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What will a recession mean for working women?

I’ve often suspected that minority groups suffer the most in an economic downturn.  Of course its true that the average family already struggling to make ends meet will feel the sting as overtime dries up or casual hours are cut back.  And few workers will avoid the pinch when it comes to bonus time this year; if bonuses are paid at all they’ll be a fraction of last year’s windfall.  But then there are the minorities: those in the workforce who, for a variety of reasons, will suffer because they have less bargaining power than others around them.

My suspicion is that working women fall into this category more often than we think.

I recall a conversation with a partner in a law firm a couple of years back.  She told me that in the annual promotion process, a male lawyer was put up for partnership alongside a female lawyer.  There was room for only one to be admitted and debate ensued as to which it should be.  The male was married with two young children; the female was single.  So what has marital status got to do with it?  Of course we all know it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender and I’m not a lawyer but I’m sure that evaluations on the basis of marital status would also be a no-no.  Yet there were partners in that firm who expressly endorsed the male because he had a young family to support.  Being single without dependents, there was surely less urgency for the female to be promoted, another male partner surmised.  Both were high performers in every respect.  In the end, the guy got the gig.

I kid you not, this is a true story.  And I wonder in the current economic environment how many such conversations are taking place behind closed doors around the country.  I’ve also heard of women in dual income households being given the raw prawn on pay negotiations when their salaries were considered “supplementary” to the family budget.

Consider also what happens in many organisations as the market tightens: “support functions” like marketing and HR are the first to be cut (women just happen to occupy the majority of these roles); redundancies are dished out to those on extended leave (women on maternity leave are easy targets) and full time jobs are converted to part time (and part timers are less likely to be considered for promotions and leadership roles).

According to the Australian Financial Review (16/1/09), December labour force figures show the proportion of women working full time fell markedly at the end of last year.  While there were 36,000 fewer women in full-time employment in December in seasonally adjusted terms, part-timers rose by almost 39,000.  For men the shift was relatively modest: the number of male full-time jobs fell by 7700, against a 4000 increase in part-time positions.  Yes, the increase in women in part time roles could be a positive thing, as more re-enter the workforce on flexible terms.  Or it could be that roles are being downsized and it’s the women who are bearing the brunt.

Are you seeing anything untoward in your workplace?  Keep your eyes peeled, sometimes you just can’t see the forest for the trees…


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