Women out of work

Gender division is an issue that has split economic critics since the enlightenment of the nineteenth century, when women’s rights movements in the UK first campaigned for the vote, creating an awareness of the unequal representation of women in government that had been almost universal since humanity’s origins. Since the beginning, in the most basic unit of human society, the family, a woman’s role had been cast and this was accepted, reflected in their marginalisation in wider society.

However, with the rise of social democracy and liberalism women were gradually freed from this role as child-bearer and integrated into the traditional role of the man. Aided by events like the invention of the contraceptive pill, the liberalisation and decline of Christianity and government legislation women have progressively gained increasing androgyny.

Last week, though, economic commentators declared that women are suffering and will suffer more greatly during the financial crisis. It was said that from January to September 2008 the female redundancy rate increased by 2.3 percent, almost double the rate of the increase in the male redundancy rate which stood at 1.2 percent. How can it be that after over one hundred years of the women’s rights movement we are still in this situation?

The movement, over the years, has exposed a darker, conservative element in British society that actively discriminates against women. But, in time, government anti-discriminatory intervention and changing social factors have sidelined and disarmed such a group who, I feel, have now become a minority but, in spite of this, still feature heavily in imaginations and conspiracy theories. In any case, the influence of prejudice here is doubtful and otherwise fleeting, the cause is almost certainly socio-economic.

For one thing, there are more women in work than ever today. Employment legislation which forbids discrimination against women, especially in terms of assuring paid maternity leave, and the growing acceptance of the single mother as a unit of society, have allowed women to take jobs equally with men, to the point where we are now seeing a counter-movement in male rights with legislation protecting the right of paternity leave and the like. However, this does not explain the disparity between the redundancy figures.

In past recessions, the first jobs to be lost are generally not those in management or commerce but those positions usually filled by the male working class, specifically manufacturing, and this has been seen in the current crisis with the recent job losses at Corus, the steel producer. But, because of the change over the past few decades, of Britain from a nation of primary and secondary industries (such as coal mining and car production) into one mainly based on tertiary and quaternary industry, dealing mainly in financial and informational services, in this case, job losses will not be concentrated into the manufacturing sector of the economy but will be more widespread, affecting a wider spread of low-earners.

This especially means women who, on average, work lower-paid jobs and, more specifically, fill a large proportion of part-time roles, which are often the first to be lost in the event of economic decline. This distribution of women into part-time roles can be attributed to two main factors: Firstly, there is an abundance of single mothers in UK society; a quarter of houses are headed by single parents and ninety percent of those single parents are women making the implications of female job-losses very grave.

But secondly, it is impossible to refute the existence of the traditional family unit in British society, with the mother looking after the children while the father works. Marx argued that the process of labour division begins in the family where the mother, father and children take on separate roles in the household. And this is the model of living to which the majority of people, male and female, still subscribe; the British ideology; the four bedroom house, a garden, a dog and two-and-a-half children. To deny the existence of such an ideal is to deny a popular source of hope and happiness.

Therefore, it is a plethora of factors that have produced this unfavourable outcome for women, not a single decisive factor. The voice of women as a whole has, in the past, been usurped by the accusational voice of militant feminism keen for a reversal of the historical patriarchal society, disregarding both the complexity of the issue and the interests of women generally.

In the twenty-first century conscious discrimination is almost non-existent and the opportunities are there for some, for example in twenty-one percent of couples women earn more than their partners. But the female response to this is varied with some women deciding to pursue careers and others choosing the traditional family life, not seeking androgyny. Clearly, the genders themselves are in a state of transition and redefinition with an uncertain outcome. The issue then is promoting this freedom of choice, maximising opportunites, rather than coercing women into a potentially dangerous situation where they and their families are reliant on the shifting sands of the economy.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.