Gender Equality and the Sustainable Development Goals
Monika Queisser, Senior Counsellor, OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs
The push for policies to improve gender equality at the global level is getting new impetus through the Sustainable Development Goals. SDG No. 5 is devoted to gender equality and aims to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. The goal’s detailed targets refer to a range of challenges, such as discrimination of women, violence against women, reproductive health, ownership rights and technology. Global progress in reaching these targets has been uneven. Despite impressive progress in enrolling girls in primary education, for example, gender equality in many other domains is still in far reach in the developing world.
This does not mean, however, that advanced economies can lean back and close the file. No single OECD country can claim to have achieved full gender equality. Women are now as well or even better educated than men in most countries and their participation in the labour market has increased, but they still spend fewer hours in paid work per week than their partners. And even the most advanced countries, such as the Nordics, where women are well integrated in the labour markets, are faced with stubbornly high gender wage gaps and a continued lack of women in senior management positions, for example.
The consensus is growing that traditional gender stereotypes and roles are standing in the way of further progress in closing the gender gaps. In literally all countries for which data exist women do more unpaid work than men. As a result they have less time for paid work and fewer opportunities to develop their careers. Policy makers are thus starting to focus more on a better sharing of caring responsibilities and domestic work. This new policy direction is also reflected in one of the targets under SDG 5 which calls upon governments to “recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.”
New evidence from the OECD shows that countries with the smallest gender gaps in caring responsibilities also have the smallest gender gaps in employment rates. On average, female partners spend twice as much time in unpaid work at home than their partners. Couples where women participate more in the labour market, also appear to have a better gender balance in their cooking, caring and cleaning chores. But sadly this is not due to men doing more at home. The reason is that partnered women and dual-earner couples overall do less unpaid work.
Parenthood marks a turning point in the way couples share household and caring tasks. When a child arrives couples often revert to more traditional gender roles. Mothers may spend more time with their children than fathers, but fathers spend a larger proportion of their childcare time with “quality” interactive activities such as reading, playing and talking with the child than mothers.
The reasons why women do more unpaid work are manifold; some women prefer fewer hours in paid work or to not work in a paid job at all, particularly when they have young children. But many other women would like to be in paid work and/or work more hours. But they struggle to reconcile work and family life due to constraints such as limited access to affordable and good quality child care or flexible working hours. OECD analysis has also revealed several other factors that may influence the sharing of unpaid work among partners, such as family size, education and/or the relative earnings potential of partners. Gender inequality in the public sphere, societal attitudes, and policies, in particular parental leave arrangements, are also associated with different levels of sharing across countries.
In 2014, G20 leaders adopted a common goal of reducing the gender gap in labour force participation by 25% by 2025. Better sharing of unpaid and paid work will be an important element of any strategy to reach this ambitious target. But change will not happen if gender equality is only pushed by women and for women. Men need to be champions as well if barriers and gender stereotypes are to be broken down. And there is a lot in it for men too. They will be able to spend more time with their family without harming their careers, if this becomes more of a shared norm. There will be more freedom to choose one’s role in society and less pressure for men to be the sole or main breadwinner of the family. Having more income from women’s work will provide greater financial security for their households and reduce overall income inequality. Men, like women, will benefit equally from broader effects of more gender equality, such as stronger economic growth, higher productivity, and improved sustainability of social protection systems. And children will not only be happier to spend more time with both of their parents, but as they grow up, they will find it normal for fathers to spend more time at home and mothers to spend more time at work. More gender equality is thus a win-win proposition, everyone has to gain from it.
Women Deliver (WD) 4th Global Conference, 16-19 May, Copenhagen. The WD gender equality site is here
Monika Queisser, Willem Adema and Chris Clarke, OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs. This article is also being published by the EUROPP blog at the London School of Economics.
Prince William did it, Justin Timberlake did it, and so did David Cameron and Mark Zuckerberg. All four took paternity leave to spend time with babies George, Charlotte, Silas, Florence and Max. These trailblazers are great role models in combining family and work – at least when a new baby arrives – but men around the world are still too slow in following their example. And this despite the fact that more than half of OECD countries grant fathers paid paternity leave when a child is born; and paid parental leave, i.e. a longer period of job-protected leave open to both parents, is also available in more and more countries.
Parental leave for fathers typically lasts between two and three months and comes in different forms. Most common are “daddy quotas”, or specific portions of paid leave reserved for the father only. Some countries offer “bonus periods”, meaning that a couple may qualify for extra weeks of paid leave if the father uses up a certain period of a sharable leave. Other countries simply provide both parents with their own individual entitlement with no sharable period at all. So, in theory, more dads could be at home taking care of their kids and making it easier for both the mothers and themselves to live up to the expectations of babies and bosses.
The reality, however, looks very different. Fathers usually take a few days off right after the birth of a baby, but only the most committed and bravest use their right to longer parental leave. In many countries, fathers account for less than 20 per cent of those taking paid parental leave. Scandinavian and Portuguese men are more progressive: their share among paid parental leave users goes up to 40 per cent or more. Fathers in Australia, the Czech Republic and Poland, by contrast, shun parental leave; only about one in fifty paid leave takers is male. The most generous leave entitlements exist in Japan and Korea: a full year of paid leave is reserved just for the father – but very few men take advantage of it.
Figure 1: Fathers’ leave entitlements
Why are we seeing so little movement in breaking up traditional gender roles? We are told that Generations X,Y and Z are looking for better balance of work and family life. So why are young fathers not even taking the days to which they are legally entitled?
Financial considerations are powerful factors in making leave decisions. Women still make about 15 per cent less than men, on average in OECD countries. So economically speaking it often simply makes more sense for fathers to continue working, especially if parental leave is paid at much lower rates than previous earnings or not paid at all. The period around childbirth is often a time of considerable stress on household budgets. Many families may feel that they cannot make that sacrifice. Arguably, neither Prince William nor Mark Zuckerberg had to lose sleep over making serious dents in family income when deciding to spend their time cuddling and changing diapers for a while.
Figure 2: Gender wage gap
Not surprisingly, research suggests that fathers’ use of parental leave is highest when leave is not just paid but well paid – perhaps around half or more of previous earnings. The father quotas in Iceland and Sweden are relatively well paid at over 60 per cent of last earnings. Similarly, a 2007 policy reform in Germany introduced well-paid bonus months for partners; as a result the share of children whose father took leave increased by over 50 per cent in Germany between 2008 and 2013, reaching 32 per cent.
But gender norms and cultural traditions still present serious obstacles to fathers taking leave. A 2013 survey by the Korean trade unions asked Korean fathers why they decided not to take leave; it showed that more than half were worried about the negative prejudices that they would be exposed to. In France, where men account for only 4 per cent of parents claiming parental leave benefits, 46 per cent of the fathers who did not take their full leave entitlement said that they were simply “not interested”. And in all but 6 OECD countries, at least 50 per cent of people surveyed by the International Social Survey Programme believe that paid leave should be taken ‘entirely’ or ‘mostly’ by the mother; and in the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic and Turkey a whopping 80 per cent of respondents agreed with this statement.
Finally, employers’ opinions and the environment in the company obviously play a crucial role. Some employers may regard a father taking long leave as not being committed to his job, leading fathers contemplating a longer break to fear for their career and promotion prospects. In Japan and Korea, fathers taking paid parental leave are concerned this would have negative effects on their career and their relationship with colleagues. Such workplace attitudes may be less pronounced in many other OECD countries, but even in Sweden, working in a small workplace or in one with a long-hours culture can keep fathers from using parental leave.
Public policy can provide the best conditions to enable fathers to spend more time with their children. But change needs to come both from employers and fathers themselves if we want to succeed in a better sharing of paid and unpaid work between men and women. This is not only about promoting gender equality at work and at home; it is also about improving the quality of life – for men, women and children.
Back in 1992, the then-president of the United States took on one of his most unlikely opponents – an eccentric family from Springfield with only four digits on each hand. The confrontation came in a speech in which George H.W. Bush called for a return to what some call “traditional family values”: “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family,” the president declared, “to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”
You probably know all about The Simpsons. But younger readers may be wondering about The Waltons, a TV show set in rural Virginia about a hard-working family with seven children struggling to survive in the Great Depression. The show ran throughout the 1970s and despite – or perhaps because – of that decade’s social and economic upheaval was a big hit. When President Bush compared the crazy antics of the Simpsons with the daily struggles of the Waltons, his listeners knew exactly what he was getting at.
Ironically, these days it’s now the Simpsons who look a bit, well, old-fashioned. Increasingly, they reflect an idea of the family as we used to think about it, and not the diversity of today’s modern families. So, how do today’s families compare to TV’s most famous clan, the Simpsons?
For starters, the Simpsons model increasingly represents just one version of how we live today. Across OECD countries, just under three out of five households are made up of a mom, dad and kids, according to the OECD Family Database. People living on their own account for more than a quarter of households and single-parent households for around a tenth. The remainder is accounted for by extended families with grandparents, families living with other families and other arrangements.
By modern standards, the Simpsons family is also big. True, this family of five – mom, dad and three kids – can’t match the Waltons’ seven kids, but it’s well above the size of the “average” couple’s family, which has fewer than two children.
Marge and Homer Simpson are also striking in that, after all these years, they’re still married. In almost all OECD countries, divorce rates have risen since the 1970s. They’re highest in the US, where they were also relatively high in the 1970s, and lowest in Chile. One striking feature of the data is that, although more couples are divorcing now than in the past, they’re not – apparently – making any less of an effort to keep their marriages going. In recent decades, the duration of marriages that end in divorce hasn’t changed all that much; it typically ranges between 10 and 15 years.
Over the years, Marge has made numerous attempts to find work – she’s sold property, cleaned offices and even joined the police force. But despite this, she always seems to wind up as a fulltime mom. Again, that’s pretty unusual in OECD countries, where on average just under two out of three moms go out to work, a proportion that can rise to over three out of four in northern Europe. Still, perhaps Marge’s decision to stay at home is not too surprising: In all OECD countries, moms like Marge with three or more children are much less likely to go out to work.
Despite its early critics – and those who say it’s no longer as funny as it used to be –The Simpsons has shown remarkable staying power. It’s currently celebrating its 25th season with no end in sight: “… I can’t see why we wouldn’t go to 30 [years] … and why we can’t go to 40 or even 50,” producer Al Jean told The Daily Telegraph. How will OECD families look in 2039? Less like The Simpsons, perhaps, and more like those in another hit TV show, Modern Family. Its families include a mom and dad with kids, a second-marriage combining kids from two families and a gay couple with an adopted daughter.
What would the Waltons make of that?
OECD research on children and families
Doing Better for Families (OECD, 2011)
How much you pay in tax depends on personal allowances, tax rates and brackets, social security contributions and benefits; the numbers can start to get confusing.
One way to cut through the muddle is to think in terms of the tax wedge. In basic terms, this is the difference between the net earnings that a worker takes home at the end of the year and what it costs to employ that worker. On the employer’s side, this cost includes the worker’s salary as well as employer contributions for social security (e.g. healthcare, pensions); on the worker’s side, the negatives are income tax and employee social security payments, while the positives include the salary and, possibly, cash benefits, for instance.
The tax wedge ranges from just over 15% in Mexico for a single worker on an average wage, to just over 55% in Belgium.