The effect of austerity on unpaid work and gender relations in Europe

Level: leicht
Lotte Maaßen | Exploring Economics, 2017
The effect of austerity on unpaid work and gender relations in Europe

Perspektive: Feministische Ökonomik
Thema: Arbeit & Care, Krise
Format: Text

The effect of austerity on unpaid work and gender relations in Europe

Author: Lotte Maaßen

Review: PhD Giulia Zacchia

This is an essay of the writing workshop Gender and the Economy - Perspektives of Feminist Economics, published on 20 July 2017.



The economic crisis of 2008/2009 had severe impacts on a great part of the European population. Households faced drastic decreases in their incomes, the availability of jobs. Additionally,  the structure of the labour market changed, while austerity measures and public spending cuts left households with less support and safeguards provided by the state. This essay aims to answer the following question: How have these developments affected the burden of unpaid labour and what influence did this have on gender relations?

For one thing, men and women’s labour market integration faced essential changes. But not only the public sphere of the economy and the formal labour market were affected. The household as private sphere, that is less visible to the public eye and especially to economics, also faced new challenges. Austerity measures and the consolidation of public finances led to the reallocation of work away from formal market-based or state-provided paid labour towards unpaid labour, which is mainly performed within the private household. It is essential to examine how the burden of unpaid labour is distributed between the genders in order to understand resulting changes in gender roles and relations.

Recession, the labour market and the public service sector

During the early stage of the crisis, men were more affected by job losses, following the decrease in aggregate demand and output, compared to women. Hence some economists nicknamed the recession a “mancession”. This unequal effect can be explained by the gender-based segregation of the labour market. Sectors such as construction and manufacturing were the first to feel the downturn, thus jobs were immediately cut in fields where the majority of workers were men. Consequently, more women took up formal employment, making sure the family received an income even as the main wage earner became unemployed (McKay 2013). Of course, this explanation can only be applied to heterosexual relationships and traditional family models in which the man is the main income earner. However, traditional family ideals are still widely intact throughout Europe, so that the changes in the labour market were significant enough to be recognised by studies and researchers. Decreasing employment for men and at least partly increasing female labour market participation caused the gender gap in labour market participation and income to narrow. It reinforced the tendency of women becoming breadwinners or co-breadwinners within families.

However, when the economic crisis turned into a public debt crisis, governments started to impose austerity measures in order to rebalance national budgets and promote recovery. This was the moment “he-cession” turned into a “sh(e)austerity” (Karamessini 2014). Following strict austerity policies, governments implemented cuts in the public service sector and in welfare benefits. These measures had a disproportionate impact on the employment and incomes of women for three reasons. First, many public service employees lost their jobs due to the cuts. This affected mostly women, who constitute an average of 70% of public servants in the countries of the European Union. Second, women are more likely to receive welfare benefits, such as childcare or care benefits. Cutting back on the welfare state therefore reduces the incomes of women to a greater extent than those of men. And thirdly, women are not only the main providers but also the main users of the now rolled back public services (Bennet 2015).

Many studies on the impact of the crisis on gender relations focus on changes in women and men’s positions in the labour market. However, this turns a blind eye on another type of labour, which from a feminist point of view is equally important for society and the economy (McKay 2013). Most economic theories define labour as market-based paid work, implying that reproductive work performed in the private sphere of the household is less valuable. Reproductive work can be defined as the sum of work, which is necessary for social reproduction and is performed without pay outside of the market (Winker 2011).  For example this includes child and eldercare as well all kinds of household work. Feminist economists reject the narrow definition of labour as only paid employment, because it neglects the importance of reproductive work, which is in fact the basis for all economic activity. Reproductive labour is crucial insofar as  it constantly reproduces the labour force. Mainstream theories also neglect the point that the burden of this huge amount of invisible work is mostly borne by women. Fiscal consolidation not only had a negative impact on women’s participation  in formal employment, it also had implications for unpaid labour, mainly reproductive work.

Austerity’s impact on unpaid household work

Many European countries adopted austerity policies following the financial crisis of 2008. Some were obliged to do so in order to fulfil conditionalities imposed by the Troika (namely Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus). Other countries felt obliged to pursue similar policies, because they had significant public debt problems themselves (such as France and Italy) and there were even countries that voluntarily followed the austerity trend (for example the UK). In 17 EU-countries, public sector expenditure was frozen and in 13 countries payments were cut. Many policies aiming to provide social services were halted. For example, eldercare programmes in Spain and childcare programmes in Italy and the UK were postponed indefinitely and plans for paternity leave programmes in Spain and Italy were abandoned. Usually these services can substitute unpaid work mainly performed by women. However, with cuts in public expenditures these services can no longer be supplied in sufficient quantity. Therefore, private unpaid labour must increasingly compensate for the lack in public care services. For example, as child or eldercare programmes are reduced, family members must attend to those in need of care at home (Rubery 2015).

Another factor that leads to a rise in private unpaid care work is the decrease in household income due to job loss or decreasing real wages. Because of the economic crisis households have to reduce their consumption spending and can no longer afford to buy care work such as cleaning services or childcare on the market. This also has to be compensated by an increase in unpaid care work. Of course, it is difficult to measure additional hours of unpaid labour, because it is not continually formally documented like wage employment and because there are no annual time-use surveys conducted in the EU. However, existing data on changes in household consumption show that during the crisis, households mainly reduced their consumption of goods and services that can be substituted by unpaid labour, such as eating out or catering, hospital and outpatient services, routine household maintenance services, or primary education. Thus, it seems likely that the reduction in household consumption is substituted by an increasing amount of unpaid work (Bettio 2013).  

Looking at gender relations, the most important question is: Who carries out the additional unpaid labour? According to the traditional family ideal, the woman is responsible for household and care work. Although traditional gender roles have been and are still changing, reproductive work is still distributed unevenly between genders. Studies show that women have a higher total working time in almost all European countries, with total working time being defined as hours of paid labour plus hours of unpaid labour. The difference in total working time is entirely due to a difference in unpaid work, such as household and care work. Therefore, the increase in the unpaid workload has widened the gender gap in the distribution of unpaid labour (Bettio 2014). In Italy, for example, it was shown that the recession has slowed down the process of reallocating household work towards men. Turkey, which is not a member state of the EU but was a candidate for membership, also lowered its expenditure on public care services.  Unpaid work has probably increased here, in order to compensate for the cuts. Additionally many women have taken up paid jobs after their husbands have lost employment. With the ideal of the traditional male breadwinner family still widely intact, the gender gap in total working time has immensely widened. (Bettio 2013). This implies, that household work is still mostly seen as a female task.

European governments have introduced austerity measures and cuts in public social services without considering and analysing their effect on gender relations (McKay 2013). What is even worse, at the same time as austerity policies were introduced, efforts to pursue gender equality were diminished and equality policies disappeared from public programmes. For example, in Ireland gender mainstreaming is no longer political practice, in Spain the equality ministry was shut down, and the UK cut the funds for its equality commission. While gender equality seems to have become merely unimportant in many countries, in Hungary it is considered incompatible with the nationalist government’s family policy (Rubery 2015).

Additionally, it must be considered that the impact of recession and austerity can be very distinct for different women, depending on many factors such as their individual situation, varying gender ideals in different geographic or social surroundings or the availability of public infrastructure in their respective country. Class, ethnicity and nationality also play a great role when looking at the impact of the economic crisis. Although these differences are not the topic of this essay, some comments might be in order. Social class and ownership of capital assets may have probably had a greater effect on how an individual experienced the crisis as opposed to  his or her gender. Another aspect to consider is the “migrant-in-the-family” solution, where care work is delegated to often informally employed migrant workers. These migrant workers are mostly women from Eastern Europe or the Global South, who live and work in foreign countries and away from their own families. These women experienced the crisis in a particular way. Intersectional perspectives on gender, class and nationality are therefore essential in order to get a more comprehensive understanding of the impacts of the economic crisis.

Conclusion: Impact on Gender Relations

Summing up, it seems that unpaid labour acts as a socio-economic buffer (Ghosh 2013) during crises, when the provision of public social services is reduced by austerity measures and households have to give up consumption of market-based services due to the recession. Of course, different countries show varying patterns, but overall it can be assumed that the recession and following austerity policies increased the workload for women and widened the gender gap in unpaid labour, especially in those countries in which the house and care work had been most unevenly distributed between the genders to begin with. Austerity is disrupting the progress we are making towards gender equality and towards a fair reallocation of unpaid reproductive work.

At the same time, the EU is promoting female employment, and many women are entering the labour market to compensate for men’s decreasing incomes. In this way traditional family ideals are giving way to diverse family models in which women are co-earners or even the main breadwinners. The combination of these two developments (increasing unpaid work and heightened labour market integration) supports the assumption that women’s wage employment is merely added to their burden of reproductive responsibilities instead of replacing them. In a way, we are experiencing a parallel traditionalising and de-traditionalising of gender roles.

In order to achieve progress towards real gender equality, policy measures must not only address equality in formal employment and wages, but they should also consider unpaid labour. Society as a whole needs to rethink the importance and allocation of reproductive work, a process that requires support by an active state that assesses political measures by means of their effect on gender equality.



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