I’ve been sitting on an excellent bit of analysis from the New York Times for a couple weeks now, but didn’t want to let it slip by without sharing. Titled “Counting the Cost of Machismo“, the article describes how Northern European countries where the culture encourages women’s role in the workforce have fared far better economically than Southern European ones where entrenched machismo has kept women out of it.
Europe’s southern fringe, indebted and uncompetitive, has long been the euro zone’s weak link. But besides a sunny climate and shaky economic fundamentals, it also shares a long-entrenched machismo that is costing it dearly. As it turns out, the share of adult women in the paid workforce in the region lags men by almost 20 percentage points, compared with 12 points across the European Union, 9 in the United States and only 4 in Sweden.
Sexism, of course, is not the cause for Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, and in the short term, the euro’s prospects depend more on the right mixture of fiscal austerity and monetary stimulus than on sisterhood. But in the longer term, women could well hold the key to overcoming a fundamental economic weakness that plagues not just Southern Europe but much of the rest of the Continent as well: An aging population and a shrinking workforce that is threatening to explode pension and health care budgets.
“Gender equality is no longer just a human rights issue, but an economic necessity,” said Maria Stratigaki, who is in charge of gender equality in the Greek government. She is using the budget crunch in her country to lobby for more “gender-budgeting” — rules that ensure men receive no more resources from the state than women.
There’s a lesson in this for the US, too, with its stingy maternity leaves and lousy daycare options:
Even generous subsidies for child care pay off: A 2002 study by the German Bundesbank found that public investment in day care in Germany on balance increased government revenues as more mothers returned to work.
Not only do women working outside the home strengthen the economy with their taxable income and GDP contributions, they also are more likely to contribute to long-term economic health by choosing to create more future workers:
And perhaps surprisingly, encouraging women to work out of the home also encourages them to have more babies, thus yielding more future taxpayers. Decades of experience in the Nordic countries show that once women are no longer forced to choose between employment and children, both go up.
Sweden, at the forefront of women’s liberation, boasts a female employment rate of 70 percent and a birthrate of about two children per woman, the highest in Europe along with Norway and France.
The US is just barely hitting that two-child-per-woman goal—the much-desired population replacement rate—but only because of birthright citizenship and higher birth rates among immigrants, not because we have culture that values work-family balance. In other countries—Japan is a oft-mentioned example—chronic workplace and cultural discrimination force many women to choose between having a career (and economic self-sufficiency) and having children. When forced to vote with their uteruses—so to speak—Japanese women have chosen careers, causing Japan’s birth rate to drop so low it’s precipitated a demographic crisis.
Not only are working women—and working mothers—not returning to the kitchen anytime soon; it’s probably in everyone’s best interests to empower even more of them leave the kitchen for the workforce.