Women Bear the Brunt of Poverty Across Europe

As loud noises are made from both the Remain and Brexit camps ahead of this month’s EU referendum vote, Elaine Crory looks at Poverty in Europe and how Women have bore the brunt of it.


When we speak about poverty’s causes and potential solutions, we must speak not of individual cases but of the social issues that underpin the problem; for this reason, we must consider gender. Poverty is cyclical and self-perpetuating. women are more likely than men to live in poverty and this all too often lends itself to child poverty, and so the cycle continues.

In the EU today 65 million women live in poverty, compared to 57 million men. These women are often mothers and very often sole parents whose children experience the same poverty and will struggle, to overcome it. Knowing that women tend to experience poverty at higher rates for gender specific reasons allows us to potentially tackle the problem in a systematic manner, rather than relying on a welfare-based, troubleshooting approach.

Austerity programmes across Europe in the wake of the economic crisis have hit women hardest. Women are most likely to rely on the public services which were first hit, and most likely to work in public sector jobs which have seen freezes and layoffs.

Recruitment is also a problem as women are more likely to be discriminated against in a highly competitive environment. Employers are reluctant to take ‘risks’ while hiring, discriminating against female applicants. The fear that women may need maternity leave or more flexible working hours makes it a greater risk to employ women and this assigns traditional roles to women and men to the disadvantage of both.

Figures for the UK show that pregnancy discrimination is on the rise, too, with women in fear of their livelihoods, being pushed out of their jobs or having their working hours slashed during an especially vulnerable and expensive time in their lives. Women are paid less than their male peers across the board, and are more likely to work in insecure part-time roles. The traditional narrative to defend this status quo is that women tend to choose these kinds of roles to allow them to focus on their families, but to really tackle poverty we need to step back and look at the reality of the situation; are women really choosing this, or is it the case that this is often the best deal they can negotiate in a saturated marketplace where childcare is inordinately expensive? There is strong reason to believe that the latter is often the case, particularly for lower-income workers.

Where women do work full time after having a family, they are subject to an even greater pay gap (11% in the UK according to TUC figures) than their childless female counterparts, who of course are already at a significant disadvantage to their male colleagues. Lower pay directly impacts the savings towards pensions that women can make, further prolonging poverty past retirement age.

Work traditionally done by women is devalued and often considered not to be “work” in the proper sense. Caring professions tend to employ more women and, perhaps not coincidentally, tend to be paid far less than professions that employ mainly men. Similarly, female-dominated sectors such as teaching, once highly respected and well remunerated, have dropped in status and pay since more women have entered the field.

It goes deeper than paid employment, however; we must acknowledge that a great deal of work done by women is unpaid work; family care, cooking and cleaning, childcare, the care of the elderly and infirm, emotional labour; across societies the burden of this work falls to women and often girls. It is usually unpaid or underpaid and – crucially – not respected. The contribution of those who have chosen or been forced by circumstances into care work is often not recognised, despite being the glue that holds society together.

Most one-parent families are headed by women, which puts greater strain on their often insecure incomes, especially in light of the cost of childcare. Current maternity leave provisions tend to make employment discrimination against mothers and often all women of child-bearing age, easier for employers as well. In countries such as Sweden where paternity leave measures are much more robust and men are obliged to take on some of the leave on offer, such discrimination makes less economic sense for the employer. This has a positive effect on equality of earnings and job security for women – as well as on the way that society views “traditional” male and female roles.

It also reduces the long term effects of maternity leave on women’s careers, since it is so often used as a reason why women can expect fewer opportunities to climb the ladder of career progression and is proven to have a lifelong effect on earning potential. Perhaps best of all, by encouraging men to shoulder a greater burden in parenting, it engenders a greater respect for traditional “women’s work”.

Children, if they have two parents at home or in their lives, who grow up with the reality of both parents as caregivers will learn less rigid social roles and gender norms. They will learn new attitudes to caring, to parenting, and to what it means to support a family. Perhaps in time they will come to choose careers based on factors more nuanced than economic necessity, and perhaps employers will be forced to face this new reality and treat employees as more than resources. Certainly, the reform of paternity and maternity leave must be seen as one of the most effective ways of combating poverty, especially the poverty of women, and a building block of a more equitable society.