender gap in labour force participation, for instance, could lead to a six per cent rise in GDP across the OECD by 2030.

Such claims are evident in the experience of Quebec’s pioneering low-fee childcare programme. Established in 1997, it saw a massive jump in the number of young children attending childcare, a substantial increase in the number of women in the labour force, and a consequent rise in the province’s GDP. Perhaps most remarkably of all, argues Pierre Fortin of the University of Quebec at Montreal, the programme more than paid for itself: each C$100 of additional subsidy paid out by Quebec generated a return of C$175 to it and the federal government.

Pia Schober of the German Institute for Economic Research notes that reserving a segment of paid parental leave specifically for fathers can result in the benefit of a more equal division of household labour. She questions, however, whether such measures have sufficient long-term impact.

Moira Nelson of Lund University suggests it is important to remember that because the challenges that women face in entering the labour market are multifaceted so must be the policies which tackle them. The impact of such policies may, moreover, take years to realise: “If women anticipate a trade-off between pursuing a career and raising children while they are still in school, many will select careers that allow sufficient flexibility. In this way, women limit their labour market opportunities before even entering the labour market.”

The push for ‘flexibility’ – giving workers greater control over when, how and where they do their work – has long been rested at the heart of the ‘family-friendly’ agenda. But, warns Judith Warner of the Center for American Progress, such faith in flexibility may be misplaced. She notes the manner in which business-friendly conservatives have given the term a rather different spin in the United States, as they attempt to give employers the flexibility to cut labour costs by deciding when and whether to keep employees on the clock. Instead, Warner suggests, it may be better to drop the lexicon of flexibility and talk instead about “family-friendly scheduling” or “scheduling for real life”.

Supporting working parents is good policy and good politics


Women’s support for centre-left parties should not be taken for granted


Time to add gender equality to the growth agenda


Women’s equality is not just a matter of fairness. It is key to a nation’s economic performance and sound governance



A childcare win-win


Quebec’s low-fee childcare programme created more jobs, more than paid for itself and raised the province’s GDP


'Daddy leave': a route to greater gender equality in housework and childcare?


Leave entitlements for fathers can increase paternal involvement in housework and childcare but their longer-term impact on the gender division of labour in the home is contested


Breaking down barriers


The challenges that women face in entering the labour market are multifaceted, so must be the policies which tackle them



The 'flexibility' misnomer


The preoccupation with ‘flexible working’ as the answer to women’s needs in the workplace can be exploited by employers. The argument must be had on new terms



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