Actually, the lyric is ‘The first cut is the deepest’. But wise as Cat Stevens might be, it’s a little more complicated than that. Whatever way you look at it, men are actually the ones who fared worse from the initial fallout of the economic meltdown. As the housing bubble went pop, construction ground to a halt. Those men on building sites? Laid off. The slowdown struck male-dominated sectors such as heavy industry, automobile production and manufacturing worst. In fact, the EC estimates that across Europe nearly twice as many men lost jobs than women.

unemployed men

Lower pay gap

Somewhat counterintuitively, the pay gap between men and women also fell. In fact, there has been a levelling-down of gender gaps in employment, unemployment, wages and poverty over the crisis. But don’t cue the feminist fanfare just yet. The reason behind this levelling is that things got worse for men, rather than getting better for girls.
Industries that shed more jobs are also the ones with wider pay gaps (no surprises here…banking, finance etc). Plus, as men tend to bag the biggest bonuses, they were affected more than women when employers held off from year-end rewards. But if it wasn’t the first swing of the recession’s axe that took a chunk out of women’s livelihoods, the wily government chisel gradually shaving off resources most certainly did.

Austerity bites

It was not the crisis itself but rather governments’ responses to it that have impacted on women the most. As politicians preach cuts, cuts and cuts for – in David Cameron’s words – a “leaner” state, women are watching what they have slim down. Where three years ago, it seemed that men’s jobs were on the line, it’s now apparent that the deepest and most savage cutbacks in spending and employment have been in the public sector. Here, women suffer from a double bind. Firstly, the public sector is highly feminised – in the UK women make 65% of the public sector workforce. Secondly, the disappearance of public sector services hits women disproportionately.

health cuts

Twice the trouble

Why? Women are heavier users of welfare benefits and public services than men. We use hospitals more because we give birth. We use facilities for the elderly more because we live longer. 94% of child benefit is paid to mothers.
An audit into austerity in the UK showed that women bore the huge brunt of the reductions in spending, facing over 70% of the cuts. So if the government cuts welfare payments by £100, men will receive about £30 less but women will receive £70 less. Single parents and single pensioners – most of whom are women – will suffer the greatest reduction in their living standards. Lone parents will lose services worth 18% and female single pensioners will lose services worth 12% of their incomes.

Charity curtailed

Another issue is cuts to the charitable sector. Benefactors – be they governments, international agencies or individuals – are feeling the pinch. Money for community-based services is drying up, meaning funding cuts across the board for provisions like women’s refuges, rape crisis centres and day centres for the elderly. All too often these facilities are simply closing down. Again this has a two-fold gendered impact, as women are both the main beneficiaries of these services and make up the majority of their employees.


Austerity abroad

A day doesn’t go by without talk of austerity at home and across Europe. But worries about big American banks collapsing and the Euro going under give us a patchy view of the world, through a handicapped telescope that can only see as far as the West. Did you know that austerity measures are either being implemented or under serious consideration in 138 countries, including 94 developing countries? Me neither.

UNICEF notes that the move towards austerity is most significant in Africa and the Middle East, where three quarters countries have seen their economies contract by an average of 5.3%. Government austerity measures have led to a decrease in social spending and money for social protection, with 133 countries (again, 94 from the developing world) planning to reduce public spending. But why does the collapse of the subprime market across the pond have such an effect on women making t-shirts in south-east Asia? It’s the downside in globalisation.

The World Market

Put simply – when we feel poorer, we don’t go shopping. And when we buy less, there’s less need for the people who make the stuff we buy. And those people often happen to be women in developing countries. UN Aids estimates that women make up 60-80% of export manufacturing workers in low- and middle-income countries, meaning they were particularly affected when the recession shrank demand for commodities. For example, World Bank figures show that in Cambodia 50,000 garment workers, 90% of them women, lost their jobs as a result of the crisis.


Gender inequalities

With gender-segregated labour-markets, gaps in pay, higher levels of part-time work and over-representation in the informal sector, women were not in a good position to weather the financial storm to begin with. And when there’s an economic downturn, the situation of women deteriorates the most in countries with pre-existing gender inequalities. Around the world, but especially in poorer countries, women are the ones who care for children, elderly and sick family members. Cuts in state support, therefore, increase the unpaid workload of women.

Coping mechanisms

Whether it is men or women losing their jobs, it is usually women who are expected to pick up the pieces, to try to find additional means of saving money or earning on the side. Women must find ways to make ends meet, and in desperate times these strategies can extend to sex work. Sadly, their efforts are sometimes met with violence from men frustrated at their inability to be breadwinners.

One way of saving money is to consume less. But while for you or I that could mean swapping those cherry tomatoes for basics or not buying that new top, in poorer countries it’s far more brutal. When most of your money goes on food, there’s a sure fire way to save: eat less.

food poverty

Sacrificing food

In Nicaragua, 70% of women who lost jobs said they were forced to reduce their food intake severely. 11,000 miles away in Indonesia – a similar story: unemployed women eat fewer, smaller meals or go without food in favour of their children and husbands. Research by the Institute of Development Studies into the poorest families across the globe shows that women – even pregnant women – are never prioritised when it comes to food. They eat last, after all other members of the household are fed.

Shrinking opportunities

Economic crises also have a negative impact on education and opportunities for young women. Gender bias means girls are often pulled out of school to help at home so that their mothers can work. Remember the Cambodian garment workers who lost their jobs? Many of them had been sending money back to parents in their home villages. To make up the lost income, one fifth of the families sent another family member to join the workforce. In almost all cases, this was a younger sister taken out of school.


Data deficit

Every agency, organisation and researcher who has written on the subject agrees that more and better data is needed to assess the impact of economic change on women. In many cases, especially in developing countries, states simply do not collect enough data to enable comprehensive reviews of policy. Such figures would also help governments examine how policies affect women at the design stage.

And more troublingly, where figures are available, governments fail to use them effectively. Despite preaching gender equality as a societal aim, almost none of the austerity packages in European countries included a review of impacts from a gender equality perspective.


Perhaps unwittingly, governments add to women’s burden by not considering how cuts will affect men and women differently. But though it may not be deliberate, states must be held accountable for this shortcoming. The better news, in Europe at least, is that the crisis has shown how far women’s role in society has come since previous financial crises. Until now, women were frequently thought of as “economic buffers” – taken on during financial booms but fired when demand eased. This is no longer the case; in this recession the misfortune fell to young people and migrant workers.


This change illustrates just how important a market force women are today, at the levels of both national and home economy. Employers and households no longer sideline women when things get tough and budgets are squeezed, and neither should policy-makers.