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Working women have more children, says economist

Economist Åsa Löfström says the choices women are making are tragic because they are influenced by politicians and employers. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Economist Åsa Löfström says the choices women are making are tragic because they are influenced by politicians and employers. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Attracting more women into work would not only contribute to increasing the country’s gross national product but could boost the fertility rate, according to Swedish economist Åsa Löfström.

Potential for increased GDP of between 15 and 45 per cent

“Europe needs children – just look at the birthrate,” Dr Löfström told The Sunday Times.

“Women who are unsure about their prospects postpone having children. Southern European societies seem to believe that if women go out to work or increase their hours, they will not have children or have fewer. It is the other way round. Women should be given the opportunity to apply their education in attractive posts. They are more likely to have children if they feel secure. The choices women are making are tragic because they are influenced by politicians and employers.”

Dr Löfström was in Malta last week to speak at a seminar themed Female Employment and Economic Growth, organised by non-resident Swedish Ambassador Ulla Gudmundson at the Phoenicia Hotel on Friday.

She is on the staff of the Institute of Economics of Sweden’s Umeå University and is a prolific writer on women and work. The seminar highlighted the relationship between women’s participation in the labour force and economic growth, and compared the Swedish and Maltese perspectives. Dr Rose Marie Azzopardi of the University of Malta’s Faculty of Economics, Management and Accountancy spoke on the local scenario.

In a recent study financed by the Swedish Ministry of Integration and Gender Equality, Dr Löfström identifies the connection between gender equality, economic growth and employment. She concludes that heightened gender equality – men and women working to the same extent in paid jobs and having an equal share of part-time work and self-employment – translates into a potential for increased GDP of between 15 and 45 per cent in EU member states.

For this potential to be realised, it was imperative for countries to examine their social infrastructure, particularly childcare availability, price and quality, and care for the elderly. These social factors traditionally kept women from working, and a lack of formal support structures often left women to face them alone.

In the document, Dr Löfström urges discussion on different societies’ attitude to women working outside the home, women’s financial independence, the sharing of household and family duties, and the adoption of a ‘flexisecurity’ strategy which needs to be augmented by family policies embracing both sexes if it is to succeed. She warns that the skewed distribution of power between women and men, evident in several member states’ parliaments, is hindering long-term gender equality, without which sustainable economic development cannot be achieved.

Sweden currently boasts a female participation rate of over 70 per cent and a birthrate which hovers around 1.9 per cent. In northern European countries, particularly in Scandinavia, high percentages of women in all age brackets, including 55-plus, are in work. Swedish society also sees up to 50 per cent female participation in public life.

“As early as the 1960s, our (mainly male) politicians recognised that they had to solve problems relating to childcare and elderly care,” Dr Löfström said.

“Municipalities became financially responsibility to offer families facilities for both. In that way, educated women were able to join the labour force, and a cycle began. Daycare is heavily subsidised and it is accessible to women in all income groups. Elderly care operates in a similar fashion. Older children go to after-school facilities until the working day ends. Taxpayers view the subsidies as an investment in our future, and it is not a political issue at all. Obviously, there is increased interest in care from the private sector and the subsidies also apply to these facilities.”

Sweden is also very generous with paternal and maternal leave. Mothers or fathers are entitled to 18 months, 14 of which are paid; two months of the 14 are known as ‘Daddy Months’ in Sweden as they must be availed of by the father.

Swedish authorities are now discussing the potential of splitting the 14 months equally between both parents, while employers are examining giving employees on leave 100 per cent of their salaries, up from the current 80 per cent, in a bid for talent retention, Dr Löfström added.

She pointed out that Swedish authorities constantly stress that children are the responsibility of both parents – irrespective of whether they are married – and warn employers they risked losing competencies within their organisations if they stereotyped women.

Women were also being made increasingly aware of the importance of financial independence, particularly to reduce the risk of serious impact to their lifestyle and wellbeing in case of divorce or widowhood.

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