Women’s Economic Opportunities

The Economist Intelligence Unit has a report on women’s economic opportunities, indexing and ranking countries’ relative performance. Leo Abruzzese discusses the general issues over at VoxEU. Let us focus on Ireland.

Ireland ranks 16th out of 113 countries. Better than most, worse than some. We cannot afford to hold back part of the workforce. Increasing productivity is one way of getting Ireland back on its feet.

Here are the factors that are keeping Ireland’s women down:

* Provisions for maternity and paternity leave

* Legal restrictions on job types

* De facto discrimination at work

* Access to child care

* Access to credit

* Adolescent fertility rate

* Non-ratification of the convention against all forms of non-discrimination against women

None of these issues were raised in the latest report on the Smart Economy. Making better use of existing resources is, apparently, not smart.

59 replies on “Women’s Economic Opportunities”

Not to contradict you on your factors keeping Ireland down, but I just took ten minutes to run a correlation between the index scores in the Economist thingy-ma-bob and the UN statistics on Total Fertility Rates, available here


for the 111 countries for which there are common data points.

The coefficient of correlation is a staggering -0.75.
The average fertility rate for the top 50 countries on that list is only 1.7, while for the bottom 50 countries on the list it is 3.83

What this means is that the Economist measure is failing to take into account the single largest reality in the equality debate:

Equality for women equates to very low fertility.

Feminists may not like to admit it, but their model of society will never take root, because it breeds itself out of existence.

Another thing keeping Irish women down: the Jihad against the public sector that many on this blog applaud. For the public sector differs from the private sector in being: 1) largely feminised; 2) offering wages to women that are much closer (though, for some reason not quite equal to) those of men. The attack on “excessive pay” in the public sector is in part really an attack on the payment of male wages to women.

@ Ribbit

Isolated correlations often aren’t really that informative on their own. Work in a bunch of other factors with a regression and you’ll get a way more complex picture. There’s likely a lot of churning and feedback effects when it comes to fertility and employment. I.e. chicken-egg etc…

@ Marcus,

I don’t doubt you’re right. I have neither the time nor the inclination to do a proper statistical analysis of the equality phenomenon.

My only point is that fertility rates are overwhelmingly related to the level of equality in society. Whatever the root causation, the fact remains:

Feminists just don’t have babies.

@ Ribbit

Slight generalisation there, eh? In any case I don’t think ‘feminists’ (using a narrow definition) have much to do with this. I reckon that the (ex ante) trade-off between kids and career is driven largely by the availability of careers, rather than the general prevalence of high fertility…


Just because educated working women may choose to only have 1 or 2 children and women in developing countries have large families starting when they are in their late teens, does not mean that “the feminist model of society … breeds itself out of existence” or that “feminists just don’t have babies”.

The population of the world is increasing out of control as it is, so the more couples that choose to have smaller families the better.

@Richard Tol
I believe one the reasons why women drop out of the workforce after having children in Ireland, is the inexplicable reluctance of Irish firms to retain or hire part-time employees.

In Switzerland, it is the norm for working mothers and even fathers to work 60% or 80%. The company gets a great deal because even though they only need to pay 60-80% of the salary, the employee usually ends up doing almost 100% of the workload in 3 or 4 days. For the parent it is a great deal because they get to stay at home 1 or 2 days with their kids.

It a lot more difficult to work part-time in Ireland and nearly impossible to find a part-time job. The government should provide some sort of incentives to companies to encourage the part-time work of parents and also outlaw the practice of many creches of only allowing 5-days-per-week places.

In the interests of calling a spade a spade, however distasteful it may be, I think it’s worth observing that one short term impact of higher rates of female participation in the labour force would be higher unemployment. All other things being equal, if the upward trend in female labour market participation had continued past the onset of the current crisis, the unemployment rate (back of the envelope) could now be almost 3% higher than it actually is.

I agree absolutely with Richard that it is important that the issues he has identified be tackled (with the exception of the Convention, where I don’t know enough to have a view). Quite aside from issues of justice, tackling them would most likely improve Ireland’s long run prospects for growing GDP/GNP per capita. But it’s not hard to see why the issues might have received less attention under current circumstances than a purely long term approach to policy would indicate.

@ Richard

How exactly is provisions (increased i presume) for maternity and paternity leave supposed to increase productivity in our economy? Whether the reasons for taking time off work be for family committments or other, any progression in your chosen career is likely to suffer, thereby effecting future earnings. It would be completly unfair if someone who took six months off for family commitments had an equal chance of getting promoted/rise as someone who had a similar career path without the timeoff.

Equality or positive discrimination in this sense is wrong. It is unfortunate that this happens to effect one sex greater than the other. Of course there are other points mentioned in the report which are of more valid concern to giving women equal opportunity in the workplace. But my main point again is: how can increased parenting leave increase productivity in an economy?

If men and women are equally qualified, and if men progress faster because parental care is disproportionally (relative to biological necessity) borne by women, then the result is a disproportionate number of highly-ranked but underqualified men and lowly-ranked by overqualified women. A closer match of job specification and qualification would improve productivity.

At the moment, mothers are entitled to parental leave with compensation. Fathers are entitled to unpaid leave. A rational family lets the mother take the career hit.

In other jurisdictions, the couple is entitled to parental leave; and in some jurisdictions, maternal plus paternal leave is longer if shared more equally between the two. (Same holds for same-sex couples, by the way.)

That’s not entirely true. Investing in smartness has short term effects, just like gender equality, except the effects are different.

In the short term, investing in smartness reduces unemployment by employing people, with a multiplier elsewhere in the economy based on their spending. That’s not its main purpose, but it does happen.

Investing in smartness is also one of the main underpinnings of the State’s strategy for attracting inward investment. Take it away, and my best guess is that we would see an immediate slide in FDI employment. The rate at which existing jobs are lost would most likely increase sharply. The rate at which new jobs are established would most likely fall sharply.

@ Richard

Ok, that’s a fair consideration which I didn’t take account of. Qualifications only get you so far though, no matter what employment career path you choose to go down. I can’t think of the reference off hand but I remember a study suggesting that people educated up to third level education were likely to be less productive than people working in similar level jobs with less education. There is only so much you can learn from books and journals (unless you are an academic of course) before experience plays as much if not a more important role on deciding who to hire for certain positions.

So, are you suggesting that more equal parental paid leave is the way to address the issue? Any rational person offered paid leave for whatever reason would be foolish to reject it, no? When it comes to increased productivity, I’m still finding the link between the two fairly flimsy at best.

Clearly, there is a problem with capable women attaining the highest income jobs in Ireland. You only have to look as far as the lack of women representation in the Dail as the clearest example of the problem in our society (although I don’t think a quota of women TDs is the way to address this issue).

@ Bazza

“The population of the world is increasing out of control as it is, so the more couples that choose to have smaller families the better.”

I’m not making value judgements, Bazza. Smaller families may well be better for the environment etc., but all I’m saying is the social models they espouse are always heading for extinction.

@ Richard

Nothing I said was insulting, unless you happen to believe it is insulting to be called a feminist. That is your own prejudice. Feminists ought to be proud to be called feminists. And the fact that they have fewer babies is a statisical reality, even if you curtly say that it is not.

@ Marcus

“Slight generalisation there, eh?”

But of course. Generalisations are what is generally true. We are talking macro-data here. Sort of hard to avoid generalisations.

I’m perfectly aware that somebody knows a lesbian couple in Stockholm, they are both CEOs of companies and they have 6 children. Avowed feminists and I am sure lovely people. I am NOT judging them or disapproving of them.

But the fact is they are a statistical drop in the bucket. The kids are being had by families which espouse traditional values.

Maths Anxiety
Looking at a different aspect – Careers that require good numerate ability tend to be better paid, unless I am grossly misinformed.

There is an extant perception that “males are better at females at maths”. However according to one US study both genders have the same level of maths ability at the end of high school. Here are a few interesting quotes from an article I read.

“So if girls have a mathematical aptitude equal to that of their testicled counterparts at the end of high school, why aren’t they moving forward into scientific careers in greater numbers? Well, the answer is nobody really knows. ”

“But right now, most researchers are leaning toward causes with social and environmental origins. One recent study found that teachers in grade school can impart their own anxieties about math to their female students, engendering a belief that boys will always be better at math than girls.”

“Another potential environmental explanation is social identity threat. This is a phenomenon in which knowledge of a stereotype actually makes you fail–thereby validating the stereotype. “

@ Richard,

Excuse my ignorance, but could you explain how adolescent fertility rate keeps Irish women down?

Do you mean Adolescent preganency rate?

I don’t mean to be picky, but I would understand that it is normal and acceptable for young Irish women to be fertile.

Back in the ’70s many of the arguments advanced against equal pay and equal opportunity for women were similar to the whispered comments I’ve heard against immigrant labour in more recent years – driving a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of wages and conditions; taking up jobs that should otherwise be occupied by men/natives and so on. As I recall, the predictions of doom of the early 1970s did not come to pass following the expansion of female participation in the workforce and that, in fact, instead the overall number of jobs in the economy expanded and our society became a lot richer? Is this not so?

In the 1980s there was really no alternative for young couples, with children or with no children, except for both to work, that is if they wanted to have their own home and be able to afford to pay mortgage interest rates of about 15%, deal with 20% inflation rates etc.

I had come to believe that ‘feminism’ was one of those tedious twentieth century ‘isms’ that we were all long gone past now, but it seems I was wrong judging by some of the exchanges above.

I think it would be a good idea to have paid paternity leave – or just some system whereby the mother or the father of a new addition to a family can take paid time out in order to look after the baby; but to let couples decide for themselves, according to whatever best suits their circumstances. I also think it’s a pity that the opportunity to invest in a national infant/childcare system was passed up at the height of the boom years.

And at this stage of my life, I’m afraid I remain of the opinion that this state is not very kind to either women or children.

@ Veronica,

It could also be argued that when banks considered dual incomes for assessing Mortgage applications the price of houses rose as there was more money in the market.

Prior to this decision, only one main income was condisdered.


Compared with what we have at present, would a 120 days parental leave system be more efficient? Would it cost employers more or less? How would it work for couples only one of whom was in the workforce? I hate the idea of ‘commissions’ and ‘review groups’, but maybe it’s time something was done to look at what would best suit families and society generally in this area, as well as promoting greater equality of opportunity between men and women in the workplace.

There will always be significant obstacles as long as family-based unpaid work remains unrecognised and unsupported (not to mention, as with the case of tax individualisation, penalised). That does not simply mean access to replacement care, but recognition for care & related work provided, with income, pension and social rights attached.

Unpaid work is estimated to equal 30%-40% of any given country’s GDP, the bulk undertaken by women; kind of a big piece to leave out of the puzzle.

In accepting the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 (http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/platform/), and in subsequent reaffirmations (2000, 2005, 2010 [partial]) all UN member states agreed, inter alia, to recognise unpaid work and develop indicators for census and other relevant statistics (Strategic objectives A4 &H3 esp.)

Recognise unpaid work properly, fund it properly, protect it properly: why not try that and see if we make better progress toward gender equality in the provision of care as well as a better integration of caregivers into the labour market (since they will be able to establish the skills & competencies they developed or acquired during periods of care and will enable to build a fully ‘flexicure’ history). Anyway, we’ve already agreed to it.


The price of houses may have risen once the banks /building societies decided to take more than one income into account, but the issue of ‘affordability’ was eased due to the fall in interest rates. Believe me, that interest rate in the 1980s is seared into the brains of many of us who bought our first homes around that time. Relatively speaking also, I think the price of houses in the 1980s was quite high. Certainly there was a severe shortage of stock, especially in the cities. The house prices’ nonsense that happened from the late nineties onwards…well that’s another day’s work.

@ Veronica,

“I had come to believe that ‘feminism’ was one of those tedious twentieth century ‘isms’ that we were all long gone past now, but it seems I was wrong judging by some of the exchanges above. ”

Perhaps if you spent some time outside of the social circle that defines that “we … all” (go to rural Turkey, India, Iran, Morroc, Indonesia or even Berlin) you would quickly realise the point I am trying to make. Traditional family values based on a patriarcical model are on the rise globally, precisely because of the difference in fertility rates.

In the major European city I live in, for instance, the percentage of young women in headscarves is growing rapidly. These women – born in the West – for the most part accept that they should be in submissive roles within a traditional Muslim family. They neither aspire towards, nor have any real chance of, attaining a powerful position in the labour market. And their fertility rates are much higher.

@ Aine,

“as long as family-based unpaid work remains unrecognised and unsupported (not to mention, as with the case of tax individualisation, penalised). ”

I could not have wrote it better myself.

@ Veronica,

I have no doubt that interest rates in the 80’s were sky high etc etc.

Obvioulsy there were other factors at work too, shortage of suitable housing stock which you mention etc.

But once Banks accepted two incomes for Mortgage application purposes two things happened…

1) More money was available into the market, this pushed up prices.
2) As prices went up, both husband and wife HAD to work to meet repayments.

In other words, the husband and wife were locked into the cycle where both had to work. The choice of one parent dropping out of employment to persue other interests was removed. This was a very serious and detrimental development to the family unit.

By the way may I politely point out, its Sporthog, not Sportshog.

Indeed the development of the late 90’s is another story.

Ireland acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1985. It is therefore binding on us in international law, just like it is for countries that have ratified the Convention. Although Ireland did enter some reservations upon accession.


That is why we are examined on the Convention’s implementation, as you will see at: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/reports.htm

Accession is similar to ratification in effect. For an understanding of this see: Accession is substantively the same as ratification. For an explanation see:

Perhaps you meant implementation rather than ratification? If so you might like to correct your posting.


Correct me if I’m misinterpreting you, but you’re surely not suggesting that I add ‘they’ll outbreed us all” to the list of universal prejudices I noted previously – they’ll cause wages and conditions to drop through the floor and they’re taking our jobs/women/share of the national pie – that are commonly invoked against pesky newcomers in all walks of life?

That such threat perceptions are rarely borne out in reality doesn’t ever seem to make much difference. They’re still trotted out time after time against whatever group/ class/ sex/ race/ religion is perceived as representing some sort of threat to those whose own grip on social status or social rewards is insecure. Or by pessimists.


Sorry about getting the name wrong.


@ Veronica,

Allow me to correct you. I would not dare to suggest you modify any of your lists!

All I am saying is: if you are a woman and you have three or four kids in a traditional family, cooking your husband’s dinner when he gets home from work or daily prayers at the Mosque, you are not going to aspire to any other career. You will likely be convinced that it is your role in life and transmit those values to your children.

If you are a feminist, full of ideas on how to empower your daughters to wear trousers and play with toy construction vehicles and take the family name of their mother, the fact is you are likely not going to have any kids at all.

The figures bear this out and I am not saying it is a good thing or a bad thing.

Ireland has a high fertility rate and is still basically a relatively conservative country and that is why it scores relatively low on the Economists index.

That is all I am saying.

Boy..civility with clenched teeth today.

In any case, whatever the ultimate drivers, much of Europe has a problem. Germany is looking at a bleak future unless fertility increases, ditto Italy, Spain, etc.


The change in women’s rights seems to have taken place at generally the same time as the decrease in fertility levels and often in the same countries and while correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation lots of indignant hand waving doesn’t mean that the correlation isn’t saying something about causation. Wouldn’t it be a more interesting discussion to ask the question “Is the correlation saying something about causation?”. Personally I’d hope not and I suspect other causes predominate, but maybe it is.

Also, whether or not you accept that there’s a problem it’s still unclear whether what’s needed is more women’s rights, more men’s rights, less contraception or – as seems to be working in Ireland – more recessions.

Better education for women correlates with lower fertility rates. Also you may be interested in Finola Kennedy’s book Cottage to Creche. Policy and family supports do affect birth rates, but not always in the ways intended.

From another thread:http://www.irisheconomy.ie/index.php/2010/09/23/heckman-policy-website/#comments
There has been a lot of work done by the EU Commission to look at demography and family supports. The IT did a series on babies but missed out on the key support for fertility rates as identified by the OECD: cash transfers. Our current population structure accounts for some of the rate (ie 50% approx aged 15-45), but despite our ‘baby boom’ we still haven’t managed to reach replacement rate. When this cohort reaches an age where we require care, how will the next generation keep the economy going? Immigration will not fill the gap (EU family policy conference Dublin 2004) and as an immigrant myself I will go where I get a good deal. Developed countries will most likely be competing for immigrants.

@ Richard,

Excuse my ignorance, but may I ask what Irish Legal Restrictions are in place which keep women down.

I was under the belief that all professions were open to women these days.

@ Richard

Economists are mostly men. Irish economists are not exceptional in this regard.


Be careful to avoid offending your big boss!

When Larry Summers was president of Harvard he argued that boys outperform girls on high school science and maths scores because of genetic difference. “Research in behavioural genetics is showing that things people previously attributed to socialisation weren’t due to socialisation after all,” he told the Boston Globe .

Summers had told a conference about giving his daughter two trucks. She treated them like dolls, and named them mummy and daddy trucks, he said.

He also played down the impact of sex bias in appointments to academic institutions. “The real issue is the overall size of the pool, and it’s less clear how much the size of the pool was held down by discrimination,” he said.

His comments cost him his job.


… as there is reasonable behavioural research suggesting that the fairer sex are, in general, more risk averse than males, and that corporate boards in the financial sector are dominated by males, including the recently constituted Central Bank Commission and all the boards of the various local banks, I leave interpretation open ………..

Counterpoint: Blind Biddy has just reminded me ‘dat twas dat woman, Minister Mary, who tuk a tenner off her blind pension … da &&%%$£$$$ (and so on)

As far as I can make out an increase in mobile phone usage correlates with a decrease in fertility rates, but I doubt that the causality relationship is quite so straightforward. 🙂

@ Hugh Sheehy,

Not too sure I understand your post at Aine. Better education for women has indeed affected fertility rates.

Don’t worry about it. It was a bad statistics joke. My point was that Aine didn’t say it affected it, only that it was correlated.

I don’t doubt that lots of things are correlated, almost certainly including mobile phone use. Causality is a different issue.

It’s a statistics thing.

y’all are idiots, and what a skincrawlingly creepy comment thread.

Once countries get to a certain stage of development it is the MORE feminist countries that have higher fertility rates (Ireland being an exception here.) Places like Sweden that make it easy to work and have kids at the same time have more women having more kids. Places like Italy and Germany that make that very difficult find that lots of women choose having a career over having children, because they are putting women in a position where they have to make that choice.

Of course it’s entirely uncreepy for anonymous posters to make insulting comments.

Meantime, interesting reading at http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:ehqqXmGmq64J:www.pwp.ccpr.ucla.edu/events/ccpr-previous-seminars/ccpr-seminars-previous-years/Kohler-advances%2520in%2520development.pdf+Advances+in+development+reverse+fertility+declines+Mikko+Myrskyl%C3%A41,+Hans-Peter+Kohler+1+%26+Francesco+C.+Billari2&hl=en&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESiTc9b3s8qvT2Yfl4DcyznfCRLLBBdI9iVY8uMmrHkldfWoJ7TpOb9aoITJ7Iv2KlrjiJUzZFpSp3MsZUR2Eq5w2wQdWE4iOpUK7lw3mbA_g01ZmQW88nvCxll7-fPbmX2EV3ta&sig=AHIEtbR7wAzd9sNk-cQSLZpYkJNPEXRxEQ

The bottom of page 1 has a sentence which mentions a variety of causes of declining fertility.
“Numerous studies point to the fact that the causes of low fertility are rooted in economic and social development: increased income, lower mortality and higher life expectancy, higher education, higher levels of female labor force participation, greater gender equality, and access to advanced birth control methods have all been identified as driving forces of reduced fertility”.

The rest of the text outlines an interesting tale. Worth a quick read.

(sorry for the long link…i couldn’t get the short link to work)

Simon Kuper (former football commentator for the FT now re-invented as social commentator it seems) has a timely article on the subject of working life. Some interesting points, the most obvious one being that women are no longer prejudiced against but mothers are.

Breast feeding seems to be unpopular with economists here if you are intent on cutting maternity leave. Or maybe some men have developed mammary glands.


@ sigh,

Welcome to the thread, absolutely charming introduction, pleasure to meet you and all that.

The previous Swedish government changed the structure of their early year care subsidy in 2008, allowing parents to continue using it to pay for creche charges or to use it to offset the opportunity cost of parent care. 70% of parents chose to provide care themselves in the first year of the scheme.

You also have to remember that Sweden accepts a high number of immigrants whose fertility rates in the first generation bump up the total.

Questions of care and employment are still very much in discussion in Sweden: the definitive answer for Ireland does not necessarily lie in copying anyone else’s current policy.

One of the benefits of breastfeeding is in establishing and promoting the bond between mother and baby. While ‘detours’ may aid in the development of bonds with others, policies should allow parents decide the pattern of care and employment with a view to the best interests of the child/family and not put women into the position where they have no choice but to pump a majority of the time if they decide to breastfeed.

I’m aware that breast milk may take a scenic route from nipple to mouth but very few volunteer to take that route, hence the dramatic drop off in breast feeding once maternity leave ends.

btw Some states offer extended maternity leave if the mother is breast-feeding

@Fergaloh, RT
Yes but believe it or not pressure is coming on women (including in Sweden) to take the scenic route so they can return to work earlier/share 50-50. The equality agenda is being hijacked to reduce the generous maternity benefits some countries have developed.

@Ernie Ball,
Back on the topic of equal economic opportunities….
Are you really asserting that the public sector pay bill shouldn’t be touched because jobs in the comparatively high paying public sector go disproportionately to women (discrimination?) and that everyone in the private sector should be happy to continue to overpay for public services just to keep that “equality” outcome untouched?

That seems more unjust that even the usual quota arguments, but one that’s even more sophistic than usual.

@Richard Tol

“Breast milk is best for baby. There is no reason why breast milk should go straight from breast to mouth. It may take a detour.”

Apologies for this digression. I have read somewhere (“Freakonomics” I think) that it could be the opposite. The hypothesis is that that there is nothing particularly special about breastmilk, and that it is the act of breastfeeding itself that promotes the development.

This thread discussed fettility in terms of “high” and “low” so far. Surely there is an optimal level of fertility. Bear in mind the future demographic distributions and the consequences on pensions.


I dare say that Freakonomics wouldnt be the first port of call for parenting advice.

But in this day and age when data figures and statisitics are being churned out at the rate of knots, I reckon that the education system should respond accordingly be featuring learning outcomes similar to Freakonomics.

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