Gender in crisis: Cut or innovate?

Business expert says economic crisis calls for new approaches to gender equality.

    The UN fears economic hard times could disrupt progress towards gender equality [GALLO/GETTY]

    The UN has said that women are more likely to be negatively affected by the global economic crisis and resulting job cuts, but is there really a gender dimension to these economic hard times?

    The answer is that it depends. It depends on the country, the company and the sector in question.

    Two very distinct business approaches to gender are emerging. These can be called 'hunkering down backwards' and 'innovating forwards'.

    In depth
    'Hunkering down backwards' is the traditional approach to crisis, based on cutting costs across the board and reducing 'headcount' as much as possible.

    Under this model, organisations concentrate on the people and approaches that have made the company successful in the past. The idea is to hunker down, protect your trusted teammates and hope the storm abates soon.

    This strategy can have a high cost for women, who are not usually part of the 'establishment team'.

    Within this approach there is little tolerance for new ideas, difference of any kind or innovative proposals.

    New perspectives

    However, a minority of firms - mainly those that have made enough progress on gender to recognise the benefits that better gender balance brings - are adopting the 'innovating forwards' strategy.

    These companies recognise that the current crisis is a period of deep and lasting transformation that calls for new business models, new perspectives and new people.

    They have discovered that women are active change agents and bring something qualitatively different to the table.

    Such firms are using the crisis to proactively promote and position women to lead change. Under this approach, there may be unprecedented opportunities for women to make their voices heard, as the tolerance for new ideas and contrarian views increases.

    An example of the 'innovating forward' approach is the appointment in Iceland of two women - Elin Sigfusdottir and Birna Einarsdottir - to lead the country's newly nationalised banks.

    However, there is an inherent risk in these sorts of appointments, which have in the past been called the 'glass cliff syndrome'.

    This is when women are handed positions of power only when they are so hopeless that no man wants them. They are then judged on the near-impossible task of turning that situation around.


    On a more macro-economic scale, national statistics and unemployment trends may reveal something about economies.

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    For example, 80 per cent of the jobs lost in the US during the current crisis, have been lost by men. However, 80 per cent of the jobs created in the European Union since 2000 have been filled by women.

    As our economies move from 20th century manufacturing, blue collar bases to increasingly 21st century knowledge and service economies, the relative strengths of traditional gender roles are in full transition.

    Many of the jobs lost in the US have been in the automotive and manufacturing sectors - although the financial sector makes a lot of noise and has lost a lot of jobs, it is generally much less human intensive.

    Women's employment is more concentrated in areas like education and healthcare, which are less prone to economic ups and downs.

    However, women are also far more often in part-time positions and because these roles are inexplicably considered as a full headcount in many companies, part-timers are usually the first to be let go.

    Economic gender wars

    In the UK, Harriet Harman, the minister for women and equality, has warned of the opposite trend to that being witnessed in the US. Harman fears that the current crisis has hit women far harder than men and a special commission has even been set up to look into this imbalance.

    It is too early to conclude, but it will be interesting to watch to what extent the gender impact of the current crisis reveals the developmental phase of the economy itself.

    It would not be too much of a surprise if in more advanced, service-focused economies, men suffer more from the current turbulence.

    Women now represent 60 per cent of university graduates in much of the developed world and in a knowledge economy, education wins. Or as The Economist put it recently "education equals matriarchy".

    However, the reality is that a gender imbalance in unemployment is no better than one in employment. It will not help women if the public perception becomes that women have 'taken' men's jobs from them.

    It would be a shame - and a loss for both genders - if the huge economic gains that reducing the gender gap has offered the world in the past decades were to be lost in a new form of gender wars: economic ones.

    Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is the publisher of WOMEN-omics, the CEO of 20-first, one of Europe's leading gender consultancies, and the co-author of the bestselling 'Why Women Mean Business, Understanding the Emergence of Our Next Economic Revolution'.

    The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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