International Women’s Day

Social security systems tackle the gender impacts of megatrends

The global community marks International Women’s Day on 8 March. The 2017 theme for International Women’s Day is “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030”. Acknowledging the need for such change, many national social security programmes have taken a lead in factoring a gender dimension into the effective design and financing of sustainable social security programmes.

The changing dynamics of longer-term trends in demography, in family, marriage and care patterns, as well as labour markets impact constantly on social security systems. And in recent decades these changes have become more pronounced.

Understandably, social security policy-makers and managers must better anticipate the future pathways of these trends. In so doing, the development of more effective and sustainable social security programmes becomes more certain.

The financial implications of these trends are important, but social security policy-makers and institutions must also consider the gender impacts for policy design and access. In a context of strengthened international commitment to secure social security for all, the understanding that modern social security systems must be inclusive of all men and women is accepted.

A preoccupation of social security leaders is the coverage gap. One of the most challenging coverage gaps in global terms relates to the social protection of women – they generally continue to face higher levels of vulnerability than men. For example, the issue of labour market informality and the subsequent implications for social security coverage is a defining feature of developing economies, even if developed economies are not immune. And women tend to be more affected than men by gender segmentation in labour markets.

But progress is being made. Many countries are confidently reshaping their social security programmes to meet the different needs of women and men.

Research undertaken by the ISSA (2017) reveals how innovative approaches to programme design and financing are assertively moving the focus of the design of many social security programmes beyond the conventional binary vision of the traditional family “couple” – one comprising a full-time breadwinner (typically, the male spouse) and dependant partner (typically, the female spouse).

There are a number of long-run drivers, or megatrends, pushing these changes. These vary in their intensity across regions and cultural settings, as do their impacts on social security programmes. It is clear that these evolving trends cannot be ignored by social security strategic planners to coverage objectives:

  • Demographic changes, particularly declining and low fertility rates and longer life expectancy, albeit with variations in improvements in healthy life expectancy, combined with rising rates of female labour market participation, are important factors shaping family structures and gender roles.
  • Family and marriage patterns are changing, with people waiting longer before getting married and having children, fewer people choosing to marry, and more marriages ending in divorce, and more children growing up in single-parent (often female-headed) households.
  • Labour markets continue to be highly segmented and gendered. More women are working in paid employment but they have lower salaries, with implications for adequate social security benefits. Women are more likely than men to work in informal, part-time, temporary or otherwise precarious jobs, and are more likely to take career breaks. The reasons behind these differences are varied and complex; for example, while in emerging economies, access to education and training for women may be more difficult, which translates into worse labour market and social security outcomes, in developed countries, the gender pay gap persists in spite of generally higher educational achievement by women.
  • Care work (formal and informal) is typically gender differentiated. Although the understanding of men’s roles in the family are beginning to change in some parts of the world, women continue to do the lion’s share of care work, both paid and unpaid.
  • Trends in non-communicable diseases (NCD), including mental health issues, have a gender dimension.

Gender sensitive social security

To reconcile work and family life and ensure adequate access to social security for all, and do so in a gender sensitive manner, a number of objectives and responses need to be actively pursued. These include:

  • Realise effective coverage extension. This is an issue in developed and developing countries alike, where women tend to work in jobs and sectors that are more difficult to cover, face significant barriers to access, and as such are more likely than men to have lower salaries and low or no social security coverage. This barrier may be legal (for example, part-time workers excluded from social security) and/or effective (lack of access). Responses include strengthening non-contributory or universal benefits, such as cash transfers, social pensions, or other solidarity-based schemes that de-link benefits from the labour market.
  • Build adequate social security benefits. Women’s careers tend to be shorter and more interrupted, which can severely impact eligibility for and the adequacy of social security benefits, particularly in contributory and earnings-related retirement systems. Adequacy of benefits is also negatively impacted by an often significant gap in salaries between men and women and the move in some systems to replace spouses’ benefits by individual entitlements. Responses to reform contributory schemes include reducing minimum qualifying periods, altering benefit calculation formulas to exclude low earning years, or granting credit for non-contributory service periods.
  • Meet the shifting and rising demand for care. Demographic challenges, NCD and wider health trends, rising female labour force participation, and changing family patterns imply a growing demand for formal care across country contexts. Global “care chains” underline the interconnected nature of the “care deficit” challenge and the role of women in this. The balance between formal and informal care remains an issue. Social security systems are finding ways to invest in care infrastructure, to better protect carers, to adapt scheme design features to recognize and value care, and to better incentivize shared responsibility for caring. In addition, where care is provided informally (still the overwhelming case), social security protection needs to ensure continuation of coverage and support the adequacy of benefits. Two responses are to use care credits and care allowances.
  • Recognize that family structures are evolving. Benefit systems must adapt to the needs of a rising number of “non-traditional” families and family structures, such as lone parent, dual earner, or in some contexts, same sex households. One response is to design incentives to encourage more equal intra-household sharing of responsibilities.

Figure 1: Daily/hours spent on paid and upaid work by employees (by sex) in 23 developing and 23 developed economies

Source: United Nations, cited in ILO, Women at Work: Trends 2016, Geneva.

Social security administrations innovate

Guided by appropriate policy, social security administrations are proactive actors capable of preventing and mitigating a broad swathe of risks. To ensure the adequate social protection of all, the recent evidence suggests four main lines of action lie at the disposal of administrations.

The legal coverage of existing benefits can to be extended, to reach out to all women and men. Measures can be tailored to specific types of work (both paid and unpaid) and to different income groups, and these should incorporate a gender dimension.

The adequacy of existing benefits can be reinforced, taking into account the financial position of women and recognizing women’s continuing different roles in household economies as well as labour markets. Improved access to appropriate health and pension benefits, for instance, must be framed by gender considerations.

New types of benefits can be introduced. In many countries there is scope for introducing new types of benefits that can help to improve the position of women in often deeply-rooted socio-cultural and gendered contexts. Part of this should be care-related benefits, as well as maternity and family benefits. Innovative measures can also help shift socio-cultural perspectives and seek to influence labour-market practices. Paternity leave, as an aspect of parental leave, is one benefit for which access needs to be strengthened as well as takeup encouraged.

Administration can be improved. Effective coverage for all is impossible in the absence of access to competent social security administration. Removing barriers and enabling the effective roll-out and delivery of benefits for women and men is where social security administrations’ main strengths lie. This is acknowledged by the ISSA Guidelines on Social Security Administration that form an important part of the services provided through the ISSA Centre for Excellence. But the potential of administrations to influence public policy stretches further.

With estimates suggesting that the unpaid care work carried out by women equates to over 10 per cent of global GDP, the case for gender mainstreaming is clear cut.

The cross-cutting role of social security administrations should be used in collaboration with other agencies to leverage the broader direction of policy choices. In many countries this role is supporting women’s access to labour markets, education and financial services, as well as enabling more women to become IT literate. And social security design can actively support the rights of women through efforts to eradicate abuse, exploitation and discrimination.

Together, these efforts support the realization of social security for all and the healthy longer-term development of national social security programmes. As the global community marks the 2017 International Women’s Day, social security systems around the world are demonstrating that they are bold for change.

Source (forthcoming): ISSA. 2017. Family and gender (Megatrends and social security). Geneva, International Social Security Association.


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