Thursday, 7 May 2009

How male is the recession?

One of the most common statistics emerging during this recession, in various incarnations, describes the extent to which men are disproportionately suffering from resulting job losses. A month ago, the NY Times speculated that women may begin to outnumber men in employment figures as layoffs rise, and Spiegel's Susanne Armann last week deemed the crisis "a very male recession".

But these kinds of articles that take aggregate layoff numbers, line them up and declare men the losers in a global recession are missing several issues. Take for example Armann's article, which deduces that men are worse off while acknowledging the following [emphasis mine]:

..a significantly higher number of men work than women. According to the Federal Employment Agency, male employment is currently 81.6 percent while female employment is only 69.2 percent. Those who work more are more likely, therefore, to lose their job.

In addition it is mostly full-time positions that are being cut -- and many women do not work a full 40-hour week. Around a third of employed women work part-time, while only 5.5 percent of working men are employed on a part-time basis.

That means that women are more likely to work in low-paid jobs. The Federal Employment Agency says that 67.4 percent of those in low-paid jobs are women, who often work as carers in retirement homes, supermarket cashiers, childminders or cleaners. These jobs may not be well paid but they are still required even in times of economic crisis.

So just to be clear: we're neatly bypassing the facts that more men than women work, that women's work tends to be part-time, and that it also tends to be lower-paid, and surmising that women are coming out on top in this economic crisis because fewer of them are losing their part-time/occasional, low-paying jobs.

However, better-paid women are also doing well, such as those working in traditionally more female spheres like education or health. The major industries like construction, manufacturing or even the financial services industry have always been more vulnerable to economic cycles and therefore suffer when the economy dips.

"Women are also more flexible when it comes to location or type of job and they adapt more quickly," says Falk of the DGB. "If a woman realizes that she hasn't got any more prospects somewhere then she tries to go somewhere else.

And once again, the old 'women are tough, they can handle it' argument. We seem to assume that women's response to economic hardship (moving or changing to find work) has little or no cost, whereas men's reality (lost employment) does. There is a cost associated with this perceived flexibility, that may involve education, transportation, shifts in family care arrangements, or increased care burdens within the home. If anything, women in some countries are less flexible because of a gendered division of labour which often sees their lives tied to those of their children. But they adapt in what is perceived as a cost-free shift, but may in fact carry several costs to the household. They adapt because women's incomes are still overwhelmingly skewed towards the health, education and well-being of their households, as against men's.

We also have to be careful not to ascribe the same economic behaviours and consequences to all men and women everywhere. In countries, especially in Europe, where there have been historically higher levels of state investment in the household economy, towards universal day care for example, there tends to be a lower cost associated with labour shifts. And while the recession began in developed nations, it certainly did not end there. Developing nations with large export markets are also being hit hard by reduced demand from the global North, and those markets often employ far more women than men.

And if the response is to invest in those industries with the highest losses, where men are more heavily concentrated, then at best, the post-recession economy will position men and women exactly where they were before: with women earning much less. What is required is not just worker protection laws to eliminate discrimination and create equal employment in those sectors without regard to sex, but also more jobs in women-dominated sectors, with higher, living wages and increased benefits.

So given all this, and while we observe all kinds of gendered job-loss phenomena, like positive correlations between male unemployment and incidences of intimate partner violence against women; a slow supply response to domestic care demand by newly-unemployed men (that means that apparently some men pretty much sit around and do nothing - for a really long time - as they adjust to their new situation, increasing the care burden for those who already provide it rather than lightening it. Don't eyeball me. I'm just reporting it); and increased anxiety among women regarding the economy (although this same writer says that women are more worried but men are more likely to just pretend not to be worried and freak out anyway), I wouldn't be so quick to summarily declare women the 'winners' here. There's a little more to the story than that. And while we do need to address men's overwhelming job losses where they exist, and their psychological responses to the recession, we also need to go a little deeper on both sides in order to gauge the real costs and risks, and shape adequate policy responses.

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