Austerity reinforces gender inequality

The 2015 report from UN Women “Transforming economies, realizing rights”, published this week, calls for rethink of global economic policy. Twenty years after the landmark conference on women’s rights in Beijing, the UN Women report claims that poor policies and discriminatory attitudes are failing women worldwide, and that the austerity programmes implemented after the crisis, especially in the European Union, has only made the situation worse.

“Where there are no public services, the deficit is borne by women and girls”, stated Mlabo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary General and Executive Director UN Women. Why is this? According to the report, while the economic crisis has affected the lives of women and men, the deep cuts enacted in public spending hurt women more than men, because they have weakened social services, without tackling the already existing gender divisions. The broad-based economic policies have gender-specific effects because they interact with structural features of the economy. For example in a global framework where, despite the previous era of unprecedented global wealth, only half of women aged over 15 are in the labor force – compared with three-quarters of men considered to be of working age – the austerity policies introduced have only sought to reinforce these inequalities between genders. Moreover millions of women are still consigned to work in low paid, poor quality jobs, denied even basic levels of health care, without access to clean water and decent sanitation.

Another structural feature disadvantaging women in the economy is the gender pay gap : in at least 80 countries worldwide there exists no legislation requiring equal pay for equal work, this includes countries such as Germany. Over the course of their lifetimes, women can expect to earn less than their male counterparts, for example in France and Sweden women can earn as much as 31% less, in Germany this can be up to 49% less and in Turkey women can earn as much as 75% less than their male counterparts. Globally, women earn 24% less than men and struggle for access to better-quality jobs and the valuable benefits associated with those jobs, such as pensions.

Moreover recent figures released by the International Labor Organization reveal that women in the workforce hold 64% of clerical and support positions, 55% of service and sale roles as opposed to only 33% of managerial roles. When we look at poorer countries we can see that up to 75% of women are employed in the informal sector, such as domestic workers, which can leave them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation as international employment laws don’t cover these positions.

Last but not least, due to the lack of well-designed and funded social services – such as affordable health and childcare, in the European Union 25% of women compared to just 3% of men cited childcare and other family responsibilities as the reason for not working. Women on average do almost two-and-a-half times more unpaid care and household work as men. Combining paid and unpaid work, research findings show that women in almost all countries work longer hours each day than men: yet they are paid less for more work.

When we consider the situation faced by people who identify as trans* or non-binary the realities are even more disastrous. Prior to the crisis there were already many structural obstacles to trans* and non-binary individuals accessing the labor market, however this has also become intensified by the austerity policies.

We have said it before and will continue to repeat it: austerity worsens people’s lives and replicates and entrenches gender inequality, making the ideals of social justice further and further away. Ending austerity means allowing for better lives, for everyone.

By Elisa Gambardella, FGS Italy 

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