Referendum will make women who work full-time in the home feel even less valued

Referendum is likely to devalue the work of mothers and fathers even more, by subsuming their specific roles into a generic caring role

So we are to alter the wording in the Constitution to remove the clause about women in the home, and make it a gender-neutral clause about caring. So what?

This smacks of an expensive exercise in virtue-signalling. Will it make caring work any more valued? Will it do anything much except make a dwindling number of women who work full-time in the home feel even less valued?

Every woman is a working woman. That used to be a feminist slogan, emphasising that whether a woman was being paid or engaged in unpaid caring, she was still working and working hard.

Oddly enough, the clause that we are so anxious to replace was couched in terms of socioeconomic rights. Despite the popular perception, it never said that women must work in the home. Instead, it emphasises the support that women give to the State through their caring work, and that they should “not be obliged by economic necessity” to neglect that important work.


No less a personage than Ms Justice Susan Denham (as she was at the time) stated in a dissenting judgment in Sinnott v Minister for Education (2001) that “Article 41.2 does not assign women to a domestic role. Article 41.2 recognises the significant role played by wives and mothers in the home. This recognition and acknowledgment does not exclude women and mothers from other roles and activities”.

We also know that the language of socioeconomic rights did not actually confer any State supports for working in the home when the siren song of capitalism lured both women and men to the rocks.

The new orthodoxy is that all adults must be conscripts in the paid workforce, whether willing or not. Children and elderly relatives must be provided with institutional alternatives to being cared for at home to fulfil this dogma.

Two incomes first became essential for a mortgage, and now cannot even guarantee a home.

Nonetheless, the new clause is even less likely to confer any socio-economic rights. It is likely to devalue the work of mothers and fathers even more by subsuming their specific roles into a generic caring role.

Caring and parenting overlap, and no society can survive without either, but they are not identical. By squashing them together, you do no favours either to carers or parents.

Greedy work does not mean that people are greedy. It means the work is voraciously demanding

More importantly, you do nothing to challenge what Claudia Goldin, in her book Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity , calls “greedy work”. Goldin was the first woman to receive tenure in economics at Harvard and has devoted a long career to studying the gender pay gap.

Her latest book focuses on college-educated women, a real pity because it ignores the fact that many working-class women have always worked outside the home. (In Ireland, historically it was often in domestic service.) It also ignores rural women, including farmers.

Notwithstanding this, her findings are simple and stark. Male and female graduate earnings are pretty similar until people decide to start a family. Then “greedy work”, as she calls it, intervenes.

Greedy work does not mean that people are greedy. It means the work is voraciously demanding. If you work twice as many hours you will make far more than twice as much money. Those hours often have to be in the evenings, or at weekends. When you have a child, two people cannot have greedy jobs. Who takes the sick kid to the doctor?

Some men opt for more flexible hours over remuneration, but it is mostly women choosing more flexible work.

In Ireland, 30.7 per cent of women and just 9 per cent of men are engaged in part-time employment, according to the 2022 EU Care Atlas. Most women do not consider themselves underemployed.

Goldin does not emphasise enough that it is not just socialisation that leads to the choices women make. For many women, giving birth leads to a fierce protectiveness and desire to spend as much time as possible with this little dependent creature.

If they are fortunate enough to have a spouse or partner who is willing to put in the long hours at paid work, many women willingly opt for longer hours in the home.

Single women and women in less affluent socioeconomic groups often do not have that option. Increasingly, it requires significant sacrifice even from better-off couples.

Men lose out, too, sustaining ulcers and coronaries in high-stress jobs. We should be looking at ways in which our economy could be restructured so that people could have reasonable lives on one income or one-and-a-half incomes.

Given real choices, it should be up to couples to decide how to distribute those hours between them, in flexible combinations of paid and caring work. We should then honour those non-forced choices, even if it means women doing fewer hours of paid work or opting to work full-time in the home.

A culture of greedy work cannot be overcome by personal, individualised choices. It demands systemic change. Universal basic income is another option, even if the fact that tech giants favour it should make us all slightly wary. Dynamically exploring these kinds of radical changes would serve us all better than essentially meaningless constitutional change.