• Women Facing Crisis and Austerity

  • By Christiane Marty | 08 May 12 | Posted under: Feminisms
  • The crisis has very negative effects on society as a whole, especially on women. The austerity policies established in Europe are making the populations pay by sparing those responsible, namely the major banks. As an additional injustice, these policies, by ignoring any analysis of the differences in effect on men and women, not only do nothing to correct them but aggravate them.

    It is essential to make this fact known, not only to establish men and women as victims but because it shows the injustice of the policies that hit even harder at sections of the population which are already in a situation of inequality. Essential actors in the social movements and in building alternatives to present policies, women must take their full place in making their points of view and their proposals heard.

    This contribution proposes to make the above more explicit, as it affects the European countries and France in particular. It is an effort to place things in their context, without claiming to be exhaustive.


    The crisis hits women especially

    Men and women do not have the same place on the labour market nor in the private sphere because of gender inequalities. They are over-represented in the informal, insecure and low paid form of employment and under-represented at all levels of decision-making in the economic field. Women are more exposed to job insecurity, to sacking and to poverty and less covered by systems of social security. As a consequence of this difference in situation, the crisis has different impacts depending on gender. In periods of recession, people already threatened by poverty are more vulnerable, particularly those who are subjected to multiple discrimination: unmarried mothers, young people, old people, immigrants …

    Women are harder hit in various ways. This is a fact noted by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the European Parliament and many organisations. The crisis “only worsens the traditionally unfavourable position of women” [Reference 1]. The ITUC recalls that“the impact of the crisis on employment tends to be under-estimated and never reaches the front pages of newspapers. Nevertheless, in general, women are the first affected by precariousness and the growing job insecurity”, which is hardly reflected in official statistics. The standard indicators, indeed, do not grasp the extent of the increase in economic insecurity that is hitting women and too often the gender-based data is missing.


    The consequences of the crisis on employment

    Even though the situation varies depending on the sectors of activity, the impact of the crisis on employment shows certain major tendencies: the increase in the level of unemployment, a great increase in insecure and informal jobs as well as of poverty. Each of these hits women even more strongly.

    In the European Union, the sectors that were first to be hard hit by the crisis were those in which men were the majority: building, industry, transport – these were also those on which revival plans were concentrated. The increase in the rate of unemployment for men was highest between 2007 and in 2009: their unemployment rate reached that of women. It was 9.6% in 2010 for both men and women.

    At the same time, women in part time work suffered reduction of working hours. The unemployment statistics do not reflect this because they define job seekers as people without any job seeking employment (Category A). People who are underemployed (who want to work more, categories B and C in “reduced activity”), the majority of whom are women, do not appear in the published unemployment statistics. In some countries, women are removed from the active-population figures if unemployed. This also contributes to the under-estimation of the effects of the crisis on women’s unemployment.

    The first phase of the crisis, with the highest increase in men’s unemployment, was followed by a second phase in which the predominantly feminine sectors were hit: the public services, health and education …

    In France, the unemployment rates for men and women became the same in 2009, but from 2010 the unemployment rate for women again became higher.


    See graph (i):

    France: changes in the unemployment rates for men and women.

    below and as documentation on the right   


    As the analysis by Françoise Milewski1, shows, it is not enough to note the development of unemployment by comparing it with those for employment and hiding the development of part-time work, which is a form of partial unemployment. Women were less hit by loss of employment than by the increase of the rate of under-employment through part-time work at the same time as the sharp increase in their rate of unemployment in “reduced activity”. The crisis has strengthened the earlier trends in the labour market and part-time has played the role of shock absorber for women.

    Moreover, the crisis has led to the multiplication of precarious jobs, with short hours and very low wages, mainly affecting women. The partial unemployment of men and women has not been treated in the same way. In the motorcar industry, men being subjected to a reduction in their activity have benefitted from compensatory measures. However, nothing of the kind has been planned for the reduction in activity of women in part-time work. The idea that the unemployment of men is more serious than that of women is still very strong. In fact, unemployed men are paid a higher rate than unemployed women (64% as against 57%).

    The growth of precarious and informal employment

    Recourse to precarious and informal work2 has increased because of the crisis. In fact, what is involved is an acceleration of a fundamental tendency that makes the “informalisation” of labour the characteristic of all labour markets. This trend, indeed, affects women most, especially immigrants. Despite a lack of gender-defined statistics, field studies note the over-representation of women in the informal sector – in vulnerable jobs and part-time work –, a lower rate of pay than for men doing the same work and more limited access to social services. All of which, according to the ITUC undermines their rights, perpetuates inequality in society between the sexes and limits the perspective of lasting economic progress”.

    For its part, the ETUC notes an alarming fact regarding the changes in women’s working conditions in Europe in terms of working hours, wages and contracts. Feminine jobs have become more precarious, there is everywhere an increase in workload, pressure, stress, moral and psychological harassment and off-the-books hiring. The number of undeclared women workers has appreciably increased, especially in the domestic sector.

    The European Parliament, through two resolutions [References 2 and 3], drew attention to the fact that this situation has not received the attention it deserved:“the financial end economic crisis in Europe has particularly negative repercussions on women, who are more exposed to job insecurity and sackings and less covered by social security systems”. Unfortunately, such warnings have not been followed by any effective action, which calls into question the real powers of the European Parliament.


    The increase in poverty

    The increase in poverty affects people who are out of work as well as those with employment. The European Parliament notes that“female poverty remains hidden in the statistics and in the social security regimes”. In its 2010 annual report on equality between men and women, the Commission notes that women are more exposed to the danger of poverty, especially those over 65 years of age, with a 22% risk of poverty (16% for men), for single mothers (35%) and other groups of women, such as those belonging to an ethic minority.

    See graph (ii):


     Relative risk of poverty for men and women by age group, OECD average, mid-2000s


    below and as documentation on the right


    The impact of austerity plans on women

    The countries having the highest level of social security and public services have been better able to resist recession – yet these are precisely the bases of the social state that are being subjected to budget cuts! Women are doubly affected as the principal employees in the public sector and the principal users of social services.

    Over fifteen European countries have instituted such measures. At the end of 2010, the European Parliament noted that: “female unemployment is in danger of increasing disproportionally because of announced budget cuts in the public sector, since women are employed at a particularly high rate in education, health and social services”.

    The civil service is indeed largely staffed by females. In the United Kingdom, women represent 65% of the employees in the public sector, and they will suffer the most among those affected by the announcement of the cutting of 400,000 jobs.

    In France, one civil servant in two is not being replaced on retirement. In the 2008-2012 period, this was equivalent to the suppression of 150,000 equivalent full-time jobs in the civil service, which means that many fewer are being recruited. Further regarding the elimination of jobs, civil servants are suffering from wage cuts in about a dozen states, some of which are as high as 25%, for example in Romania, Portugal or Greece. In France their wages have been frozen.

    Reductions in social security and social services

    Throughout Europe social protection and security budgets are being subjected to drastic reduction: decreasing unemployment benefits, social grants, help to families, maternity allowances, services to dependent people, etc. Similarly, reductions are hitting essential services such as childcare, social services and health. In France, many pre-school classes, maternity and abortion centres have been closed. Whereas the number of dependant people is increasing, the budgets allocated to them are stagnating or being amputated.

    The cuts in social security and health services especially affect women to the extent that they have to assume the role of the main heads of the family. Women find themselves obliged to cover those services from which the state is withdrawing, which increases their difficulty in carrying out their family and professional lives. The increased unpaid work load in their private lives occurs at the expense of their jobs, which reinforces the gender inequalities on the labour market and in women’s schedules, as is noted by the European Institute for Gender Equality [Reference 4].

    In France the reform of dependency measures has been postponed to 2012 because of the plan to reduce deficits. Nevertheless, it was urgent since the present situation is intolerable, especially for the family careers of the dependent people (mainly women): they assume a very heavy responsibility and workload3 that penalises them in their jobs (working part time or ceasing to work) and affects their health (physical or nervous exhaustion). It is all the more untenable in that many dependent people are in a situation of poverty, and the suspension, in November 2007, of indexing social services to the rate of inflation has meant a drop in their standard of living.


    Attacks on pensioners

    Nearly all the European countries have recently “reformed” their retirement systems. The general trend has been towards privatisation and making the amount paid as pensions dependent on the contribution amount. This new closer relationship arises from a decline of the correcting mechanisms (bonuses linked to responsibility for children, minimum pension levels) that had a redistributive effect for women, attenuating the negative effects on their contributions through having children. Everywhere, the average pension for women is less than that for men because of interrupted careers, part-time working or lower wages. These correcting mechanisms are insufficient since the inequality between men and women is amplified when they pass from wages to pensions. In France, the average overall pension for women is only 62% of that for men4, although their average wage is 80% of that for men. Even so these protective mechanisms are being attacked! Reinforcing the link between contributions paid and the pension amount means doubling the global penalisation of women.

    The drop in pensions will have the consequence of still further exposing women to poverty. The European Commission notes that“pauperisation threatens pensioners and that old women are one of the groups most exposed to the danger of poverty”.

    The trend is also to align the age of retirement of women to that of men in those countries where there is such a difference and to reduce the pension amounts.

    The “reform” carried out in France in 2010 amplified the regression already taking place [Reference 5]. Since women were, on average, required to pay more years of contributions than men, any lengthening of this period disproportionately affects them as does the postponement of the age at which the rating “relief” for people with too short a career (most of whom are women) is applied.

    We should also mention that the budgets for policies in favour of equality between men and women have also been the first to be written off in various countries, as was noted by the European Parliament.



    Some lessons can be learned from the light cast on the effects of the crisis on women. First, that no policy should be decided at a national or international level without a prior analysis of its effects on gender. This was a commitment made by the states during the 4th World Conference of Women in Beijing in 1995 … and never applied!

    Similarly the programmes of political parties, like the proposals put forward by the social movements, should systematically integrate the aspect of gender and the objective of equality between men and women – not only because it is a matter of social justice but also because policies regarding equality constitute part of the solution for emerging from the crisis.

    Indeed, going back to the sources of gender inequality enables one to become aware of the importance of a whole area of human activity, hitherto essentially performed by women, that covers the economics of caring: invisible and unpaid work carried out in the private domain and under-valued work in the public sphere. The crisis reminds us of the importance of collective well-being and of the importance of high quality social security and public services.

    At a time when they need to be developed (crèches, organisations to assist dependent people, etc.) they are being attacked on all sides. Yet these sectors represent an enormous potential for growth turned towards social needs. Austerity is not unavoidable [Reference 6]. The crisis is an opportunity for profoundly transforming the modes of production and consumption. Policies must, as a priority, meet social and environmental needs and put forward rules to this end. Because they are increasingly under attack, daily needs and the economics of caring must regain an often forgotten importance.

    It is most important that these concerns, which are too often still those of women, become the concern of us all. Making these fundamental requirements heard and giving them more weight than the markets is the issue of our times.




    CSI, “Vivre dans l’insécurité économique: les femmes et le travail précaire”, mars 2011 (ITUC: “Living with economic insecurity: women in precarious work”).

    European Parliament Resolution of 17 June 2010 on aspects regarding equality between men and women in the context of economic recession and financial crisis (2009/2204 INI).

    European Parliament Resolution of 19 October 2010 on wages and the situation of insecure work (2010/2018 INI).

    EIGE (European Institute for Gender Equality), “Report on Reconciliation of Work and Family Life as a Condition of Equal Participation in the Labour Market”, 2011.  

    Retraites, l’heure de vérité” Syllepse 2010. Coordination JM. Harribey, P. Khalfa, C. Marty. (Pensions, the hour of truth)   

    Le piège de la dette de la dette publique” (The trap of debt and of public debt) Attac, Éditions Les liens qui libèrent, avril 2011. “Le manifeste d’économistes atterrés”, Les liens qui libèrent, 2010.




    Chômage et emploi des femmes dans la crise en France, Françoise Milewski, Letter from the OFCE (Observatoire français des conjonctures économiques – Centre de recherche en économie de Science Po), May 2010.

    2)  By job insecurity, the ETUC means non-permanent, temporary and intermittent work.

    3)  “Prise en charge de la dépendance: un double enjeu pour les femmes” 2011 (Assuming responsibility for dependence: A double issue for women) Christiane Marty gesd.free.fr/enjeu2f.pdf

    4)  Drees, figures from 2004.


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