We Need to Re-imagine our Childcare System by viewing it Through a Gender Equal Lens
How Covid-19 Can Provide an Opportunity to Re-imagine Childcare to better Match Modern Families Requirements
Since the closure of schools, pre-schools and creches nationwide in March, working parents, especially mothers have been forced to make sacrifices and have struggled to find suitable childcare arrangements. This crisis does however offer an opportunity to reflect on what can be observed and learned from the experience of other European countries which have placed gender equal thinking at the heart of their public childcare policies and systems combining a clear policy focus on affordable childcare coupled with the principle of gender balance in the role of parents in raising a family.
A Modern Re-think to give us Effective Childcare Policies are an Economic Necessity
Affordable and reliable childcare often determines whether working mothers can pursue professional success. Unfortunately Irelands current offering is far beyond any semblance of gender equality in its delivery. According to the OECD, Ireland ranks fifth on the list of the most expensive childcare in the world. Fees for full-time childcare across Ireland average €200 per week. Our costs are extremely high by the standard of other European countries and largely unaffordable. By comparison, the cost of childcare in Denmark and Norway is between €50-70 weekly. Irelands childcare is up to 400% more expensive than our Northern European neighbours.
The high cost of childcare here can often result in women having to choose between full time careers (often necessitating part-time work or taking more junior roles or stepping away from their careers) to fill the childcare void. Our current model does not serve families effectively as they cannot achieve the full earning potential of both partners and does not serve women effectively as it negatively exacerbates the gender pay gap and the gender pension gap.
The Irish childcare system has been in crisis for many years now and the current pandemic has only highlighted this, bringing the shortcomings to the fore. All too often, childcare responsibilities fall on women, forcing women to make career sacrifices. The current pandemic has been exceptionally harsh on women with studies attributing the unpreparedness of many countries as a leading cause (Over 70% of Frontline Workers are estimated to be female according to the World Economic Forum).
Affordable and Equitable Childcare Creates Equal Opportunity for Both Parents
The coronavirus pandemic has proven how unsustainable our current model of childcare is and has highlighted now more than ever the urgent need for change as the country looks to rebuild its economy in a post COVID-19 world. The good news is that there are clear examples across Europe that provide clear learnings and lessons that we now have an opportunity to replicate in Ireland.
By example, Norway offers 46 weeks of paid parental leave to both men and women (Ireland offers 18 weeks of unpaid leave) Pre-school costs for a child is approximately €52 per week, but parents entitled to childcare benefits have much of these costs subsidised.
Sweden offers the cheapest childcare in Europe where childcare costs approximately €30 per week. The Swedish system of childcare offers parity irrespective of gender from the outset. Jointly, parents are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave when a child is born or adopted, this leave can be split between parents. Parental leave is non-transferrable between parents, which has had the positive impact of more dads opting to take full advantage of their parental leave allowances and to become more involved in the joint care and raising of their children. Having a gender equal focused system, results in both men and women having equal choices to pursue their careers after having a child. The onus is not just on mothers to become the default carer.
Again, for gender equity, the Nordics are leading in this regard with Iceland holding the title of “The World’s Most Gender-Equal Country” for 11 years. Iceland offers equal parental leave to men and women, as well as state-subsidised childcare from the age of one, meaning women need not sacrifice their careers to provide childcare. Having a well-structured, state-subsidised system of child care affords both parents the opportunity to provide care for their children without having to compromise on their careers.
Our Current Crisis Can Be a Catalyst for Change
The current pandemic has brought to light that our current model of childcare no longer works for parents, disproportionally affecting mothers. However, the pandemic has also shown an appetite for change. With childcare effectively non-existent due to lockdown measures, the government must take this opportunity to review the shortcomings of the current model and reflect on the success of the Nordic countries. This should and must inform Irelands policies in childcare and parental leave in the future and be used as a template for our new childcare system
Learning from other European countries who are providing sustainable and affordable care which supports the career success of women and ensuring Ireland takes concrete action towards creating a society which puts greater focus on gender-equality is a must. If done effectively, women will have equal access to career opportunities, participating more fully in the workforce, contributing to the economy and enabling Ireland to recover more quickly from the current economic crisis.
As we look to rebuilding our economy, moving through the phases of recovery post pandemic, we must not overlook the pivotal role a robust, equitable and affordable childcare system can play. By providing a system rooted in gender equal thinking, we will provide equal access to fulltime, meaningful and strategic roles for women. Economies that are diverse and include all sectors of society and thus enable women to fully participate in the workforce (by reducing the burden of caring responsibilities) will emerge successful and rebound more quickly.
Effective childcare is a matter of social and economic policy, requiring a gender equal perspective on the opportunities it creates for both men and women. A gender equal world is a better world. Equality is not a women’s issue – it is a business issue, and it concerns all people. When government policy supports the success of women, our economies and societies can thrive.