The Gendered Anatomy of the Great Recession

As I was heading to school on an early September morning in 2008, I heard on the radio the description of what would be the catalytic trigger to the crash of many economies: the declared bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. As a ninth grader, little did I know that this one event would bring about enormous change to communities all over the world.

As with any large-scale event, it is not a surprise that the change resulting from the Great Recession is multi-faceted and affected all corners of the globe. Upon taking a gender studies course at UBC, I revisited this financial crisis with a focus on how marginalized groups were affected. The effects of the economic failures on the female population reveal the gendered architecture of the global financial system.

Firstly, the reduction of tax rates is a common reaction from governments to a recession. Shown in a study by Mike Brewer and Liam Wren-Lewis, during 2002-2009, British lower- to middle-income households (LMI) received four times more tax credits than the rest of British households. At the same time, income excluding tax credits fell. Thus, their conclusion was that LMI households were becoming more reliant on tax credits. If the government lowers tax rates, then there would be less support for not only LMI households, but also government-funded programs like childcare. Rigid gender expectations and stereotypes have contributed to the concept of “Motherhood Mystique,” which says that women achieve fulfillment through being involved in all aspects of their children’s lives and the belief that women are the best providers of emotional, physical, and intellectual needs.

Motherhood Mystique largely contributes to the structure of the nuclear family. With defined gender roles, the role of women in a family are largely influenced by gender complementarity ideas, for instance, the principle that one partner should be the “breadwinner”, while the other role complements the breadwinner by being the “stay-at-home” partner who mainly engages in domestic labour. This is extremely limiting as female gender expectations are pre-determined by socially constructed norms. In a recent Pew Research study, it was found that the mother takes on the role as the breadwinner in 40% of U.S. households. As a result, these findings set off some alarms as this trend is incongruous to the principles that the social construction of genders exhibits. Not surprisingly, when economic resources within a family are limited, the consequences of Motherhood Mystique can become accentuated. This Motherhood Mystique largely limits female participation in the workforce if the so-called “motherly duties” are not first attended to. By domesticizing the role of a woman in the family, coupled with a decrease in financial support for childcare programs during recessions, it poses barriers for the mother to participate in the workforce. At the same time, if the employment of women contributes to the empowerment of women in their households, the erasure of a source of their empowerment – their employment – would detrimentally impact their roles in the family. This leads to the discussion of one way in which unemployment has also triggered gendered consequences.

The unemployment rate in the U.S.A. reached a record high of 9.6% in 2010, and the Euro Zone saw a rate of 12% in 2013. The World Bank, in this article, indicated that the industries impacted the most heavily were the export-oriented sectors – such as textiles and mining.

While it may not be as apparent in the U.S.A. and in Canada, women’s employment levels are highest in low-skilled, export-oriented jobs. This study indicates that the proportion of female employment in export-oriented industries exceeded 70%. Why is it that females dominate these industries? The non-unionized nature of labour contracts, coupled with the concept of “mommy track” adds flexibility to hiring women. The “Mommy Track” concept maintains that the ethics of motherhood are incongruous to work ethics: Mothers need to spend time taking care of their children, yet employers want to see their employees prioritize their professional duties as well. The interruptions of motherhood lead to the “motherhood penalty” of reduced earnings, increased obstacles in advancing the corporate ladder, and in the case of the export-oriented industries, unemployment. With a gendered structure in employment, women are often placed in a vulnerable position with less formal work arrangements, leading to greater economic risks.

When I mention the financial crisis of 2008, the words “bankruptcy”, “subprime mortgages”, “GDP”, or other economic terms are often the first to come to mind. However, the impacts of the crisis did not affect only world economies, but human lives as well. By running on a gendered system, many of the marginalized are put at a higher risk and are much more susceptible to the consequences. While virtually every nation on the planet was impacted by the crisis, it is important to observe the disproportionate impacts that were felt by certain populations. It is imperative that policies attentive to gender implications are integrated into the financial system.