LONDON — It was dubbed the “He-cession.” As male unemployment surged and female jobs proved more resilient, pundits proclaimed not just The Death of Macho (Foreign Policy, September 2009) but The End of Men (The Atlantic, July/August 2010). The worst economic slump in half a century was hailed as the beginning of the end of male dominance in the labor market.
But as attention has turned from bank balance sheets to government debt and from stimulus spending to austerity, the legacy of the recession may be less, not more, gender equality.
From Athens to London to Washington, the new age of austerity is likely to rewrite basic assumptions about solidarity and the role of the state in rich countries. Few dispute the need for governments to be more frugal. Years of fiscal profligacy, expensive military campaigns and, more recently, Keynesian deficit spending, have intensified the strains that aging populations are putting on the welfare states of Europe and the entitlement programs of the United States.
But with the first cuts beginning to bite, economists and women’s groups warn that women are likely to bear the brunt of austerity: as public sector employees, as retirees who live longer than men and thus rely more on health care and social security, and as mothers whose decision to work depends on affordable child care.
“This is not just individual categories of women losing out, this is structural: This is rolling back gender equality,” said Anna Bird, acting chief executive officer of the Fawcett Society, a women’s advocacy group based in London.
Britain, the country that has gone fastest and furthest with its belt-tightening, provides a glimpse into what may loom in other countries.
Women account for about 65 percent of public sector workers and are likely to be hit hard when the coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron is done eliminating half a million jobs. Indeed, they hold about 80 percent of the low-pay, low-grade positions most at risk from the cuts, economists say.
About 45,000 public sector jobs were already lost in the last three months of 2010. In one indication of how women were affected, the number of female job seekers rose 12 percent in February, compared with a year earlier.
In those parts of the public sector so far more sheltered from the cuts, nearly three in four of those subject to a pay freeze are women, according to the Women’s Budget Group, an independent organization that has been analyzing the gender implications of British budgets since the 1990s. This will probably increase the pay gap, which last year stood at 15.5 percent for women in full-time employment.
Women also stand to suffer most from the deep cuts in benefits and services like shelters for battered women and child care facilities.
Child benefit payments, the “Surestart” maternity grant and the health in pregnancy grant are among the benefits that face freezes, cuts or outright elimination, Ms. Bird said.
One controversial issue, particularly in London, where the cost of living is among the highest in Europe, is the cut to child benefit payments for families where one parent earns about £44,000, or $72,500, or more a year from 2013. Currently, parents receive £20.30 a week for the oldest child and £13.40 for subsequent ones, with payments continuing until age 19 for children in full-time education. Oddly, a couple where each parent earns £43,000 would keep the child benefit, while a single parent earning £44,000 would not, Ms. Bird said.
All told, about 72 percent of the savings being made through increases in direct taxes and cuts in benefits approved in the government’s first budget last June have come out of women’s pockets, according to an estimate by the House of Commons Library, the independent research arm of Britain’s lower house of Parliament.
Add to that the new budget last month, and the average British household will lose public services worth 6.8 percent of its income to austerity. Single female retirees will lose 11.7 percent, and single mothers 18.5 percent, the Women’s Budget Group estimates.
Take Kerrie Hales, single mother of 5-year-old Miller, whose local public day care center in north London will shut down next year. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. She works full time at a design company, relying on the Camden Square Play Center to pick her son up from school and look after him until 6 p.m. for £4.80 a day because she cannot afford a private nanny.
Like many other mothers campaigning against the closure, she does not want to reduce hours at work but acknowledges she might have to.
The lesson for policy makers, said Monika Queisser, head of social policy at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is that budget cuts taking aim at child care could end up costing the economy more than saving it.
“You have to think about the long-term costs of austerity,” Ms. Queisser said. “Policies that help women combine work and family life will contribute to families’ economic resilience, boost economic growth and ultimately tax revenues. Policies that don’t risk doing the opposite.”
Kevin Daly of Goldman Sachs estimates that if Britain raised female employment rates to male levels, it would increase gross domestic product by about 8 percent and tax revenues along with that. (For the United States, the figure is 9 percent, and for the euro zone, a full 16 percent.)
This is a calculation for politicians as they ponder ways to ward off rating agencies and bond market vigilantes — particularly as signs are that the early pattern in the recession of men suffering more from unemployment appears to be reversing in several countries.
In the three months through February, the number of jobless men in Britain fell by 31,000, while the number of unemployed women rose by 14,000. In the United States, female unemployment also increased slightly in January and February, to 8 percent from 7.9 percent, even as it declined among men, to 8.7 percent from 8.8 percent. In both countries, economists say, female unemployment could soon overtake male unemployment, a trend likely to intensify with public sector job cuts.
As Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, put it in a recent blog post, “It seems clear that as the ‘womancession’ unfolds, women will get cut in more ways than one.”