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Ensuring the future of an ageing Europe: why women matter


Sabine Clappaert
Freelance journalist 

Things aren’t looking good for Europe. Apart from the debt and currency crisis, 2012 also marks the year in which its working population begins to decline.

The baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, have begun retiring en masse. Over the next five decades, Europeans aged 65+ will increase by a whopping 77 percent to 58 million.

While Europe currently has four people of working age for every retiree; by 2060 that figure is expected to be down to only two. The ramifications for health systems and pensions will be astronomical.

Much of the ageing Europe debate focuses on punitive measures that increase tax rates, or remedial strategies designed to cope with the exploding number of pensioners.

Few measures, however, focus on reinforcing the shrinking talent pool that will have to maintain the system.

Glaringly absent from the debate is the obvious question: what about increasing the labor talent pool by increasing the number of women in the workforce?

According to an article in the Economist: “The combination of an ageing workforce and a more skill-dependent economy means that countries will have to make better use of their female populations… increasing women’s participation in the labor market to male levels will boost GDP by 21% in Italy, 19% in Spain, 16% in Japan, 9% in America, France and Germany, and 8% in Britain.”

One can almost hear the rumbling of unvoiced doubts. “But not all women want a career.” “We can’t count on women if we know they’ll leave to have children”.

In management talk it’s called ‘the leaky pipeline’ – as women progress through their careers and start having children, they increasingly opt out to raise families, work part time or start their own businesses, which they feel, gives them the flexibility to combine both.

To many, presenting women as a solution to strengthen Europe’s decreasing workforce seems illogical.

But what if the problem were not women, but the system? 

An American study of women who left work to have children found that 93% wanted to return to work. Only 74% managed to return, and just 40% returned to full-time jobs.

This is often called the “double burden” of combining family and career responsibilities.

Yet the figures speak for themselves: if women’s employment remains constant, Europe can expect a shortfall of 24 million people in the workforce by 2040; if the rate can be raised to the same level as for men, the projected shortfall drops to three million.

What if by changing the system to accommodate the needs of women, we could increase their recruitment and retention rate significantly?

If more women in the workforce can help alleviate the strains on an ageing Europe, are policy makers and organizations ensuring that they promote the importance of a gender diverse workforce?

Are they committed to adapting the labor system and engaging with prospective female employees or taking measures to help build a pipeline of female talent in the decades to come?

Diversity – the key to a prosperous future

The rules governing today’s labor market favor its baby boomer founding fathers, many of whom had non-working partners at home taking care of the family matters while they built careers.

To many of these men, many still at the helm of big corporations today, gender diversity is no more than a workplace equality debate foisted upon them by changing times.

A blind spot that keeps many from realizing that getting – and keeping – women active in the workforce is key to building sustainable, profitable businesses and societies.

Both politics and business must wake up to the fact that diversity should be considered a strategic performance driver; that it is a priority that must be reflected in its leadership, systems and processes, culture and communication – both internally and externally.

But even organizations already making great strides face formidable challenges.

Effectively tapping into the other 50% of the talent pool requires appreciation and understanding of what women can bring to the table and the challenges they face in building careers.

Prioritizing diversity requires vision, commitment and concrete action plans, especially:

More sophisticated understanding of factors affecting women’s career choices;

Political commitment to promoting and enabling gender diversity in business;

A CEO as diversity champion refocusing diversity from an equality issue to a business issue;

An increased awareness of mindset biases and exploration of training programs that lead to diversity competency and a change in behavior;

Moving from lip-service to accountability for diversity at all levels of the organization;

Reengineering systems and processes to forge new practices and infrastructures that support combining career and family;

Changing the flexibility debate from being a women’s issue to being an issue for both men and women;

A workplace culture that addresses the needs and challenges facing women and a long-term strategic plan to attract, retain and grow women in the organization.

Europe can remain competitive in a globalised world, but it will take visionary thinking and tough choices.

We’ll need to face the world’s fundamentally changing realities and reflect those in the new labor systems we build.

If we are afraid to fundamentally change the system to embrace all those that can – and are willing – to work, if we continue to marginalize the importance of women and exclude diversity as a solution to our ageing population, we are fighting this fight with one hand – willingly – tied behind our backs.

  1. It’s really up to men to take up their fair share of child-care and housework in the home, so that they actually find that they need flexibility in the workplace as much as women do. Employers will only respond to that demand properly, if the half of the workforce they see as more important and better, is also demanding flexibility. At the moment, too many men are willing to allow their female partners to carry the burden of the double shift of paid work and housework / childcare, which is one of the reasons why women, exhausted, downshift their careers. If both partners were doing the same amount of work in the home, they would both have the energy to pursue ambition in the workplace.

    • Except that studies show that when you do combined hours both men and women work about the same number (men work ~5 minutes more) of hours though this ignores outside tasks such as mowing the lawn etc (which are male dominated).

      • Which studies?

        Most studies show that both men and women, wildly over-estimate the amount of housework, that men do. Studies have been done which show that a man will estimate he does about 50% of the housework, his female partner will estimate that it’s more like 35-40% and when the neutral researcher goes in and analyses the proportion of chores, it turns out to be nearer to 20-25%.

        When you say combined hours, do you mean combining paid work and unpaid work? Because that’s rather the point – if one partner in a relationship gets to say: “well actually darling, I do 60 hours of prestigious, well-paid work in an office a week so that means you have to make up the time I would have spent doing boring, repetitive, unprestigious, unpaid stuff which doesn’t have sick pay, benefits or a pension attached, by doing the share I would have done had I not been doing the high-status fun stuff” then that’s not an ideal situation, is it? From the POV of the one who is doing the high pay high status bit of work, it looks ideal. It doesn’t look so ideal from the POV of the one who is doing the wifework.

    • Yes and also men are not judged as “owning” housework in the same way that women are. If your house is a tip, your mother in law will not slag off her son about his lax standards when she gets home – she’ll slag off you, her son’s partner – because women are the guardians of the home, they’re the ones who are responsible for the state of the place, it’s not men’s problem. Which is one of the reasons men claim not to “notice” dirt – because it’s not their problem, they don’t own it (they have no difficulty whatsoever spotting a little speck of mud on their car though, or a few crumbs on the passenger seat – they feel ownership of that one).

  2. Norway – one of the best countries in the world to be a woman in, more women in power, more egalitarian than most countries so sadly not very represeentative.

    The other link – it basically bears out what I’m saying, that men still do less domestic labour than women. All the studies quoted are saying that. Interesting link, thanks.

    • You are welcome, there were others but my googlefu fails me.

      What I find interesting is that women always do more housework on average than men (singles particularly) which seems odd. Why is there such a gap there?

      • It would be interesting to see it broken down into tasks.

        • Halla, I think there ahve been studies which ahve done that. And what emerged … well I’m feeling embarrassed about being repetitive… but basically, it’s that men tend to do the one off, every now and then tasks – cleaning out the drains, putting up shelves, mowing the lawn – while women tend to do the every day tasks. IE men get the tasks that only occur occasionally and everyone notices when they’re done, and women get the tasks that need to be done every day and people only notice if they’re NOT done.

  3. vicki wharton says:

    Because men are not so discriminated against about their personal hygeniene …

    • I’m assuming this was in reply to my comment. Ok who is doing the discriminating, who is holding them to a higher standard? Anecdotally women hold themselves to it and men don’t notice so much. Maybe that’s the student in me talking though.

      • vicki wharton says:

        No, I think it pre dates studenting. Women are allocated more prejorative terms such as sluttish, slattern, moose etc dependent on whether its their home or their bodies being spoken about. This terminology is normally employed by men and quite a few women to hold women to a standard not expected of men. If you look at the language employed to describe men in the same spheres it tends to be much more forgiving and far less condemnatory ie laid back rather than lazy, rough diamond etc. If you look at how women who don’t meet exacting standards of beauty are described in the male dominated media, most of it is pretty spiteful – bingo wings, the aforementioned moose, mutton dressed as lamb, whale, slag, Essex girl, bimbo, hag and a whole lot worse. I can’t think of equivalent terms being used generally and frequently about men by women. So I don’t think these terms and attitudes come from women about themselves, they tend to be born by men and then adopted by some women in an effort to ingratiate themselves with men and show what good sports they are to break ranks and slag off other women.

        • Ok that addresses some issues in the public sphere but we are talking about housework. You don’t have to show your house off to anyone you don’t want to, it isn’t like having to go to work or go out to get groceries. So who is providing this pressure to spend 10 hours a week+ on housework.

          • vicki wharton says:

            Social conditioning from age 0. TV adverts showing women being judged on their toilet cleaning skills, parents that make daughters help with the housework but not the son, teachers that ask girls to help clear away the pencils but don’t insist the boys do it, boys who site cleaning as women’s work in the playground or other social situations, other girls who have been brought up with this gender discriminatory view of work, magazines and TV programmes such as wife swap that unpick women and their ability to run someone else’s home (cooking/cleaning/parenting) – need anymore examples.Girls are groomed from a very young age that they will be judged extremely harshly for any mistakes whatsoever – and that includes housework. The people doing the judging can be anyone – a postman popping in with a parcel, a next door neighbour wanting to borrow sugar … and the next minute malicious gossip is born. It’s why there used to be a law against maligning a woman’s reputation because it could be so dangerous to her safety, as the Salem witches, Maxine Carr and Kate McCann can all testify. I’m not saying that not doing housework leads to women being branded witches, but it contributes to the pile of critisism that women drag around in their psyches all day and can turn a friend into an enemy if housework is something they judge a woman’s ‘goodness’ on.

          • I tend to agree with what Vicki says there – look at the division of toys into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. Even if men can be famous chefs little boys aren’t hugely encouraged to own toy kitchens, indeed quite a few of them are pink and of course we all know that pink it entirely a girl’s colour, right? But yes, boys get toy weapons and soldiers, girls get dress up dolls and miniature household gadgets, *still*. There was a post on Bitch, I think it was, dealing with toy catalogues and how these things are divided up along imaginary gendered behaviour lines.

            In advertising geared at adults, how often are men portrayed as successfully cleaning or tidying, without being shown as somehow incompetent or being part of a joke? Serious question, I’m not actually sure. All that springs to mind at the moment is the Mr. Muscle ads and one where a man bursts a bin bag he is putting out in an ad for hand sanitiser.

  4. vicki wharton says:

    I certainly notice amongst fellow parents how boys’ and girls’ are given acceptable behaviour parameters too as part of the grooming. A number of friends’ sons, when greeted with a hello, simply don’t even bother to respond unless its my daughter’s father or another man giving the greeting. Even from the age of four, they have learnt that to ignore women is acceptable, to ignore men is rude.

    • That’s fairly appalling. :-/ I have noticed before that boys are allowed to be more boisterous and destructive (of clothes, mostly, in the course of rough play) because ‘oh, they’re boys being boys’ whereas girls are expected to be neat and stay that way and they get a row if they run around roaring like the boys. This is younger, nursery-aged children, by the time they are a bit older they start to take on the policing of their own behaviour.

      • vicki wharton says:

        And also boys left unchecked for pushing, kicking and snatching things off my daughter or pushing her over in order to win a race. I don’t want to be seen as the ‘feminist’ pointing out their son’s behaviour is bullying – so I have told my daughter to tell the boy to stop hitting/snatching/kicking and if he doesn’t, to speak to his parent, only to hear one boy’s mother tell both children to play nicely together when her son had pushed my daughter over to win a race and another told off both children when her son stole my daughter’s balloon because his had popped. When my daughter protested, she popped her balloon too and said ‘now no one has a balloon’. So the lack of fairness that females’ experience begins at a very early age from sexists.

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