Beyond boob jobs – how might the credit crunch affect women?

Carolyn Roberts digs beyond headlines about the impact of the credit crunch on makeup sales and cosmetic surgery, to consider how the financial crisis may affect women in the UK

Carolyn Roberts, 4 November 2008

The Great Depression. Once a dusty piece of history, it's now making the news all over again as the favoured prism through which to view the current economic predicament. Our TV screens are full of flickering images of weary, mustachioed men tramping down monochrome streets and forming endless spiraling queues outside banks and labour exchanges. But where were the women in those faraway days? And where will we be in the coming crisis?

Well, in the 1930s, women were mostly trying to feed families on ever-decreasing incomes, hold families together and, if they were employed, deal with the disapproval of a society which accused them of stealing jobs from men - many of whom had fought in World War I and resented the steps into the workplace that women had made in their absence. These steps were soon reversed in the face of increasing unemployment, as Fiona Montgomery makes clear in her book, Women's Rights – Struggles and Feminism in Britain. She says: "By 1921... no more women were employed than had been in the pre-war economy."

As usual, it will be those who are poorer and have fewer job opportunities, family contacts and protective networks that will be worst affected

So the last great recession saw women being pushed back into a traditional role, and made to feel guilty if they continued to work outside the home. But does this have any bearing on the future we might be facing in 2008? Are we going to be pressured to give up our jobs in favour of men, and retreat into the kitchen? I'm not going to pretend I know the answer. The fact is that despite the army of analysts constantly marching across our TV screens, brandishing their latest economic theory with confidence, nobody actually has a clue what is going to happen. The most honest response that I have seen anywhere came from the blog Feminist Finance

"I am quite convinced no-one else really knows what is going on. No one. From Paulson and Bernanke, to Bush and Cheney, to Dodd and Schumer and everyone else on the Senate Finance Committee, to the pundits and journalists trying to describe the scene, to just about everybody else, no one is sure how we got to DefCon 3 seemingly overnight--or even whether that's truly where we are right now. We're all just groping about trying to find something that sounds like a plausibly complete explanation".

So this is not an attempt to pretend I have any more of a grasp on this than you do. I don't care how many pinstripe suits you own, or London School of Economics degrees you possess, the current situation is baffling. This article is simply an attempt to raise some pertinent questions – and, surely, lots of other people must be doing the same. You know, proper journalists and newspapers and stuff, right? Wrong. At the time of writing, googling "women and the credit crunch" turns up:

  • A story about an overweight woman who lost her job, started her own business and lost five stones.
  • The reassuring news that the credit crunch is not affecting cosmetic sales (apparently because women would rather go without food than makeup – or more accurately, women shopping on a beauty product website – so no possible bias there then).
  • A cosmetic surgery company's announcement of an 135% increase in breast augmentation procedures, with the tasteful statement, "as the economy is going bust, UK women are boosting theirs."

Plus countless articles on ways to "beat the credit crunch" and continue dressing stylishly / having expensive haircuts / buying makeup on a budget. Even in recession, a woman's appearance is perceived as her most interesting facet. Articles aimed at women assume that our interest in finance begins and ends with whether we can still afford to buy lipstick. Thankfully, Salon has recently stepped in with a thoughtful article on this very subject. It points out that, in the US, women were disproportionately offered the subprime mortgages that started this whole collapse, and wonders why this should be, given that women generally have better credit scores.

It's actually possible that in the UK, women may in some ways be better off than men. More than half of the men currently living alone in the UK own their home, compared with two-fifths of single women. Women are also more likely to rent from the social sector than men, according to the Office for National Statistics' September report on communities and local government. These facts may mean that women are less likely to face repossessions, either of their own home or that of their landlord. However, women head nine out of 10 one-parent families, and these women are now facing oddly contradictory scenarios: the government is putting increased pressure on them to get paid employment, while predicting that the number of jobs available will fall. And any increase in unemployment will hit women hard. The impact of the crash was first felt in the predominantly male sector of construction, as builders cancelled projects due to the evaporating housing market, but this had an immediate effect on ancillary industries, such as estate agents and solicitors – many of whom are women. And we're now seeing layoffs in the financial services industry – an area with significant levels of female employees.

As we cut back on luxuries, will we see disproportionate numbers of women losing their jobs?

Official labour market statistics released in October show a much bigger impact on men: the number of people in full-time employment fell by 152,000 in the three months to August 2008 and, of these, a startling 149,000 were men. But this is less surprising when you consider than more men that women are in employment in the first place, and that women are more than three times as likely to work part-time. The only industries where women outnumber men are distribution, hotels and restaurants, and services. Services includes education, health and public administration, and since these areas are funded by taxation, it's fair to assume it will be several years before they are affected. However, hotels, restaurants and other services are non-essentials, and as such will be hit early on. So as we cut back on luxuries, will we see disproportionate numbers of women losing their jobs?

The trouble with tracking change in turbulent times is that figures become outdated even before they are published, so it would be silly to attach too much importance to currently available statistics. However, it's interesting to note that the number of people in part-time employment actually rose by 30,000 in the last quarter. Does this suggest that the economic downturn will lead to an increase in the type of part-time, flexible work that has traditionally suited women? And if so, is this a good thing? It's hard to say: it might help to keep families afloat, but it also does nothing to challenge the status quo in terms of gender roles and parenting responsibilities.

The truth is that there can be no neat conclusion here. We are all facing uncertainty, and undoubtedly some women will be hit harder than others. As usual, it will be those who are poorer and have fewer job opportunities, family contacts and protective networks that will be worst affected. There are unlikely to be any quick solutions, but we can at least hope that the UK mainstream media will make some attempt at a sensible analysis of women's specific experiences. Fewer puns about "boom and bust" from the cosmetic surgery industry would also be welcome.

About the author

Carolyn Roberts

Carolyn Roberts is based in Glasgow. Despite being the proud owner of an 'A' in higher economics, she is completely flummoxed by the sudden onset of global economic Armageddon

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