A Sexist Recession

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S1: There are these numbers that I can’t get out of my mind about how women are being crushed in the covid economy. Women have lost over 12 million jobs since February. More than 150000 of those jobs were in December alone. We’ve lost jobs in the service sector, the hospitality industry, 90 percent of civil servants who lost their jobs in December were women. But even these numbers, I don’t think they do a good job of quantifying where women are at.

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S2: Hi, my name is Brittney and I am a teacher there.

S3: Hi. Hi. Hi.

S2: I’m calling in about your episode on the pandemic effect on women.

S1: When we opened up a phone line this week and asked all of you to weigh in on this topic. It was clear you’re hurting.

S2: I haven’t lost my job. I feel lucky to have it, but I feel like I’m losing my mind.

S4: I’m sorry, is this noise too much is little buzzing.

S5: A lot of women talked about feeling squeezed between work and home, especially the moms, I don’t sleep.

S6: I mean, I probably get like five hours of sleep a night. But that to me is a solid night of sleep. I mean, you know, we wake up, we get dressed, we get to the school. I start I come right back. I start work.

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S4: And I remember seeing a tweet from some punk ass kid, pardon my language, that was like, what are what are parents complaining about having to take care of their children during the day? Like this is what you signed up for. And I saw this response and I wish I remembered who had said it. We didn’t sign up to live in a society without schools.

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S1: Some people have called what’s happening right now as she session, but I hate that language, it feels like an awfully cute way to talk about a brutal grind.

S2: So I am going months at a time without having contact with another human adult. It’s just me and my three year old. What else to say about it, it’s just been really, really, really hard.

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S3: And don’t get me wrong, those days where I don’t want to get out of bed and I don’t want to do it, but it’s a mom as a mom and that’s their job. You get up, you do it and you get it done.

S1: And for the women who have lost work, their grind is compounded with free-floating anxiety about the future.

S2: covid has changed the way we live our lives. We don’t spend any money. We don’t have a lot of money to spend.

S7: And now I just kind of feel like I don’t even know what I would do next. It feels like I’m kind of starting over again. I’m just riding it out until we’re all vaccinated, you know, and then our options will open up some, I think and hope. But then at that point, you know who’s going to hire me? We’ll see.

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S5: Today on the show, if you listen in on enough of these conversations, you can sense patterns in the stories women are telling patterns that point to how he got here and why it’s going to be hard to fix, even with an infusion of cash from Washington. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

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S1: Someone else who’s listening to how women are doing during the crisis is a sociologist named Jess Calarco. She’s been following hundreds of mothers since they were pregnant back in 2013. She checks in with them every few weeks. So she’s been able to watch in real time as the coronavirus upends their home lives and their finances. Her work reveals the stories behind those monthly jobs numbers and just says the situation women find themselves in right now. It’s got a simple cause. It’s a matter of who we prioritize.

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S8: On average, men have gained jobs in December as opposed to women who have disproportionately continued to lose jobs. And I think it speaks to, as we have, as this pandemic has continued, we have focused on reopening the economy to the extent that that will get men in especially relatively affluent white men back to work, making sure that we are reopening factories, for example, manufacturing, as opposed to service sector industries. We’re certainly not doing much to to to support many of the small businesses that often do employ women, especially in the service sector, jobs like hairdressers and stylists, jobs like hotel cleaners, how jobs like food service workers. And those are disproportionately done by women and especially low income women of color. That’s what a lot of the jobs numbers that we see publicized are talking about those women who are being pushed into unemployment because of the way that the pandemic has affected what types of labor are safest and that people are utilizing. I think what those numbers often underplay, though, are a lot of other patterns that are simultaneously happening in the economy and that are also making things much more difficult for women in the workforce. Like what, for example, mothers who are effectively being pushed out of the workforce because they now have to combine or find some way to provide full time care or instruction for their children while also keeping their jobs, and that the tensions around that is pushing many women to decide to leave the workforce, that they could have had a job or could have kept their job. But the demands of trying to do both of trying to be both a full time caregiver for their children and sometimes for elderly relatives as well, in addition to being a full time worker or even a part time worker, is sometimes just too much to handle.

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S1: So what you seem to be saying is like there’s one layer of. Job loss happening and then underneath it, there’s like a whole other layer that we’re paying attention to, but it doesn’t come across in those brutal numbers every month exactly because of the way that we calculate unemployment.

S8: When we calculate unemployment statistics, we focus on people who are not in the workforce, but are actively looking for work. And so many of these women that are being pushed out of the workforce not because their jobs have gone away, but because they can no longer do their jobs. They’re not looking for work right now because they can’t look for work right now. And so those mothers aren’t counted in the unemployment statistics in the same way, it sounds like you’re saying it’s even worse than we think it is. I would say yes. And because even on top of those mothers who’ve been pushed out of the workforce, there’s also the women who are finding ways to continue working either full time or part time while providing all of that extra care at home. And even though those women might still be employed, they’re certainly facing setbacks in their careers, in their ability to compete with co-workers who don’t have the same caregiving responsibilities and who may be able to take on that extra work assignment or work the full 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week to get things done and look like the ideal worker that many women and especially mothers with disproportionate care responsibilities are not able to put in that time right now. And the mothers that I’ve talked to in some of the interviews that we’ve done talk about feeling like failures as both workers and as mothers. They’re saying, yes, I’m still employed, but I can’t do my job well and I can’t be the kind of mother that I want to be. So I just feel like a failure all the time.

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S1: I’m curious how your study, because you’re talking to more than 100 women pretty regularly, I’m wondering how you’d characterize the way the women you’re talking to changing like from the spring until now. Do you feel like there’s more desperation now? Do you feel like there’s more people are more resigned now? How would you characterize like sort of a more global change in the women you talk to?

S8: It depends a little bit on mothers resources.

S1: The moms just speaks to who work in the service industry are mostly low-income. Seeing their jobs disappear in the pandemic was scary. And for a lot of them, when federal support ran out in July, things got rough.

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S8: I talked to one man, an unemployed unpartnered mother who was struggling financially. I mean, she was trying to use her week benefits to get diapers and wipes for her son, but the store was regularly out of them. And so she was going to food pantries, into local churches, trying to find diapers and trying to find wipes and didn’t have extra money to be able to buy those with. So she couldn’t just go on Amazon and buy those things for her family and feeling much more stressed economically, worrying about making ends meet for her family, worrying about putting food on the table and deeply stressed.

S1: Most of the white collar moms in this study were spared this kind of financial anxiety. But when schools and daycares closed, nearly all of them started shouldering a disproportionate share of the childcare burden. And even if the women didn’t lose their jobs, the pandemic made it hard to keep working.

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S9: One mom that I talked to, she is a mental health counselor. And so when the pandemic hit, she was transitioning to doing telehealth appointments. And ironically, at the time, her husband was actually taking some time off between ending at a previous job and starting a new job. He had like eight weeks of paid time off that he could use from his previous job. And so they said, hey, this is perfect. He can stay home. He can watch their toddler full time while mom is working from home as a telehealth counselor. What quickly happened, though, was that dad had never been a full time care provider before. He’d actually spent relatively little time caring for their young daughter. And so it quickly devolved into him, constantly interrupting mom during the workday, trying to kind of figure out, hey, where are the diapers? What am I supposed to do with her next? He would regularly let her daughter sort of wander in during her telehealth appointments, how in some cases when she was dealing with patients who were grappling with suicidal ideation or dealing with other kinds of traumatic situations.

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S1: And she became, oh, God, I’m so mad for this mom right now. Oh, my gosh.

S9: And I was and she was mad, too. She she described how she would come out after her appointments and just yell at her husband like, this is completely inappropriate. You can’t do this. And she’s one of those moms who said, you know what I like once he goes back to work, I think I’m done. Like, I just I can’t do this anymore, that the stress of being a counselor during the pandemic, but then also the stress of having to deal with still being the primary parent, even when her husband has the time to be the full time caregiver, was just too much. And she just decided that it wasn’t worth it to stay in the workforce cut.

S1: And that could just follow her for the rest of her life, like it’s losing her income stream and losing a year of work. And I mean, we have real data on what that can do to your prospects for the future.

S9: Right, exactly. Once women leave the workforce, even if they only intend it temporarily, it becomes much less likely that they will come back to their jobs in the future. And even if they do, they’re set back on. A career ladder, they’re not going to be as competitive for promotions, they’re not going to be as competitive for higher wages, and that sets back their long term earning potential then as well.

S1: I wonder if you see a decision like that that seems very individual and does make a kind of sense. But you see it from a different perspective of, you know, the whole reason the mom is going to make that decision is because of the incentive structure all around her.

S8: Exactly. And thinking about things like the gender pay gap, where we know that most women, if they’re in different gender partnerships, make less than their men partners. And so that leads to very, quote unquote, logical decisions in terms of whose job should be sacrificed when push comes to shove and you have to give up someone’s work time in order to help the first grader with online learning or help the toddler get down for naps or feed the baby.

S1: Yeah, I mean, there’s something you’re quoted as saying that really stuck with me. You said in the U.S., most of us aren’t taught to use our sociological imaginations. I just loved that idea. You were talking about how a lot of us see the choices we’re making as individual and, you know, see the incentives that are there. But we don’t think about how the incentives got there in the first place. What kind of structures are already in place that may be Heming in our free choice. Can you explain that a little bit more sort of in the in the context of what you’re seeing?

S9: Sure. So, I mean, the sociological imagination is a concept from sociologist C. Wright Mills, which is getting at this idea that that people’s lives are shaped by social forces that were not always fully aware of and that we often take for granted because we’re in them and because we are so in them that we see them as normal. And so a sociological imagination is about seeing those social forces, seeing that our lives and our outcomes and other people’s lives and outcomes are shaped not only by our individual choices, but by these larger forces, things like capitalism and racism and sexism and kind of the the incentives that those systems create that then. Provide the context in which we can actually make choices and oftentimes put constraints around or different incentives on the kinds of choices that we can actually make. And so certainly in the case of the pandemic and women’s employment and the decisions that couples are making about how to balance the added caregiving responsibilities that come with the pandemic, it’s so easy for women especially to blame themselves and the rhetoric that exists in our society, the sort of emphasis on our sort of up by your bootstraps self-help book culture that tells women especially that if they just follow this 17 step plan, they can fix their relationships or have it all in their careers or be happy or have happy kids. And what that ignores is, is the huge structural forces that often limit people’s ability to to have it all and to be successful and blames women and leave them and blaming themselves when they’re not able to to have those kinds of outcomes that they desire.

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S1: Yeah, I mean, I think what’s interesting about what you’re saying is that I think in a lot of what I’ve read about women and the economy and covid, what I’ve read sort of encourages us to think about the women who are choosing to leave the workforce as pretty separate from the women who are being forced out of the workforce. And what happens when you look at it through the lens you’re talking about is you realize that those two kinds of women who, yes, have very different financial circumstances are actually tied together and are making decisions or having decisions forced on them for some of the same reasons.

S9: Absolutely. And I think it’s all linked to the devaluing of labor that we see as feminine labor, especially caregiving labor in this country. We do not buy kind of policy pay women to stay home after childbirth. Many other countries do provide or ensure paid leave for women following childbirth in the U.S. We that the most we do for women, at least on a broad policy level, is to guarantee unpaid leave. And that doesn’t even apply to all women. And so that that’s one example of a direct devaluing of kind of feminised caregiving, labor. But that extends to other parts of the economy as well. I mean, child care workers, for example, are among the lowest paid workers in our economy, despite the fact that the work they do allows so many other people in the workforce to be able to stay employed and to make more money than those child care workers are able to earn from themselves. Teachers are another great example. And certainly research shows that as a as any profession becomes a primarily women, the income relative to other similar professions goes down. And that’s happened to a number of different types of jobs in our economy throughout history. And it speaks directly to this idea that we systematically devalue women’s labor, whether that’s labor that happens in the home or labor that happens in the workforce. And so when we think about the kinds of jobs that have been lost and our refusal to pay those workers to to continue working or pay those kinds of employers to keep their workers having enough salary to get by, that’s a devaluing of that labor. That’s saying that labor isn’t worth enough.

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S10: And similarly, when we say that women are being pushed out of the workforce because they can’t simultaneously care for their children and be these ideal workers were devaluing the cost of that labor, of providing child care, providing full time care for four children or four elderly family members or sick family members in a way that is disproportionately impacting women.

S1: When we come back, there are ways to make the economy work for women. Just just isn’t sure the U.S. is ready for them. Looking at the circumstances of women in the workforce today, I think a lot about this big experiment we tried in this country to make their lives better. This is back in World War two, when the U.S. government provided paid child care that allowed women to work. It was a short lived program put in place to allow men to leave the workforce and go fight. It was also a big if brief restructuring of the social safety net. But just Calarco. She is not optimistic that U.S. policymakers are ready to try anything this bold again, just because the pandemic has scrambled our lives. She looks at the Biden administration’s plans and says there are too meager.

S9: I think we are in a moment where the possibility for a massive restructuring of our social safety net is possible, but I’m not convinced that it will actually come to fruition. Why not? When push comes to shove, we have almost always in our history chosen to prioritize the employment of men and especially white men over women’s employment, as you were saying in the wake of World War Two. I mean, unlike in Europe, where they really needed everyone to stay in the workforce and where they really needed women to continue working because of the destruction to the economy and the destruction to their society, they provided all of these safety net programs, paid maternity leave, paid child care, affordable childcare that made it possible for women to stay in the workforce. Whereas here we didn’t need women working for the economy. And so we actively pushed women back home. And arguably, it’s not entirely clear that we need the full employment that we had before, at least from the perspective of policymakers. And so I’m very worried that because of the indicators that we use to determine the health of our nation’s economy, then that tells us that we don’t actually need women in the workforce and that we don’t actually need to invest in the kinds of policies that would make it possible for women to return to jobs that they’ve lost during the pandemic. And I’m concerned that because of the likely pushback in our highly polarized system, the policies that we end up with will be half measures that some in our legislature can point to as successes that ultimately fail to provide the kind of support that women especially actually need.

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S1: Yeah, I mean, one of the things you said really early on was that you were finding when you spoke to women during the pandemic, they were often blaming themselves for whatever kinds of binds they were finding themselves in. Like, I’m not the best worker, I’m not the best mom right now. And of course, you can’t blame yourself for a pandemic, but it’s what we do and it’s what we’ve been taught to do. And you make this point that, like, that’s how these cultural norms survive and that they become so ingrained in how women think of themselves that they can’t think their way out of them. And it seems like these cultural biases. It’s just very hard to put a policy in place that. Will shift them?

S9: Yeah, I I think then we have to think about the structure of incentives like we’ve been talking about, and that sometimes you can change culture by changing incentives. And so if you can provide full time, when we provide affordable child care, for example, women are much more likely to go back to work that women’s workforce participation increases substantially. So essentially, when we make it lower cost for women to to go back to work, then that becomes an example in terms of men. The more that we can make sure that things like childcare worker jobs and teachers jobs are paid at a level that it’s not just considered women’s work because those women are expected to have a husband who can provide a salary that they could actually live on, but that men would be interested in doing those jobs as well. And the more that we can reduce the stigma around men doing care work, I think those things have to go along with those kinds of pushes to make sure that this isn’t just reinforcing the kinds of unequal divisions of labor that we see in our society right now. The one piece of this that I am hopeful about is that there are these conversations like this one that are happening and that there is this seemingly growing recognition among women that this problem is much bigger than their individual lives. Because I think one of the key problems is that because our society is so deeply unequal economically and racially, that the women who have the most power and resources to to actually push for change have the least incentive to do so because of how they benefit from the status quo, that even if they’re hurting right now, they’re hurting far less than many others, and that there’s often the fear that if they work towards social safety net programs or changes in policy that would benefit others, it would benefit others more than themselves or might set them back, relatively speaking, to other people. And so I think the more that we can kind of inspire collective rage and push women not only to feel angry for themselves, but for other women and especially for other women who may be facing more hardship than themselves, I think that’s where there’s there’s real hope for the possibility of change.

S11: Just Calarco, thank you so much for talking. Thank you so much for having me. Just Calarco is a professor of sociology at Indiana University and that is the show What Next is produced by Lena Schwartz, Mary Wilson, Davis Land and Danielle Hewitt, Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. Make sure the trains run on time around here. And I’m Mary Harris. Stay tuned to the speech tomorrow. Our Friday show, What Next? TBD with Lizzie O’Leary is going to be waiting for you. And I will be right back here to meet you on Monday.