risk part 2 - or why sometimes it's hard to be a woman
For now I wanted to pick up some of the things Rebecca's comment raised.
Before I start I also want to reiterate a couple of things about these risk posts. This post is going to be about a set of risks faced by women. In so doing I am not implying men do not also face risks, or that they are less in either number or seriousness. I find it really unhelpful to get into a discussion based on who faces the worst problems - our experience of problems is highly subjective and comparing and rating just leads to conflict, not progress.
It's also important to keep uppermost in mind that this is about risk, not outcome. If I paint a picture of the risks faced by women I do not mean that all women face these risks equally, or that any woman will necessarily experience all or even any of them in actuality. Inevitably some women are far more vulnerable than others - often in a frightening cascade - though it is getting harder to tell who is well protected than it used to be. If it seems like a very dark tale then remember I am by nature talking about worst case scenarios, and for every bad outcome there are many who escape the pitfalls. Neither do I imply that no men at all face them or experience them as outcomes. It is a symptom of our world that the way risk is faced is becoming less predictable and a growing number of men, though still small in absolute numbers, face many of the risks traditionally ascribed to women.
And I also want to make really clear that I am not promoting a set of lifestyle choices here. Pointing out the risks associated with certain decisions is neither a warning against them nor a recommendation to take them. Life is inherently about taking risks and only an individual can judge what risks are reasonable for them. Our personal circumstances and preferences have a lot to do with which risks are more significant for us, where we are vulnerable, where we feel lucky.
Whew. I think the caveat might be longer than the post.
OK so what does it mean to be a woman in the twenty first century when it comes to facing risk? For our grandmothers this was much simpler question, both because the risks were less diverse and because they were better understood. Social structures were more rigid, choices were narrower, far fewer women stood outside the confines of the norm. The vast majority of women grew up, got married and had kids. They were almost entirely economically dependent, they mostly carried out unpaid labour and had severely restricted rights when compared with men (think how recently women were allowed to vote, work when married, have their own passports, inherit wealth, attend a university etc). They did not control their fertility, they were socially shunned (or worse) if they left an unhappy or unhealthy marriage and if their husbands left them, became disabled or died they were reliant on the goodwill of others for their survival.
So they faced a set of risks related to being dependent, marginalised participants in society. If they chose to pursue a career or education they most likely faced a degree of social censure which reverberated on their family. They probably also faced daily harassment and discrimination by being treated differently and as a deviant - constantly challenged and ridiculed, perhaps legally, perhaps through humiliation, possibly violence. The pay off would be a degree of economic freedom and perhaps ultimately power and recognition as a trail blazer.
On the other hand, if they followed a more conventional path they ran other risks. They risked not being chosen for marriage, leading again to the risk of social shame, perhaps life as a servant in their parents home, or that of a stranger. If they were chosen for marriage, they risked being stuck with a husband who might fail to provide, be unkind, unfit, unreliable, abusive. They risked losing that husband, especially in times of war or in workplaces fraught with danger. If these risks were realised, they faced an uphill battle to deal with them. Without any institutionalised equality, they most likely sought some other entity on which to become dependent - another man, a father, a church, a charity. Alternatively they attempted to eek out a subsistence on the margins, raising poultry in their yard, taking in other people's laundry etc. [My great grandmother, whose husband died from an accident at work, died not long after and her death certificate listed the cause of death as exhaustion. Not surprising when she had 13 children to care for and no income.]
Over time pressure built for things to change. Exactly because so many women experienced the realisation of these risks there was both an ideological belief in change (equality is inherently right) and a pragmatic belief in change (we can no longer look after all these dispossessed women, let them look after themselves). Change was incremental, with legal frameworks, institutions and social attitudes lagging and leapfrogging each other to produce a world in which there was not just equal opportunity, but affirmative action, the right to divorce and an acceptance of the choice not to marry. The pill also brought about reproductive choice - whether to have kids, how many and when, and the choice could be controlled by women without the consent or knowledge of anyone else. Termination of pregnancy became legal. The work place also reformed with a decline in primary production and manufacturing and a growth in industries which actively relied on women workers. Women's education levels soared (in most parts of the Western world women now outstrip men in educational achievements).
So the risk profile for women began to look a little more like a man's. Not that the world is exactly equal still - there's still a massive gap between what men and women get paid, what jobs and at what level most women work, how women experience social stigmas relating to their lifestyle choices etc - but it's a long way from where it used to be. Women now essentially carry all the rights and responsibilities of autonomous citizens, they are not just a dependent on someone else's tax form, they can access their own pension and so on. And with this the whole economic basis of calculation on society shifts from man plus dependents to adult individuals regardless of gender. Equally they are subject to expectations - to work instead of collecting welfare for example for single mothers, what we in Australia call 'mutual obligation'.
But everything starts to go south when kids enter the picture. The majority of women who have children no longer stay at home full time. The norm is now for women to work, although usually in a part-time capacity and sometimes for just a few hours per week. As such women become subject to two quite different risk profiles - the one that belongs to them as autonomous individuals and the one that belongs to those of the dependent. For many women they transition between these states - independent, dependent and independent again - only very briefly, reduced by things like paid maternity leave. For others the cycle is longer, for some the transition happens once and is never reversed, for others it never happens or they occupy some murky in between state. It gets messy and complicated and the variations keep everyone on the hop and confused. This confusion can be seen socially (so, what do you do? is a question many mothers find vexed), institutionally (the complexity of dealing with government departments around marriage status, kids with different names to their mothers, messy rules around welfare entitlements etc) and legally (just think about what happens on divorce with asset division, alimony and so on). Women often feel stigmatised if they work, and stigmatised if they don't because they are dealing with two sets of expectations as well as risks.
A key characteristic of the shifting states for women is how the risks change over the course of their lives. They tend to accumulate like betting on a double or nothing basis. For example, time spent out of the workforce to care for kids has a lasting effect on what happens to women when they re-enter. A study done over ten years ago estimated that taking time out of the workforce to have a child (regardless of how long) would reduce a woman's lifetime earnings by over $300,000. This can be explained by the subsequent drop in status and opportunity, accumulated retirement savings (working women retire with an average of half the retirement savings of a man in similar work) as well as the loss of income for the time not worked. In reality, most women lose considerably more because they return to work that is part time, poorly paid and usually significantly below their level of capability.
But there are significant risks associated with working post children too. Aside from the social and psychological guilt and worry there are other less obvious problems. Women who work continue to do most, if not all the unpaid domestic work (this is also largely true for partnered women without children if you can believe that). There is a wealth of stats and studies on this in all kinds of interesting detail and I could go on FOREVER about it, but I'll control myself. Bottom line is that women who work part time in the work force do almost as much unpaid domestic work as women who do not do paid work, and women who work full time still do a lot and tend to outsource the rest. Men do pretty much the same level of domestic work regardless of what their partners do, and although the amount they do has increased marginally over the last decade or two, the increase is almost exclusively in childcare (hey I'll take the kids to the park so you can do the vacuuming and shopping!) and directed help (here's a list of things I need you to pick up from the supermarket for me so I can cook dinner). Women who do paid work make up the extra time for all this unpaid work by giving up time for leisure, personal grooming and sleep. The amount of time men devote to these things is not impacted at all by whether they have children or do paid work (quite possibly the more hours they do paid work the more 'leisure' time they take). In other words, paid work tends to be an additional rather than alternate activity for women with children but not for men. There are also a number of studies which point out that working places added strain on partnerships and tends to increase the likelihood of family break up.
Children also have a considerable impact on the work life of most women. In general a woman's status drops when children are present, they are less likely to be developed, promoted, extended and retained. They are also less likely to be able to meet the demand for unpaid overtime - a considerable problem in cultures (such as Australia and the US) where the average weekly hours of work is growing in both quantum and spread of core hours. Flexible rostering over 20 hours a day seven days a week, and an expectation for all workers to do overtime both paid and unpaid, is highly incompatible with family life. Often called 'the mummy track' women tend to drift into casual and temporary work, off the promotional path and into precarious and unstable work. The effects of this ghettoisation are permanent for most women, who remain in this marginalised position even after their child rearing responsibilities have declined.
But the real crunch to the different sets of expectations and risks women become subject to after children is their vulnerability to adversity. If something happens to the partnership on which they rely either fully or in part, they experience both sets of problems. If they divorce, are left, widowed or become a carer for a disabled partner (and remember these outcomes are experienced by well over half of all women), they experience most of the risks of the dependent (poverty, marginalised workforce status, limited opportunities, welfare dependence) AND most of the risks of the autonomous citizen (insufficient retirement savings, family hostile workplace demands, exclusion from charity and support structures). And as previously said they often also cop the criticism given to women who make all the above choices - neglect of their children's emotional needs, failure to provide materially, failure to be a good worker, a welfare/charity freeloader....
Women who want to reduce their risk profiles are increasingly electing to neither marry or have children (and certainly those who have children are having far fewer), seeing the risk of emotional loss as significantly less than the other risks they face as mothers and wives. This trend is growing across the world to an extent which alarms many governments and social researchers. It is impacting birthrates and population pyramids (quite literally putting them on their heads) and is most likely a forecast for a contracting economy, aging population and drain on the public purse unlike anything every seen before. Many see this situation as comparable to the growth in social problems that led to the women's revolution of the 60s. Sadly we don't see the signs of the same kind of social change response yet, but there are a number of unavoidable changes coming our way which will definitely force movement. As the economy and labour force contracts (from declining birthrates and an aging population), women's participation in paid work will be much more highly valued, which gives a little hope that they will be more able to balance a family with a job, and a better paid job at that. There may be a better acknowledgement of the contribution women make to society when they withdraw from the workforce to care, meaning better social insurance schemes to make up the gap in retirement savings and household finances, paid for by their increased workforce participation prior to childrearing. There may be an overall reduction in weekly hours of work, allowing men to better participate in the domestic world and women to better participate in the work world, as we've seen in many European countries in recent years. We might get better at judging choices less and facilitating diversity of preferences more.
Is anyone still there? Congratulations if you made it this far. In my next installment I'll talk a bit more about blokes and how risk is shared or redistributed in families. But for now I need a cup of tea and a good lie down.