Women’s Work and Pensions: What is Good, What is Best? Designing Gender-Sensitive Arrangements, edited by Bernd Marin and Eszter Zólyomi

Ashgate, 2010, 321 pp, pbk 1 4094 0698 3, £35

The chapters of this book started life at a conference organised by the European Centre in Vienna, and it is therefore unsurprising that they contain more about Austria than about any other individual country; but there is still plenty of diversity, and the single country and comparative studies of recent changes in pensions provision contain material on a variety of European countries, including the UK.

Trends identified include: increasing female participation in the labour market, continuing gender-specific employment and caring patterns, population ageing, a transition from defined benefit to defined contribution schemes, increasing numbers of years of earnings being taken into account when pension levels in defined benefit schemes are calculated, and progressive equalisation between women and men of the age at which state retirement pensions become payable. The questions asked could be summed up by ‘Can we create gender-specific and nevertheless fair rules for women and men alike within overall gender-neutral institutional frameworks?’ (p.18)

Annika Sundén, in a chapter on retirement income security, recognises that what is good for women in the long term (e.g., longer formal labour market participation) might not be good for them in the short term – and vice versa (e.g., means-tested benefits, which can be of benefit in the short term, but which create labour market disincentives and thus be detrimental in the longer term). Fornero and Monticone identify the risks inherent in the recent transition from women being largely dependent on men’s accrued pension rights to their increasingly individualised pension entitlements. Ashgar Zaidi et al discuss the surprising fact that the poverty risk for older women is ‘higher in EU15 [the first fifteen European Member States] (23%) than in the new Member States (18%)’ (p.99), and finds that ‘flat rate universal minimum benefits have been … most effective in improving women’s pension incomes’ (p.103). Readers of this Newsletter will be particularly interested in the Dutch residence-based universal state pension discussed in this chapter, especially now that Professor Steven Webb, Minister of State for Pensions, has proposed that the UK should implement a Citizen’s Pension.

Of special interest in the chapters on single country and comparative studies is Gould’s conclusion that partial disability benefits can contribute to labour market participation and thus to income in retirement. Marin’s chapter suggests that ‘women are much less women than men are men – and women are much more different among themselves than they are different from men’ (p.223), meaning that creating the right mix of pension provision is going to be a complex business. The overall message to emerge from this book is that pension provision is generally a highly complex matter, but that lessons can be learnt by studying both the structures and the detail of different countries’ systems, and in particular the effects of those systems on women’s incomes in retirement.

Some of the chapters and a comprehensive annex are packed full of voluminous data: a treasure trove for students, teachers and researchers. (It’s a pity that there is no index, that the chapters aren’t numbered, and that the proofreading is far from perfect.)

Books such as this can sometimes suffer from a lack of coverage of the subject because each of the authors writes about their own very specific speciality. In the case of this book the highly detailed discussion of specific situations enables broad trends to be identified and broad conclusions to be drawn, making it a most useful volume.