Tuesday, March 17, 2009

History Repeats Itself with Gender and the Economy

I think ABC News has been following my comments around the blogosphere, because they're reporting on what I've been saying for months now: When Mom Becomes the Breadwinner: Recession's Economic Toll Is Causing Some Couples Marital Issues

I learned in my Women's Studies courses that, like most things in this world, unemployment and economic issues are gendered, and that the personal effects of these are easy to predict. Based on what we know from history (especially The Great Depression and war-time economies), the cycle goes a little something like this:
  • Men and women generally start off on unequal footing, with men making more than women
  • Economy starts to implode, companies need to lay people off in droves (or, in the case of war, men just go buh-bye)
  • In addition to laying people off, companies must now "restructure" - preferably by just reshuffling the people they have left and promoting them without significant raises
  • Men make more to start and are more likely to demand a raise if they get promoted, so men are the first to be fired
  • Women now becomes the head of household
  • Men get depressed, angry, upset, uneasy, etc. because 1) they've lost their job (already an emotional ordeal) and 2) they no longer fill the role society expects from them
  • Tension grows in the home
  • Women are likely still working some form of a "double-shift," many women start to pressure husbands to find a job, even when there aren't any
  • Couple gets divorced, or the men just disappear, or the men commit suicide, or some combination of the above

Seriously, examining this cycle made up about a third of my Women's History course one semester because some variation of this has happened several times throughout U.S. history.

This is yet another example of how sexism and gender roles hurt men and women alike. In my opinion, the heart of the matter is what I pointed out above: they no longer fill the role society expects from them. Losing a job for anybody is stressful, especially during tough economic times. And if your identity is closely linked to your job - as it so often is in the U.S. - that stress is magnified. But add to it the fact that men are still seen as traditional breadwinners and heads of household, and you've got a recipe for disaster.

So far in history, there hasn't been a solution for this cycle, and I'm not sure if there will be one now. My hope is that some good can come of this.

Maybe this time around, there will be more acceptance of seeing men in this role. Or perhaps if enough men embrace the role of stay-at-home father, the government will start paying attention to the needs of parents and focus on access to daycare, education, etc. Okay, those wishes are probably too ambitious, but there's no harm in dreaming.

(Cross-posted at Jump off the Bridge.)


Vancouver Real Estate said...

You're cycle seems about right. Saddens me though that men and women still aren't equal in this well-developed society. I think its a trend we definitely need to leave behind with the 20th century. Our mentality needs to be changed and some men should just suck it up and see a woman as a human being, not as a woman. It sure would solve a lot of problems.

Take care, Jay

bj0rnborg said...

Dont understand the previous post. How is it the mans responsibility that the woman takes out a divorce when the man no longer can live up to beeing the family breadwinner?

Bj0rnborg said...

I would like to paraphrase:

"Our mentality need to be changed and some women should just suck it up and see a man as a human, not as a workhorse and breadwinner. It sure would solve a lot of problems".

frau sally benz said...

I think it's a change that needs to happen across the board. Both men AND women need to let go of the pressures that come from these traditional gender roles. It is perpetuated by both men and women, and it's hurting both men and women.

DJ Dual Core said...

Repeat after me: "I have an existence independent of my job. I have an existence independent of my job. I have an existence independent of my job."

Like so many other things it's about identity and power. Men come out of the gate with more socially constructed power (closely tied to money) and, predictably, abuse it. That power is tied to the identity we derive from our jobs so when that is threatened we lash out defending/demonstrating/trying to regain that power.