An increasingly female crisis

First the construction crash hit mainly male workers; and now services are crumbling Women are taking a double hit from spending cuts and may lose their employability

Women suffer a higher rate of unemployment than men.
Women suffer a higher rate of unemployment than men.CARLOS ROSILLO

The female version of Spain's economic crisis is a combination of difficulties, say experts, one mounted on top of another: a steadily encroaching tide of unemployment, conflicts between managing work and family life (where the majority of the responsibility still falls on the woman's shoulders), and slashes to the welfare state. And it doesn't look as if things are going to get better. Upcoming changes in the work arena (part of the new labor reform) will allow companies greater scope in establishing work hours and provide stronger support for part-time work, thus deepening the divide. In this increasingly pessimistic scenario, the prospect of self-employment offers a possible way out.

"The crisis has had different effects on women than it has had on men. The most damaging for women has been public spending cuts," says Lina Gálvez, professor of history and economic institutions at Pablo de Olavide University. Cuts have had a significant impact on the number public sector jobs, says the professor, which "until now has been the largest employer of women."

Budget cuts have also meant reduced social services. For women, these slashes are a double-edged sword; on the one hand, the sector employs a high number of women, and secondly, women benefit most from these services, which relieve some of the burden of caring - a responsibility that primarily women assume.

"Perhaps the most damaging consequence is that these cuts may ultimately affect even the employability of women," says Gálvez.

Women are more apt to fear losing their jobs, and not finding another"

In the boom years before the crisis, inequality in the labor market - and economic self-sufficiency is fundamental for equality - faded but was not eliminated.

"People forget that we were not living in an ideal world," says Almudena Fontecha, who heads up the equality unit for labor union UGT. In the second quarter of 2007, at the height of the boom, unemployment among men was practically structural at 6.1 percent. But unemployment among women was at 10.5, and nearly a million women were looking for work, according to the Active Population Survey.

Four years later, and following a drastic rise in male unemployment figures, the economic storm has leveled the playing board. Today, unemployment among adults over the age of 16 is almost equal between the sexes, though women narrowly top the list: 23.3 percent are unemployed as opposed to 22.4 percent of men. The fall of the construction sector, fueled by male labor, was followed by the collapse of services, a strongly female sector.

"Although unemployment has grown more among men, it still does not surpass the rates for women," stresses Carmen Bravo Sueskun of the CCOO union's Women division.

There is fear when it comes to asking for work-family rights"

"It is harder for women to find work. That is why they are more pessimistic. They are more apt to fear losing their jobs, and not being able to find another," says María Ángeles Durán, a research professor at CSIC, the Spanish National Research Council. And once women do lose their jobs, "they are less likely to receive unemployment benefits, because their work conditions are more precarious," adds UGT's Fontecha.

Today, there are 2.4 million women and 2.8 million men unemployed in Spain. Women tend to "accept losing their jobs better if they have a financial safety net in the form of a partner. In comparison, men do not handle this same situation as well because cultural norms make them feel like failures," continues Durán.

A further difference between the sexes in relation to the crisis is that women in Spain have not given up hope. Indeed, their economic activity levels have risen four percentage points since 2007 (now hovering at 52.9 percent for those over 16), while those of men have fallen two points to 67.3.

"In times of crisis, activity among women tends to increase because they seek to increase the family's income," explains Laura Nuño, head of the Gender faculty at Rey Juan Carlos University. Moreover, Durán points out, women are the ones who "maintain the family network, a pillar of support during a crisis."

There are now 9.8 million men employed in Spain and eight million women (in 2007, there were 12 million men and 8.3 million women working). In the job market, however, there is still a notable segregation among sexes, which means that cuts in services such as healthcare, education or caretaking have a much greater effect on women. Carmen Plaza, director of the government's Equal Opportunities agency, has written that it is "crucial" to take steps to stem unemployment in the service sector as "it employs a significant concentration of female workers" - more than 80 percent.

The problem of labor market segregation is compounded by yet another: income inequality, one of the great differences between male and female workers. According to the Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality, which has recently launched a new campaign against income inequality, the income gap between the sexes currently averages 22 percent. The situation is worse in part-time jobs where women make only 76 percent of what their male counterparts do, according to the National Statistics Agency (INE).

Health Minister Ana Mato is a staunch defender of employment creation as the "best policy for equality." Yet, at the moment, it is only being destroyed.

Spain's unions argue that the new labor reforms underway contain specific threats for women in the workplace. The risk is that companies, once they are released from collective agreements, will also back out of existing equality policies. While the Labor Ministry has refuted this, insisting that there is no foreseen withdrawal of agreements in this area, it has admitted that the reforms limit the margins for reduced hours for the care of a minor, an option taken almost exclusively by women. Reductions in working hours must now be taken on a daily basis, unless some other arrangement is individually agreed.

Purificación Causapié, who heads up the Socialist Party's equality unit, feels that the ability of companies to adjust working hours as they feel necessary may further complicate the work-family balance for women. Also, in a report released this month, the UGT union predicted greater levels of unemployment and job insecurity for women, along with increasing difficulty in combining work and family life, especially since part-time workers can now be forced to do extra hours upon demand.

And part-time work is an area where women predominate. "These types of jobs, which will be promoted as a solution to the work-family issue, mean less income, a difficult career path and fewer retirement benefits," says Gálvez. Almost half of the women now working part-time would prefer to have a full-time contract (48.8 percent, according to the INE). The next largest group in this category has actively chosen part-time work in order to care for children or adults (16.1 percent). For them, it is the price they pay for combining paying jobs with family obligations, which have yet to be equally shared among both members of the couple.

Moreover, "the crisis has created a certain level of fear when it comes to demanding work-family rights," says Fontecha. Nuria Chinchilla, an expert in work-family balance at the University of Navarre business school, IESE, says, "These days, we can't risk somebody thinking we are less committed to the company, and that places flexible work schemes on the back burner." Chinchilla also points out that physical presence is more highly valued in companies than reaching targets. A survey done by PwC found that difficulty in combining work and family life is the main reason why women hold only 10 percent of top executive positions.

"The crisis has affected everybody. I can't say that it has affected women more than men, but work-family rights may certainly feel the crunch because it seems we are working harder just to achieve the same," says Chinchilla. She stresses that talking about work-family balance means talking about women, given that they are "increasingly the breadwinner" as a result of rising levels of unemployment among men, although this is not yet "compensated for by the time men spend working in the home."

A time-use survey from the National Statistics Institute shows that women dedicate an average 4.5 hours per day to home and family, while men spend only 2.5 hours.

Higher unemployment, less secure jobs, with lower salaries, and greater responsibility at home explain why women are more affected by cuts to the welfare state and public services. "Women are more deeply affected because they receive greater benefits from them," says CSIC's Durán, a sociologist.

Less reliance on the Dependency Law is doubly harmful for women because many of them give up their jobs to take care of aging family members and because the law was a source of employment for women. Between 2009 and 2010, 165,000 direct jobs were created as a result of the law, and experts say the majority of these jobs went to women.

Consequently, self-employment is a growing option. A study carried out by Professor Joan Torrent of the Open University of Catalonia provides evidence of this positive trend. Women were responsible for 20 percent of newly created micro-businesses in Spain before 2008. Between that year and 2011, they were responsible for 31 percent.

"Women have been better at spotting opportunity in the crisis," says Torrent. The other side of this coin is women's desire to create a business that provides them with the employment they cannot find elsewhere while also offering job flexibility that allows for other responsibilities, such as work at home, childcare and the care of elderly family members.

"In international studies done before the crisis, women were already expressing their desire to create their own businesses, but it wasn't business opportunity that drove them to do it in the end, but rather necessity," says Esade professor Maria Àngels Valls. "It's no surprise that restrictions in the job market caused by the crisis have further emphasized this need to create their own companies."

In short, Professor Torrent's study does not refer so much to business opportunity as to additional needs: work-family balance, self-employment and salary equality. The study also considers the advantages that have helped spur the launch of women in the world of micro-businesses: their university educations and new technologies that have created a context that is global and open to this type of initiative.

"These businesses buy their freedom in a certain way and allow them to organize their lives as they see fit," she says. Torrent believes that these micro-businesses, just a drop in the employment ocean, are the real potential offshoots of the crisis, because they are appearing in force in times of recession, and are adapted to a global and technological work world. Before the crisis, 40 percent didn't make it through their first year. Now this figure doesn't even hit 30 percent. "Public funding should go to these companies. In Spain, the custom is to fund the larger companies, but these companies are the ones with the strength to withstand the crisis," she argues.

"With the worsening of labor conditions and cuts in social policies, there is a certain risk that women might throw in the towel with regards to work," says sociologist Constanza Tobío, an authority on work-family balance at Carlos III University.

"If access to citizen services is restricted and women's salaries fall, it could be a catalyst for them to stay at home or work part-time," chimes Gálvez. "In every study that has analyzed the effects of crises on men and women, it has been seen that they reverse advances made in equality and increase women's workload, especially with regards to non-paid work."

In Spain, the final verdict will only be handed down once the storm has passed.