When ‘Austerity’ sounds like ‘backlash’: gender and the economic crisis

by Heather McRobie

The coalition government's austerity measures are an excuse for anti-equality legislation in the same way as the ‘war on terror’ provided a justificatory narrative for military adventurism.

First published: 14 September, 2012 | Category: 

The economic crisis has chewed into all of our lives in one way or another, eliciting a unique response from each of us. But in 2012, if you are a woman outside of the ossified elite, there are particular trends that you may have noticed; broader social changes that have bubbled up into your life, or will bubble up before too long. If you were American, it could well have manifested, pre-recession, in the gendered dimensions of subprime lending that found women and ethnic minorities more often targeted for rotten loans. In the UK, what encroaches on your employment opportunities, healthcare provisions, access to services, and opportunity for social mobility, is the potent, toxic interplay of the ‘feminised recession’ induced by pre-existing gender-imbalances in employment sectors, and – since the Emergency Budget of 2010 changed the economic DNA of the country – the ‘austerity’ measures that align so neatly with a Conservative social vision of women primarily as mothers and carers.

As public sector cuts exacerbate pre-existing patterns of disadvantage and privilege, gender interplays grimly with modes of exclusion and entrenchment of elites to make life worse for most women. The regressive ‘backlash’ identified in a previous wave of western conservatism by Susan Faludi and others is playing itself out again, as austerity becomes an excuse for anti-equality legislation in the same way as the ‘war on terror’ provided a justificatory narrative for military adventurism, Islamophobic racism and support for authoritarian regimes. In each case, a conservative agenda is advanced under the cloak of emergency and expediency.

Taken together - the gendered dimension of subprime lending, the ‘feminised recession’ in which female-dominated employment sectors were those hardest hit by job losses, and Conservative austerity measures and social policies that corrode women’s hard-won benefits and rights, both qua women and as citizens - the joined-up-dots paint a brutal picture: British women are poorer, more marginalised from power, with less access to vital services, and shouldering the burden of the economic crisis and its after-shocks. At the same time as this twin assault from economic downturn and government austerity, research from 2011 indicates that high street banks, too, have turned on women. Under the guise of the need for stricter lending practices post-financial crash, women have been arbitrarily denied the same access to credit as their male counterparts. More on how this has played out, on both sides of the Atlantic, later on.

Before the recession: Subprime women and Wall Street men

Even in 2008, gender was a relevant lens for analysing the mess we were in, as the size of the economic crisis revealed itself, like the Titanic’s iceberg, too big and too late. But the conversations now seem like either odd side-discussions or peculiar biological-determinist analysis. Was the crisis caused by too much testosterone on Wall Street? One cannot deny the negative impact of gender inequity within the financial elite, but the predominant concern with the ‘glass ceiling’ for female investment bankers strikes an odd note when, as they say, most women are not even in the building. Was female consumerism to blame for the western world’s astonishing levels of personal debt? In media discussion of economic issues circa 2008, women were largely Sex and the City caricatures of white prosperity, frivolity, recession-triggering over-spenders. Such conversations revealed a cultural crisis in which gender stereotypes were lent on in the face of our inability to grasp the stark new economic realities, or their causes. As the western world began to grapple with what was beginning to look like the worst economic crisis in modern history, the word ‘subprime’ bubbled to the fore. A largely unnoticed story, though, was that a key to understanding the subprime disaster was that it was gendered.

The recession had its origins, to a large extent, in the disproportionate targeting of women and ethnic minorities for subprime loans. In 2006 the Consumer Federation of America collated its own data with other studies of subprime lending, and concluded that women were prime targets for predatory lending. This was true both inasmuch as subprime lending offered ‘less favourable’ conditions to counteract the borrower’s weaker credit rating (due to structural and societal inequalities affecting women, African-Americans and other ethnic minorities) and in that women were also offered less favourable loan repayment schemes than their similarly situated male counterparts. Utilising the emancipatory language of ‘empowering’ women to buy their own homes, banks capitalised on the demographic shift towards more female-headed households to push subprime loans on women. When the bubble burst, those who had been targeted with predatory loans paid again – and, in the case of many women, paid yet again through what soon manifested as the first feminised recession.

The feminised recession

And so, the story goes, the subprime bubble unleashed the financial crisis: economic shrinkage, the drying up of capital, the loss of jobs. But, while recessions can be typologised in general terms – identifiable like the shape of a hurricane from space – they each play out differently on the ground. This one was ‘feminised’. It certainly aligned with other factors – race, age, employment sector – that have since been analysed at length elsewhere. But one of the prevailing features of the economic crisis was the way in which, unlike previous recessions, employment sectors in which women were disproportionately represented bore the brunt of job losses, the service industry being a notable example

According to gender-equality campaigning group the Fawcett Society, 2012 saw female unemployment in the UK climb to a 25 year high. Analysis of data in the House of Commons library, extracted by Labour, was cited to show that middle-aged women, particularly, were the worst affected by recessional trends, as job losses in their age group (an unprecedented 39% in two years) combined with pension changes and the strain of disproportionate caring-duties to deteriorate the life and health of female ‘baby boomers’. Youth unemployment has similarly played out on gendered lines, and – with the rise of temping pushing more young women into the role of ‘office angel’ with little long-term job security, more often than not, the face of the precariat is female. The perennial gender-equality concerns of equal pay, sexual harassment in the workplace, and insidious and de facto barriers for women to advance to the higher echelons of companies and public life persist, and are exacerbated, by this new, specifically insecure hand that the feminised-recession has dealt women.

None of this is to say that every experience of job loss, or gutting of dreams caused by the economic realities – from the middle-aged male worker made redundant to the worker in their late 20s who moves back in with their parents – is less important than the particular thread being traced here. Unemployment and underemployment destroy communities, cities, families, the individual self. The point here is that – combined with their increasing distance from meaningful power – the loss in status and loss in real terms of women in the workplace has had a particular impact, sweeping away, in one fell swoop, generations of work in securing women a foothold in the public sphere.

Women in the Tory austerity

The disproportionate absence of women from public life is clearly a social ill in terms of democratic and equal rights, in terms of the waste of talent and human resources, and in terms of the loss of diversity in the voices that contribute to the public sphere. A feminised recession, alone, would have been a tragedy, but one at least with some light at the end of the tunnel when the economy eventually picked up. However, the effect of the coalition’s austerity is likely to be a further hard-wiring of gender discrimination into the system. Because just as the feminised recession was beginning to manifest itself, the political sphere was reconfiguring in such a way as to deny women not only their jobs, but also their rights, benefits and other hard-won gains. It seemed that not everyone found the feminised recession an economic tragedy, but rather a step in the right direction.

When analysing the coalition government’s austerity programme, the thread of gender, reoccurs so often – both on the balance-sheet and in political discourse – that it’s hard not to read between the lines and conclude that, in the great tradition of the Shock Doctrine, the apparently-necessary austerity measures were also a convenient excuse for Tories to enact their regressive vision of gender roles while the country, and women in particular, were laid low and vulnerable due to the biting recession.

It’s worth tuning into the cultural treatment and discourses on gender during the current economic climate. Much has been written in progressive left spheres of how the retro-nostalgia of the recession - from Jubilee bunting that evoked the ‘Blitz spirit’ of us ‘all being in this together’ to the Cath Kidston blandness of faux-style that grew to dominate the late 2000s - spoke to Tory visions of generic, classless ‘tastefulness’ to help sweep societal ruptures under the carpet (almost literally so, in the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’-isation of the post-riot tidy-up of summer 2011). The shaping of bland, inoffensive Kate Middleton as cultural and style icon presented itself as a distraction from the increased economic pressures on women’s lives. Like the Jubilee and the Olympics, the royal wedding was a golden opportunity for the Conservatives to stitch their vision into broader culture, smuggling overt ideology into the zeitgeist. The parading of Samantha Cameron as a paradigm of the post-class ‘tastefulness’ of lifestyles which, in reality, were out of the reach of most women, fed into this broader cultural trend. Moreover, in a climate in which women’s jobs were disproportionately on the line, and services necessary for women – from domestic violence shelters to reproductive health services – disproportionately corroded by the post-2010 austerity measures, cultural codes that exalted motherhood, return to the family and ‘community’ could assist in creating the impression that women were jumping out of the workplace, rather than being pushed.

The Coalition assault on women was a two pronged attack. On one side, the gutting of the public sector, where women are disproportionately employed, saw women losing a disproportionate number of jobs, or being switched to ‘flexible’, insecure work. From the other side came the corrosion of services and benefits which had previously been put in place to counteract the different experience of women’s lives, itself often a residue of historical inequality; from the fact that women are more likely to be single parents than men to services such as domestic violence provisions. The evidence that emerged in 2012 showing that the Conservative cuts are encroaching on maternity provision and thus deteriorating maternal health in the UK underlines the cruel perversity as well as the brutality of the cuts. First, women are pushed out of the workforce at the same time as the mother is exalted as a key ‘community’ figure in conservative discourse. Then, state provisions are rolled back, resulting in women facing gender-specific challenges even as they do precisely what conservatism is demanding of them: being a mother.

The price that men and women alike pay for an austerity agenda that leading economists are queuing up to condemn layers over the specific impact felt by women qua women, and by women as the frontline of the public sector.

Back to the banks: gender discrimination in post-recession lending practices

Cry me a river, I know, but the banking industry had a tough half a decade – at least in the realm of public discourse - after the recession began to reveal its full monstrosity. Vilified and mistrusted, propped up with state hand-outs, and with the previously-sacred rubrics under which they had operated even questioned by the public and politicians, banks surely sensed that their future lay in the role of social and political pariahs. Promises and bargains were thus variously offered or extracted – humbled, the banks would never again allow such hubris to disrupt the fabric of society, nor again give society reason to question their vital economic role. In the wake of the recession, there was consensus, rhetorical or otherwise, among several old political enemies on one objective: the town had to get rid of the Ogre, the banking industry needed to be regulated.

Given what we now know of the factors that allowed the global recession to occur, regulation is obviously preferable to the tsar-like free reign and lack of scrutiny the banking industry had in most western countries before the subprime crisis exposed the emperor’s nakedness. So the following criticism is not a dismissal of regulation in favour of the pre-2008 situation of unchecked dominance, but rather to both question whether the regulation is anything more than window dressing, and to note that ‘stricter controls’, too, can easily be appropriated and deployed in ways that arbitrarily target women.

In the early and mid-2000s, as noted above, US banks utilised the language of emancipation to encourage women to buy their own home (buy it, of course, with a subprime mortgage on unfavourable conditions, but still). Post-recession, a neat inversion has played itself out. Apply for a mortgage these days, and your maternity status could well be cited as a reason to deny you a loan, or – as in the case documented by the ACLU – perhaps you wouldn’t mind answering inappropriate questions about your family planning in order to access credit? Evidence in both the US and the UK that banks are utilising the post-recession stricter lending practices to arbitrarily deny access to credit to women aligns with earlier, traditional-discrimination of banks in their loans. Research by IPPR in 2011 demonstrated it to be very likely that banks were discriminating both against businesswomen and women as private customers seeking a mortgage or other loan. The rising evidence of banks discriminating against women applying for loans since the recession and introduction of tighter regulation in some ways brings the gendered process of the recession full circle – in the boom years, women were targeted for subprime loans and by predatory lending and now, after the bubble has burst, the new emphasis on tighter regulation by banks is being utilised to arbitrarily deny loans to women. And this despite the fact that encouraging female entrepreneurs has been cited, across the political spectrum, as one of the crucial ways in which western countries will recover from the recession.

Austerity as gender backlash

From the gender-inequality latent in the subprime bubble that precipitated the global economic crisis, to the way in which recessional job-losses played out on gendered lines, followed all too quickly by Conservative ‘austerity’ measures that both pushed women out of the workplace and corroded their rights and benefits, and the cruel little footnote of banks appropriating the new language of ‘regulation’ to arbitrarily deny equal access to women at a time when they need financial independence more than ever, it’s hard not to join the dots. Women disproportionately paid for the trigger of the recession, for the recession’s job losses and other social impacts, and the austerity measures that followed.

The alignment is almost elegant: corrode the economic position of women, and then take away their rights when, economically, they are at their weakest. What is being framed in American political discourses as a right-wing ‘war on women’ operates largely on other fronts and fault-lines – reproductive rights and access to healthcare – but it also interplays with the economic assault (from banks, from the structure of neoliberalism, from government-introduced ‘austerity measures’) in other spheres of women’s lives.

In 2008, Susan Faludi – who earlier popularised the concept of the Thatcher-Reaganite conservative ‘backlash’ on women’s rights – turned to an analysis of the ‘war on terror’ and gender, a seemingly unobvious combination of contemporary concerns. Her analysis outlined how the concept of ‘terror’, the crisis-mode and polarisation of post-9/11 political discourse fit so neatly – almost too neatly – with conservative desires to promote regressive gender-roles, silencing feminism variously as unpatriotic and irrelevant to the new terror-world.

Events move quickly, but the modes on which power operate are surprisingly durable, and curiously predictable. Where Bush-era ‘terror’ was the magic spell to deal with inconvenient agendas, including the agenda of securing gender equality in the home country, so now austerity (for ‘who wouldn’t want to fight terrorists?’, substitute ‘who wouldn’t want to climb out of the recession?’) is the best current trick up the sleeves of those who’d like, amongst other things, to keep women in their place.

Heather McRobie is a writer and journalist, currently researching a book on women and austerity. Her non-fiction book on literary freedom will be published later this year.. As a journalist she has reported from Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Palestine, Tunisia and Bosnia for publications such as the Guardian, the New Statesman and openDemocracy. She is also completing a PhD on transitional justice in the Arab Spring and works as a contributing editor and gender columnist for openDemocracy's gender and equality section, 50.50.

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