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Gender Equality • Work • Voting

Investing in female labour

Moira Nelson - 12 June 2014

With working women making up a larger and larger proportion of the electorate, they and other like-minded voters stand to reward governments that address tensions in balancing work and family needs

High employment is the linchpin to both future economic competitiveness and the sustainability of existing social policy commitments. Yet the misconception that social benefits always dampen work incentives undermines efforts to boost employment. Future employment growth must consist largely of women and securing their participation in the labour market calls for social investment policies. Daycare, sickness insurance, unemployment insurance, and medium term leave schemes are all social investment policies that help workers, and often mothers in particular, maintain a connection to the labour market over the long-term, despite sometimes enabling labour market absence in the short-term.

1. Economic competitiveness depends on a growing female workforce
Future employment growth comes largely from placing women in jobs who are currently seeking employment and encouraging a largely untapped pool of female labour to enter the labour force. Ignoring the obstacles to female employment holds enormous economic costs.

2. Enabling workers to be carers is a good long-term growth strategy
Public policy can play an important role in enabling workers to care for small children and ageing parents. All workers should be allotted time to care for their families while retaining an attachment to the labour market. If public policies exist that provide care services outside the home or allow workers to take periods of time off from work to care for family, people are not forced to choose between participating in the workforce and taking care of dependents. Sharp trade-offs, on the other hand, are unproductive, because workers either neglect their family or leave the labour market altogether to assume care responsibilities and thereby no longer contribute to the economic wealth of the country. Allowing workers to be carers, too, therefore represents a strategy that builds strong families – the building block of a healthy, cohesive society – and boosts economic competitiveness by leading to higher levels of employment.

3. Focus on high quality, affordable daycare
If daycare is not accessible or costs too much, one parent, typically the mother, will not return to work after having a child. Making daycare services widely available and affordable ensures that participating in the labour force remains a viable option for parents, especially mothers.

Participation in daycare also stands to boost the cognitive skills of young children. Although many people continue to question the superiority of daycare services to parental (usually maternal care), the benefits of daycare should not be overlooked. Not least, many families face economic pressure for both parents to earn a wage. Without daycare, parents are left struggling to find shifts that allow them to share care responsibilities or make do with only one income and therefore face a heightened risk of falling into poverty.

As a final caveat, children will only gain cognitive skills if daycare is of high quality. Providing quality daycare means making sure that daycare centres are fully staffed by well-trained caregivers.

4. Generous but not too lengthy leave schemes invest in families without
impeding mothers’ employment

While the provision of daycare means that care needs are outsourced, there are also periods of time when it makes sense for parents to take time off work and provide care themselves. In the case of very young babies or sick relatives, flexible leave schemes offer the possibility that workers can give much needed attention to family members.

At the same time, the length of the leave scheme is a point of concern. If people remain out of the labour force too long, their skills become less up-to-date and are potentially forgotten due to lack of use. Also, employers often view those who have been outside the workforce for a long time as less competent. For these reasons, the length of leave schemes should not be too long. There is general consensus that parental leave of 1 year is optimal, but that longer leaves of, say 3 years, makes it harder to re-enter the workforce, particularly for low-skilled women.

5. Protect skill investments through social insurance
Educational attainment among women has risen steadily over the past few decades, leading to an increasingly well trained female labour supply. Yet workers, including working mothers, are likely to face career interruptions. Without income support, women facing such risks as unemployment or sickness will be forced to accept new forms of employment that do not reflect their skill level or area of expertise. Insurance schemes, such as unemployment or sickness insurance, protect women’s skill investments by allowing them to conduct a proper job search when unemployed or recovering fully from an illness, respectively.

As with the leave schemes discussed above, the length of the benefit matters. The longer workers are out of the labour market, the higher the risk of them losing their skills or facing stigmatisation from potential employers. An obvious exception should be made for illnesses requiring longer-term care.

6. Electoral opportunities lie in addressing work-life reconciliation needs

Addressing work-life reconciliation pays off at election time. With working women making up a larger and larger proportion of the electorate, they and other likeminded voters stand to reward governments that address tensions in balancing work and family needs. The positive economic effects on the labour supply only increase the potential popularity of these policies.

Moira Nelson is senior lecturer at Lund University

This is a contribution to the “Making Progressive Politics Work” publication which informed the Amsterdam Progressive Governance Conference 2014.

Tags: Moira Nelson , Opinion , Progressive Governance Conference , Progressive Governance , Growth , Social stability , Living standards , Policy Network , Global Progress , Competitiveness , Growth , Solidarity , Globalisation , Centre-left , Centre-left , Europe , EU , European Union , Eurozone , Southern Europe , Northern Europe , Production , Productivity , Growth , Wages , Investment , Jobs , Globalisation , Equality , Pre-distribution


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