Sunday, March 08, 2009

Women and Labor in Times of Economic Crisis: Ideology, National Policy, the Media and the Molding of Public Perception

Reality, and especially the reality of the current political situation it seems, is in large part a creature of the desires of the state and its media outlets. Facts are deployed to construct a reality that suits the ideological objective, policy goals, and motivational framework for the control of the masses. In democratic countries, these objectives are performed first by scientists producing facts, and then by authoritative interpretive outlets for those facts, principally major media outlets.

For the most part, the masses, even its most favored social classes, tend to be oblivious to these constructions of the reality in which they comfortably live out their lives. Indeed, many are grateful for the efforts of science (and increasingly social science) to produce a comfortable reality with the assurance once reserved, in the West to Religion and its divines. But sometimes, ruptures in the fabric of constructed reality provides a window on the operations of aspects of this industry devoted to the production of reality.

Among the more important areas of social control, with legal, policy, social and economic consequences, to which the state and other instrumentalities devoted to the production of conventional understanding, is that of gender relations. The manipulation of legitimate gender roles, the relations among men and women--from its most intimate, to its most economic and social aspects--has become a great object of cultural control and legal governance. It has great utility for the maintenance of social peace, the organization of family life and the regulation of employment, the latter by providing a more nuanced and variable labor market. Its political utility in the West has been quite significant--it provides a measure of cultural superiority to the West in its wars against and efforts to transform Islam, for example--and its control of the process of the globalization of certain values.

Only rarely is one permitted a glimpse in the ways in which facts are deployed in the furtherance of ideology, social and economic control. Recently such a small window was open in the context of the effects of the current economic troubles to the employment of women. This window provides a glimpse at the complexities and opportunities for social control offered by the need to arrange the relationships among men and women in the social and economic spheres.

In Spain, it has been reported, the current economic crisis threatens recent gains in workplace employment won by women. Carmen Sánchez-Silva, La crisis amenaza la revolución de la mujer, El País, Sociedad, March 8, 2009. "El acceso de la mujer al mercado de trabajo ha crecido como nunca en España, donde la tasa de actividad femenina ha pasado del 45% de 2005 al 51% de finales del año pasado." Id. ("Access of women to the labor markets has increased as never before in Spain, where the female activity rate rose from 45% in 2005 to 51% at the end of last year."). But the trhust of the report is that "El empleo femenino está aguantando por ahora más que el masculino - Pero la sombra de la recesión pone en peligro el salto histórico que han dado las españolas en la última década." Id. ("Female employment is holding its own compared to male employment, but the shadow of recession is threatening the historic gains of female employees over the last decade").

In the United States, the current economic crisis appears to have had the opposite effect, reducing the importance of males in the workplace. Catherine Rampell, As Layoffs Surge, Women May Pass Men in Job Force, The New York Times, February 5, 2005, also available via Anderson Cooper 360. The thrust of the article is the same, the rate of job losses among men is higher than among women. But the conclusion is different from that of the Spanish report: "With the recession on the brink of becoming the longest in the postwar era, a milestone may be at hand: Women are poised to surpass men on the nation’s payrolls, taking the majority for the first time in American history. . . . As of November, women held 49.1 percent of the nation’s jobs, according to nonfarm payroll data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By another measure, including farm workers and the self-employed, women constituted 47.1 percent of the work force." Id.

It is curious that the same phenomena in two industrialized states produces two quite distinct responses. Both report the same factual situation: men are currently losing jobs at a faster rate than women. This is the result of the gender segregation of the labor market, and the differentiated rate of job losses grounded in that segregation. Traditionally male and better paying jobs are being lost faster than jobs in those sectors traditionally dominated by women--in government, and the service industry, at least at the lower rungs of each sector.

In Spain, the focus is on losing gains in the labor markets. "Cuidado. La crisis económica empieza a poner en cuestión si los derechos adquiridos por la mujer en el mercado laboral y los hitos conseguidos en los últimos años pueden mantenerse." La crisis amenaza la revolución de la mujer, supra ("Watch Out. The economic crisis is beginning to put in question if the rights acquired by women in the labor market and the milestones achieved in the past few years can be maintained."). There is pessimism in the ability of the labor markets to remain robustly active and supportive of women.
Pero el problema puede llegar ahora, una vez que el sector servicios, en el que se concentra la presencia femenina, empiece a destruir empleo, como ya se viene barruntando en los últimos meses. Y, en el trasfondo, se vislumbra la posibilidad de que ese avance de la población activa eche el freno, con el consiguiente deterioro de la competitividad de nuestra economía. (Id., "But the problem may be coming now, once the service sector, in which female presence is concentrated, starts to destroy jobs, as it has been conjectured over the last few months to be coming. And in the background looms the possibility that pthis advance in the labor active population will be halted as the competitiveness of our economy deteriorates.").
But there is more pessimism here to share. The female sector of the labor markets in Europe is fragil to begin with since much of that sectpor relies on part time and temporary work, putting what women are employed in a substantially greater precarious position. Thus the focus is on wage work and the strength of labor market segregaton.
"La segregación ocupacional, la temporalidad, el tiempo parcial y la discriminación salarial convierte a las mujeres en las personas más vulnerables ante la situación de crisis económica y de destrucción de empleo", aseguraba esta semana Carmen Bravo, secretaria confederal de la Mujer de Comisiones Obreras. (Id., "Occupational segregation, seasonal work, part time work, and salary discrimination turns women into the most vulnerable people in times of economic crisis and job loss, asserted Carmen Bravo, confederal secretary of the Women Workers' Commissions, this week.").
Even the little good news is bad--women tend to survive better during economic hard times ("La mujer todavía se defiende mejor ante la crisis, se crea más empleo femenino, pero la situación varía mucho según la actividad económica." Id. per Matilde Mas, del Instituto Valenciano de Investigaciones Económicas (Ivie)). But that may be explained in part because they tend to settle for whatever is available, unlike men. ("es que 'aceptan cualquier empleo, aunque sea no cualificado y ellas tengan estudios.'" per Sara de la Rca, coordinator of the Observatorio Laboral de la Crisis de la Fundación de Estudios de Economía Aplicada, Id.). And at bottom is inequality in the employment sector.
Aquí es donde entra en juego, una vez más, la desigualdad. IESE Business School y la firma de recursos humanos ICSA han presentado esta semana un estudio sobre las diferencias retributivas por niveles profesionales entre hombres y mujeres en España, Francia e Italia durante 2008. No hay excepción, a igual puesto, ellos ganan más en los tres países, siendo el nuestro el que mantiene la brecha más importante. (Id., "This is where inequality again enters into the mix. IESE Business School and the human resources form ICSA this week presented a study on differences in pay levels between men and women professionals in Spain, France and Italy during 2008. Without exception among them, men earn more in the three countries, ours being the country in which the gap is most significant.").
And the report ends where it started--with a caution and a challenge: Are we willing to accept these differences ("¿Estamos dispuestos a acortar estas distancias?" Id.). Spain, thus, is looking to the regulation of wage labor markets. It uses women as a proxy for the inculcation of appropriate labor market behavior. While its principal target is the naturalization of women in the workforce, the ultimate objection is to the sort of low wage and seasonal work that undermines the ability of individuals to provide appropriate financial sipport for their families.
Y si, como ha anunciado el presidente José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, la intención del Gobierno es contener la escalada imparable del desempleo a través de contratos a tiempo parcial, este hecho "abocará a la mujer a la precariedad laboral, puesto que el tiempo parcial es femenino en todos los países europeos". (Id., "And if, as announced by President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Government's intention is to contain the unstappable escalation of through part-time contracts, this policy will 'lead to women's job insecurity, since part-time work is essentially female work in all European countries.'" Id., quoting María Pazos an official in the Ministerio de Economía y Hacienda).
And the preferred solution is state intervention, though with potentially disasterous results absent a change in wome's work in the labor markets.

The contrast with the ideological framework of analysis is quite different for the Americans. There the data is used to suggest the value of the opportunistic changes wrought by the economic crisis--the continued advance of females in society and its effects on the destruction of the edifaces of male domination, in the workplace and within the construction of social and eocnomic reality within which policy is made and society organized. "A deep and prolonged recession, therefore, may change not only household budgets and habits; it may also challenge longstanding gender roles." As Layoffs Surge, Women May Pass Men in Job Force, supra. And, indeed, this reversal serves as a foundation from which the news report develops its ideological mesage to the masses--where women assume the role of economic superiority, she is no longer to be made to assume the traditionally female gendered responsibility for the running of the hhousehold and the tending to the offspring of her union with a man. First the critique: "Women like Ms. Mohammed find themselves at the head of once-separate spheres: work and household. While women appear to be sole breadwinners in greater numbers, they are likely to remain responsible for most domestic responsibilities at home." Id.

And, of course, the example in the United States is telling--a Muslim family in which the traditionally dominante male is reduced to unemployment and his spouse has started and now runs a thriving business from home.

Nasreen Mohammed, for example, works five days a week, 51 weeks a year, without sick days or health benefits. She runs a small day care business out of her home in Milpitas, Calif., and recently expanded her services to include after-school care. The business brings in about $30,000 annually, she says, far less than the $150,000 her husband earned in the marketing and sales job he lost over a year ago. “It’s peanuts,” she says. She switched from being a full-time homemaker to a full-time businesswoman when her husband was laid off previously. She says she unexpectedly discovered that she loves her job, even if it is demanding. Id.

Thus, the report suggests both the education of the masses in gender role expectations as well as the change in traditional religious expectations of gender roles. There is an emphasis on entreperneuship rather than relaince on labor markets--the successful individual starts her own business in the face of labor market failure, and in that role reverses the traditional power relationships between men and women. It is in these multiple levels that, at least for women, the reversals in traditional labor marekets are liberating. That last insight is probably the most significant in terms of the utility of the piece for the iodeologically authroitative educatiuon of the masses. This focus is apparent in the last half of the report, in which the false consciousness of women is exposed ("Many women say they expect their family roles to remain the same, even if economic circumstances have changed for now." Id.), and the need for reorientation is exposed ("A severe recession could put pressure on these roles."). There is a bit of unintended gender role irony as well--the article has a bit of the traditional scold as well, a role historically reserved to women within the house: "When women are unemployed and looking for a job, the time they spend daily taking care of children nearly doubles. Unemployed men’s child care duties, by contrast, are virtually identical to those of their working counterparts, and they instead spend more time sleeping, watching TV and looking for a job, along with other domestic activities." Id. And until men learn to understand their new role, the spectre of family tension, or divorce, looms large--but not the prospect of women returning to traditional roles.

The Mohammeds say things are not as stressful as they were the last time Mr. Mohammed lost his job. He has been helping out with the cooking and with paperwork for his wife’s business, and she says she works to prop up family morale. “Things are not happy in the house if I blame him all the time, so I don’t do any of that anymore,” Ms. Mohammed says. “I know he is doing his best.” Id.

I am hardly suggesting this is either good or bad--the training of the masses in conventional behavior norms is an essential social task, though the variation possible in the organization of those norms is large--but merely suggesting that there is neither anything passive about the enterprise within a given community, nor is it something to which all elements of organized social power fail to contribute.

In the case of the United States, the media is deployed to prepare for the continuation of a large scale shift on social, economic and political relationships among the sexes. It is also geared to the preparation of the masses to make do with less. The report is riddled with stories of couples reduced from high salaried status, to much more humble income levels--and surviving, transformed, but surviving. To ensure that these changes cause no social or political disruption, cultural reality must be shifted, and the recession provides an opportunity to further that project. In the case of Spain there is substantially more wariness and the media is deployed in a more conservative role--to protect gains rather than to foment greater social revolution in gender role expectations. Again, the recession provides an opportunity for that work. The issue is the control of the labor markets and the battleground for that control is the bodies of women. Through them, elites struggle over waged work and entitlement of certain conditions of employment and social support.

Both reports highlight the role of the media in changing the expectations of the masses in conventionally legitimate gender roles. The recession and its gender effects provides an opportunity to use the news for a greater social role--the education of the masses and the production of cultural realitiy on which legitimate policy might be articulated and laws to implement that policy implemented with a minimum of opposition.

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