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What gender is your recession?

Over the past nine months watching mainstream media coverage of the global economic downturn, I’ve noticed men coming across as the main economic actors. The bankers and auto execs coming to government with their hands out are mostly men. The politicians brokering these bailouts are mostly men. And perhaps most importantly, the vast majority of people losing their jobs are men, making up 82% of recessionary layoffs in the United States, and 71% in Canada.

The fact that men are losing their jobs at such high numbers has spurred the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives to adopt the term “he-cession," coined recently to describe the way men are being laid off en masse. Last week Statistics Canada reported a 161.6% increase in people applying for EI benefits in Vancouver since July 2008. With job losses here particularly in the male-dominated realms of finance, manufacturing, and construction, the recession in Vancouver seems to be reflecting the North American trends.

I wondered what this “he-cession” means for women, so I took on some research of my own.

It turns out that the mainstream North American media have been looking on the bright side, with the Globe and Mail hailing women as Canada’s “reserve army of labour” and calling women over 55 “the recession’s true prize winners." The New York Times is reporting that American women are poised to make up 50% of the nation’s workforce for the first time in history, and Foreign Policy magazine is proclaiming “the death of macho” in our economy.

But the fact that fewer women are losing their jobs may simply be a symptom of continuing sexism in our workforce rather than a beacon of hope for women’s equality. Though women’s jobs are currently seen as more “recession-proof” then men’s, this may be due to women’s predominance in part-time, on-call, and low-paid “pink-collar” occupations that are not currently the main targets of layoffs.

This means that many women in nuclear families are being asked to do more with less if their husbands are laid off. For example, the 2006 census recorded that Vancouver women with a graduate degree averaged annual earnings of $46,000 compared to $73,982 for men, with similar income gaps across educational levels. When a woman becomes the main household breadwinner under these circumstances, it only serves to remind us how little we have valued women’s labour in the public sphere.

Of course we also need to remember that women are still doing the lion’s share of unpaid work at home. According to the 2006 census, 40% of Vancouver women spent 15 hours or more a week on unpaid housework, as compared to only 20% of men. Likewise, women were more likely to spend significant amounts of time on unpaid child and senior care. Just because a man loses his job, we can’t assume this means he’s suddenly going to start cooking dinner and cleaning the kitty litter while his wife works. Studies and surveys in the U.S., Australia, and the U.K. have shown that the gender division of household labour has persisted through the recession, even in cases where the man is unemployed or works fewer hours than the woman.

Because of these factors I’m having a hard time adopting a view that this recession is part of a battle of the sexes and is indicating a win for women’s equality. It’s clear the recession is hitting both genders hard. Men are experiencing the most job losses, but many women will be facing even more pressure to make ends meet on their unequal salaries and continuing to shoulder most of the housework in their off-time.

Hopefully we can use this recession to take a hard look at the way gender is shaping the paid and unpaid labour we are expected to do. I, for one, hope we don’t just return to a situation where men and women are back at work but with the same inequalities in income and opportunity as before.

But we aren’t out of the woods yet. We’re seeing signs that the next round of layoffs will be in the female-dominated service and public sectors, with reports of potential future job losses in the hospitality industry and possible cutbacks to libraries and health authorities in and around Vancouver. If things play out as predicted there may be a lot more women looking for work and gender dynamics may change further. The she-cession may be just around the corner.

[1] New York Times, February 5, 2009, “As Layoffs Surge, Women May Pass Men in the Job Force”

[2] CCPA. Behind the Numbers. “Canada’s ‘he-cession’” July 2009

[3] Globe and Mai, Jul. 27, 2009, l “Why Women are the Reserve Army of Labour”

Jarrah Hodge is a local blogger and former UBC student whose writing focuses on gender issues

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