1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009), Special Events (2000 - 2009)

The Gender Implications of Pension Reforms. General Remarks and Evidence from Selected Countries (Draft)

Background paper prepared for the UNRISD report "Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World"

Reforms of public pension programs have been a top social policy priority in a great number of countries around the world over the last decades. The increasing recognition of the implications of demographic changes, awareness of income insecurity in old age, the desire to ensure financial sustainability of pension systems and concerns about the management of public schemes were some of the concerns driving reform debates.

The design of pension schemes differs greatly among countries around the world. How pension schemes look like depends crucially on choices made about system elements, including membership criteria (voluntary vs. mandatory), management of the scheme (public vs. private), possible income-policy or other social goals embodied in pension systems (insurance and equivalence vs. redistribution), the financing method used (funded vs. pay-as-you-go), and procedures for determining the size of a future pension benefit (defined benefit vs. defined contribution schemes). As most national pension systems are comprised of more than one tier, combinations of system elements are found in many cases.

Pension reformers over the last decades have attempted to address the above-mentioned challenges through new combinations of the various design features. Throughout the 1980s and, more so, the 1990s, pension reforms have been implemented in Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, and various European Union member states, with Chile being the first country to legislate a privatization of its pension system in 1981. The “Chilean model” thus evolved as a reform paradigm for Latin America and beyond. The privatization of public pension schemes, or parts thereof, as advocated internationally for example by the World Bank, has become a core component of the neoliberal economic reform packages around the world. On the whole, however, there is no uniform pattern of pension reform paths.

Accompanying the ongoing reforms and responding to the surrounding policy debates, a large body of research on pension reforms has developed over the years. A considerable part of it is concerned with the evaluation of different reform approaches and arguments about advantages of one reform path over the other. Other authors have focused on national, regional, or international comparative assessments of reforms.

Women are the majority of older people, as well as the majority of the elderly living in poverty. Despite these facts, and despite international and national commitments to gender mainstreaming in all policy fields, concerns about gender equality have been largely absent from mainstream pension policy debates, and from mainstream academic research on pension reforms.

Outside mainstream pension debates, however, a body of research on gender and old-age security has been developing. One strand of research, for example, links pension policy with debates on gender and welfare states more broadly, and discusses larger questions of the distribution of work, family models and family change, and the relations between state, markets and families. Other authors apply a gender lens to analyzing entitlements in a variety of pension systems, or elaborate on the gendered effects of specific design features of pension systems, for example pension sharing on divorce, or the retirement age of women and men. Yet others focus on evaluating experiences with pension reforms in different national or regional contexts from a gender perspective. Some of the research has to bee seen explicitly in the context of ongoing reform debates.

Drawing on a range of such sources, the goals of this paper are threefold: First, to contribute to systematizing the various aspects raised in the available literature on gender and pensions. Section 2 of the paper thus summarizes the most relevant design features of pension systems that have a gender impact. The analysis moves along two dimensions, equal access to benefits and equality of benefit levels in different pension schemes.

A second goal of the paper is to discuss selected country examples which illustrate the gender dimensions of pension reforms in greater detail. Section 3 highlights the cases of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic where pension reforms have been implemented during the 1990s. Among the three countries under study, two (Poland, Hungary) have chosen partial pension privatization, and have thus become frontrunners of radical pension reform in the CEE region. In turn, the Czech Republic has so far refrained from such a system changes and instead implemented reforms to the previous pension scheme, without introducing a system change.

Thirdly, the paper discusses some of the main challenges to conceptualizing gender equality in pension policy, highlighting some of the limitations of pensions as a tool to promote gender equality. These aspects are dealt with in section 4 of the paper. Section 5 offers concluding remarks.