Government intervention helps women. We need more of it

Gender Inequality

Government intervention helps women. We need more of it

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The jostling between market and state, and the territory that each occupies, lies at the heart of political discourse. It's the major fault line around which political parties form and debates rage. Despite their uneasy relationship, between them they generally make available all that we need, be it food, a home, healthcare, employment, or education, at varying - and often questionable - quality and cost. The demarcation between the two, rarely ever static, differs widely across states, and speaks to the values of the society in question. What, for instance, can be said of a country whose privatised higher education is financially off limits to its poorer citizens? Is it right to leave the market responsible for people’s health? And what of the provision of childcare?

These aren’t easy questions, the rancorous nature of current American politics evidence of their polarising nature. Nevertheless, as social expectations are raised, they require constant reappraisal, for certain injustices necessitate government intervention. Research has shown that gender equality, especially, is reliant on an active, intervening state to provide things the market has historically failed to offer and that are vital to progress - namely parental leave and childcare. The case for placing both in the custody of the state is compelling, and ultimately, if gender inequality is to be taken seriously, necessary. Here’s why.

Historic prejudice

The labour market has rarely been a friend to women. Reflecting regressive social mores, it has, for most of its history, viewed the female condition as unsuitable for the dog-eat-dog world of work - too sensitive, too fragile - while pregnancy itself carried great disruptive potential, an ever-present, ticking time-bomb. These sentiments continue to find expression in the hiring process - men preferred to women in a phenomenon economists call ‘statistical discrimination’. The preference presumes that women are more likely to quit work on account of starting a family. And being ‘more likely’ to quit, they are paid less - globally women earn 24% less than men according to Oxfam - as businesses safeguard themselves against future losses. In turn, unfair remuneration makes women actually more likely to quit, and the circle is complete. A similar logic makes women less likely to get promoted, explaining their relatively few numbers in positions of high authority. 

The material ramifications of this are dire, to say nothing of the ethical injustice. UN unemployment and poverty statistics are all skewed unfavorably towards women, and mothers have it particularly bad. Despite progress having been made - 39% of the global workforce are women and there’s been a haphazard re-examination of caregiving roles in society - the restrictive breadwinner/homemaker dichotomy generally persists, economic prejudice feeding social expectations and vice versa. It’s possible for politics to help disrupt this stubborn feedback loop; intervention can check female economic prejudice and address outmoded social norms - if the will is there. America provides a cautionary tale of when the opportunity is passed up.

The American experience

The self-styled home of freedom and opportunity - along with Suriname, New Guinea and the Marshall Islands - doesn’t have a national law on paid parental leave, preferring instead for the market - rarely known for its compassion - to adjudicate. As a result, in 2013, it was estimated that just 12% of American workers were covered by paid parental leave policies. Forbes recently reported that 25% of women in the US return to work just 2 weeks after giving birth. And many others, left overwhelmed and with little recourse, simply leave their jobs rather than return when expected. In the words of the legal team, A Better Balance, while still thought of a the primary caregivers women are effectively ‘forced to choose between their job and a healthy pregnancy’. Those who do return to work post-pregnancy then encounter further problems. As ethnographer, Kristen R. Ghodsee, has observed, ‘many professional women get completely derailed after taking time out of the labour force’ - the quickening pace economies change, and the absence of any mechanism to help ease the return, makes it increasingly difficult to re-enter the workforce after a period of inactivity.

Child care then poses further problems, for in the US it costs, on average, $15,000 per child per year. Federal provision does not exist. This means that for a large number support is unavailable, and an oftentimes a career-damaging return home is left as the only option. An American Progress study found that in 2016 alone, an estimated 2 million parents made career sacrifices due to problems with child care, and mothers were 40% more likely than fathers to report that child care issues had a negative impact on their career. It’s perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that a New York Times survey recently revealed 64% of Americans had fewer children than they would like, citing the prohibitive cost of childcare - so much for the benevolent invisible hand.

The Swedish model

Sweden, so often a beacon of progressiveness, offers an alternative. Witnessing American plight, it was clear to Swedes that the key to this fight was comprehensive governmental intervention, specifically, intervention on behalf of young families. One mooted solution was state-sponsored paid maternity leave that guaranteed job protection. Although certainly a positive step, some were left unconvinced it went far enough, and actually feared it may further incentivise businesses to overlook women when hiring. To ward against this, Sweden has legislated that parents of both sexes are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave at 80% of their salary, plus bonus days for twins, and, most significantly, they must share it - each partner must take at least 90 days of those 16 months. 

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Government intervention helps women. We need more of itNot only is this offer more generous, it addresses the social and economic issues that conspire to straitjacket women. It reframes the traditional expectations of both mothers and fathers, equalising the roles they’re presumed to adopt in parenthood. This, by extension, also encourages a more fundamental reassessment of societal gender roles which, regardless of identification, many find restrictively narrow. And financially speaking? Well, it’s just a better deal for both parents.

Given toddlers are far from self-sufficient, and workplace pressure can be unremitting, Sweden also recognised further measures to protect the careers of young parents - particularly mothers - were needed. They guaranteed affordable childcare for all. The Education Act of 2011 confirmed that parents need only ‘spend [between] one to three per cent of the family’s income on childcare’, depending on income, with the state footing the rest of the bill. The results have been clear: 80% of Swedish 1-5 year olds now attend preschool, mothers (and fathers) are able to continue their careers unencumbered, and the country itself has been ranked the best place for women to live by U.S. News. The irony apparently lost on them.

Generous parental leave and quality child care will not end structural injustices faced by women, but they’re imperative first steps. Their imposition directly targets the so-called ‘statistical discrimination’, and removes key obstacles that discourage the hiring of and investing in women. They are a start, a basis from which a broader program of reform can be built that mitigates the free market’s prejudice - gender quotas, improved education, and further legislation all have parts to play. If government intervention can be called upon in other moments of perceived crisis - not least to prop up banks  - why not also for the crisis of gender inequality? As America has proven, parental leave and childcare are not safe without government enforcement. Their provision needs to be taken in-house, guaranteed and made accessible to all. For any further advice - just ask the Swedes.