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The Engendered Recession—Shecession


In a 2020 rally, Donald Trump promised, “We are getting your husbands back to work”. A single statement, with a tremendous extent of damage, reinforced into the minds of a largely bigoted society is, in fact, that men largely constitute the workforce. It brings into question the veracity of his words—what progress are we striving for when only about 20% of India’s workforce is female

Occupational Segregation as the Underlying Cause of She-cession

A theorised reason for this is occupational segregation, an economic term to describe how workers are distributed across occupations based upon demographic characteristics. Men tend to work in more technical jobs such as manufacturing, while women dominate service-based industries, such as education and healthcare. More women also tend to hold part-time jobs while they juggle both household chores and nurturing children. These two tasks, traditionally associated with women, have become the woman’s ‘second shift’. In the past, economic downturns impacted men more than women as men tend to work in industries closely tied to economic cycles while women dominate in industries less susceptible to uncertainty. For example, in 2008’s Great Recession, men lost twice the number of jobs women did.

Today, however, the situation is very different. The recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic hit the service sectors and those in part-time jobs the hardest, which absorb a sizable share of female employment. Thus, this unprecedented economic crisis has been termed by economists as a she-cession, alluding to how women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

However, the problem does not stop at occupation segregation—even in sectors where men are the lion’s share of the workforce, women are losing more jobs. For example, in transportation and warehousing, women constitute around one-quarter of all jobs but endured 39% of job losses. This is due to the ingrained discrimination in the economy where women are more likely to be front-line workers than high-ranking managers.

This grim situation is a global issue—it does not just affect high income developed countries. In India, for instance, a country with a meagre female labour force participation rate, only a shocking 16% of employed women were able to keep their jobs during and after the lockdown as opposed to 60% of men. Moreover, the buck does not stop at unemployment. During the pandemic, people have seen the hours they devote to unpaid care work increase due to school and day-care closures, reductions in public services for people with disabilities and the elderly, the non-availability of domestic workers, and the need for them to look after family members with COVID-19. The brunt of this work has fallen on women who tend to be the primary caregiver in traditional families.

The Recessive Impact on Healthcare

On the other hand, even sectors that have seen a boom in the pandemic have women doing most of the heavy lifting. Most nurses and other front-line workers are female, about 70% of the global healthcare workforce, and have had to deal with many problems. From inadequate staffing to insufficient protective gear, which was designed to fit males and often the smallest sizes were too big for female stature, long and tiresome hours leading to mental health turmoil, a higher proportion of exposure to the virus, and so on and on the list goes. Despite this, it is interesting to note how men still occupy leadership roles in medicine and science. It points to a disappointing narrative that women can bear the absolute brunt in crises, only to result in men’s careers being furthered and to whom credit will be awarded.

Fewer Women Run Big Companies Than Men Named John

Rationalising the Wage Gap

Circumstances due to the pandemic have uncovered cracks in the workforce and torn apart existing social problems wider into catastrophes. The increase in household responsibilities has led the gender wage gap to worsen. The big number is 35% in India, which is how much lesser women earn on average than men, and it blankly stares back at us, begging to be theorised. Is the problem a difference in the level of education? Evidently not, as men still earn more as compared to women on similar educational pedestals. Furthermore, this wage gap rises as we move up the education ladder. This is influenced by factors such as ingrained pay and promotion discrimination, motherhood penalty, which punishes women for their time out of the workforce while on maternity leave and parenting, leading to experience lags, excessive work hours etc.

Then, do women need to choose better-paying occupations? The choice of a career stems from a life-long series of decisions influenced by the sort of upbringing the person has had, their social and economic environment. Be it the general societal outlook, the very same that steer women away from the fields of science and technology and push men closer to it from a very young age, or the instinctive shoulder of domestic responsibilities—all of these are to be credited for our current dilemma. Moreover, reports have shown that accounting for occupational segregation explains away only a part of the gap. It will take the world 257 years to bridge all existing economic gender gaps at current rates of progress.

Difference between the rise in women’s and men’s unemployment, US recessions from 1948 to 2020. [Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics]

While non-participation of women in the workforce stands to explain much of the gap in the formal sector, unequal pay is a whole other quandary in the unorganised sectors in India. Implementation of gender equality laws is already complex due to the terrible state of infrastructure. There is rampant discrimination, and women are innately considered secondary, of a lower skill level, which leads to fewer opportunities and lesser pay. There are daunting safety concerns that constrain women’s progress in these sectors, curtailing work hours flexibility and regional outreach. 

She-cession: Only a New Term but an Age-Old Problem

The problem extends beyond just facts and figures to a culture of structural oppression and societal outlook as a whole. In the household, the woman’s income is also seen as secondary income, where if the family rises in wealth and status, women’s work stops. Since women no longer need to work to finance the household, any other possible reasons for employment disappear too. The situation is aggravated by institutional factors where women receive little to no support for their careers from family. They have grown up thinking working is not a compulsion but a matter of choice. The pandemic has just further proved that women’s jobs constitute the most dispensable of the economy.

A Required Remoulding of the Mindset

Coming back to his comment, Trump revealed his regressive mindset and what policy-makers around the world are doing: getting only men back to work. As the pandemic situation bettered itself, men could start going back to work before the second wave, a reality not available to women who stayed home to care for children and do household chores. Even after factoring in domestic help, a privilege for most, child-care and school determined whether women could go back to work. The wildly unequal division of household labour is to blame.

The continued suppression of women’s contributions poses the question of what advancements have been withheld from their deserved acclaim and how conscious efforts must be made to correct historical wrongs. These efforts could be anything from corporate changes like work-hour flexibility, mental-health focused approach to large scale government policies regulating intense working conditions. Women in higher positions are under significantly high pressure to outperform their coworkers and prove their worth in corporations every step of the way.

The imposter syndrome comes pre-packaged with being a working woman in today’s society. The multiple burdens that suppress women’s achievements won’t ease until men take on a greater share of domestic and caring responsibilities and become more willing to downsize and adjust their own hours when family circumstances change. Compromise needs to stop being a trait inherent to only women. A working woman should be ideal and certainly not stigmatised. From the beginning of time, if there is one resource that has constantly been under-valued and under-utilised—it is women, and it is high time we changed that.

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