Hey “Working” Mom– getting laid off is a “relief”. Really.

by cv harquail on March 27, 2009

It is disturbing to see that the effects of employers’ responses to the economic crisis are not being distributed equally throughout our population. While there’s a bit of controversy over who has it worse, it’s pretty clear that due to the structure of our economy, some groups are being laid off  proportionally more than other groups. For example, African-Americans and Latinos are experiencing a higher percentage of layoffs.

Women working for pay are also experiencing the expression of sexism as they are chosen first for layoffs, and lose their jobs becuase they are pregnant (and “probably won’t want to come back to work”), or because they are working “only” part time (and don’t really “need” the job).

And how are layoffs affecting men and women differently?

Gender and the Perceived Consequences of Layoffs

While a larger proportion of men than women are being laid off, it’s not as though women as a group are doing “better”. (See Melissa McEwan at Shakesville for a good discussion.) Because women work fewer hours, are more likely to have part time jobs without health insurance, and in full-time jobs earn 20% less than men in the same jobs, it’s hard for many working women to support a family. It’s a tough situation for working moms.

What’s more interesting than a comparison of the numbers is a comparison in how we understand the consequences of layoffs for men and women. The consequences of being laid off are different for women and men.

Gendered Definitions for Consequences of Layoffs

It’s claimed that men feel that their masculinity is threatened when they are laid off. Hanna Seligson, author of “Why the Sting of Layoffs Can Be Sharper for Men” in The New York Times, quotes one laid-off man:

“It’s hard not to imagine yourself as the breadwinner,” he said. “A lot of your ego eggs are in the job basket. I can’t shake the psychology that I’m supposed to provide.

There’s a good bit of pain about not being able to fulfill that traditional element of the male gender role.

This gender role pain is compounded for men in two-worker families. Where the man has lost his job and the woman has is now the primary only breadwinner, both of them need to renegotiate their gender roles. These emasculated laid-off dads also need to renegotiate their relationships with stressed out, resentful, inadequately-paid-but-still-employed moms.

For men alone and men with employed female partners, the consequences of layoffs are the same– Layoffs are knocking men and their women partners out of our comfortable (or preferable?) gender roles. See the article in the Boston Globe, Balancing Acts” by Maggie Jackson:

For families, layoffs shift responsibilities, roles. Women’s earnings more crucial with men out of work.

For better or worse, as they say, it’s new gender role territory.

Layoffs: Bad for men, but what about for moms ?

But look how the perception of consequences changes, when it comes to layoffs of (formerly) working mothers .

In the conversation about consequences for women who lose their jobs, the gender role issue is quite different. Instead of the pain of getting accustomed to some newfangled gender roles, women who are laid off have the opportunity to return to an old-fashioned, more comfortable, and by inference, better understanding of maternal femininity. For women, the gender role challenge is not the brave new world of egalitarian relationships but rather “get back home where you belong.”

Layoffs, for the (formerly) employed mother, bring some amount of — wait for it — relief . These now-unemployed moms get to stay home!

Please, do hold on to your hats. There’s more.

First, kudos to my colleague TheMamaBee, who brought a great example of sexism in action to our attention. (That’s her logo, of Rosie & baby.)

TheMamaBee deftly questions the subtext of the Associated Press article New job for laid-off moms: stay-at-home motherhood By Jocelyn Noveck. TheMamaBee also noticed that when this original article was syndicated across the US, it acquired  new, more descriptive titles, like this one:

“Some mothers find family fringe benefit in layoffs

The Mama Bee_1238184137184.jpeg

Says TheMamaBee:

I bristle at the implicit message that layoffs are somehow “good for” kids and their mothers. Even the relatively privileged women in the article are nervous about their futures. I suspect that the bulk of parents who are experiencing layoffs do not see extra family time as a “fringe benefit”…”They are worrying about healthcare, education and good housing. And since only a portion of the laid off women will find new jobs, many of them not as good as their previous positions, there are long-run costs that are exponential to the immediate impact.

While TheMamaBee takes the article to task for its focus on a small group of comparatively wealthier women, I think that The MamaBee is being a bit too kind. I see additional evidence of sexism, in the way that the article:

  • Presents working moms as disconnected from their kids.
  • Never mentions working dads, or laid off dads.
    (Dads must have some other kind of connection to their kids, since it’s no problem for a dad to work outside the home.)
  • Suggests that women who work outside the home are too wrapped up their selfish ‘careers’.
    (This is a whole different kind of privilege, because mothers shouldn’t be happy about careers that take them out of the home.)
  • Suggests that knowing the location of a classroom indicates how well or how poorly a mother is involved in her kids’ lives.
    (Is this a valid indicator of the degree to which a mom loves her kids and her kids feel loved? I still can’t make my way around my daughters’ school without asking for directions and there is no question that I love them. And I work (only) part time.)

Most cringe-worthy, perhaps, is the theme in this story and similar others, that these women are getting their comeuppance.

When we think about the consequences of layoffs for mothers who are employed outside the home, we need to remember:

  • It is a rare working-outside-the-home mother who is cavalier about her kids’ daily lives and who is uninvolved in their nurturing.
  • It is a rare full time mom whose job outside the home is a selfish pursuit.
  • It is a rare worker who experiences a layoff as something good.

There aren’t any “fringe benefits” to being laid off.

That’s not to say that you can’t grope around for a few silver linings… like the opportunity to renegotiate more egalitarian and fulfilling gender roles and partnerships, or a short term opportunity to spend more time with your family, or an impetus to retrain and reinvent yourself. But being laid off does not benefit moms who need to and/or choose to work.

Sexist discussions of the consequences of layoffs distort the truth. Layoffs hurt. Everyone.

( 3/30/09 Check out Kim Hayes’ essay on the same article.)


Aneil Mishra March 30, 2009 at 7:50 pm

There are simply too many important issues raised by this article written by CV for me to comment on all of them, but I’m hoping that others will be similarly disturbed and provoked. While I wouldn’t be surprised if organizations do practice some form of discrimination/sexism in laying off women disproportionately, they would be making the same mistakes in doing so when failing to hire/promote women because they are afraid they will take time off from the workforce to bear the lion’s share of raising their children. Additionally, I find it immoral that a firm would assume that a woman can more easily afford the burdens of unemployment more than a man, especially if women make less on average, have a greater share of household duties, and any other factor one wishes to throw into the mix. As with much of the “collateral” damage being done by our financial meltdown, I continue to be amazed that there is not more anger about what is happening. Then again, if one is unemployed, has children to feed, and other challenges, then that leaves little time for being angry and doing something about it.

Aneil Mishra

anonymous April 1, 2009 at 6:25 pm

This reminds me of an article I read recently (NY Times, this past weekend) about how child support is being reduced down to $50 a month for many dads who are unemployed (but still receiving hundreds or thousands of dollars a month in child support), or are underemployed, or are merely allegedly in fear of losing their jobs. What does that leave the custodial parent (who in the situations cited, were the moms)? Needing to work full-time somehow, combinded with taking care of the children full-time, in a shakey economy. There was no discussion in the article at all as to how moms were supposed to earn money if dad’s couldn’t.

I also know a number of women who are the primary breadwinners in their families (married or not), and are the providers of health insurance. I am both the primary breadwinner in my married, 2 kids & a dog household, and I am the provider of health insurance. My husband works both a full-time and a part-time job, neither of which provides health insurance. (The full-time company is too small to offer it; the part-time place doesn’t offer it to full timers and doesn’t have enough work to offer him full-time work.) If I were to be laid off, it would definitely not be a benefit to my family. I would simply need to find another job that offers health insurance asap. My family, like every human of every age in the US, needs health insurance more than they need any freakin’ home made cookies.

Anonymous April 1, 2009 at 8:35 pm

Aneil and Anon- Thanks both of you for your comments. The points you raise remind me of something Warren Buffett supposedly said about the recession… that it’s only when the tide goes out that you see who’s been swimming naked. What we’re seeing, I think, is how flush times covered over (or maybe just allowed us to ignore?) structural problems in our economy AND in our society. Layoffs and loss of income are hurting everyone. The ways that different groups are hurt differ– and the ways that government (and others) are trying to help don’t seem to be benefiting groups equivalently. Being home with the kids is a pleasure, but only for a dwindling few is it a luxury they/we can afford.

Anon, thanks also for bringing up that NYT article… It hadn’t even occurred to me when I skimmed it on Sunday to consider the gendered implications…

Amy April 3, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Glad to see discussion of this issue. NO ONE feels good about a layoff, and seeing a “silver lining” is not the same thing as a benefit. I’m the (female) primary breadwinner in my household, and the source of health benefits, and believe me while I enjoy having more time to work out and spend time with my husband – it’s NOT a sustainable situation. And I will be glad to go back to work and cut back on these areas. (Like many I am worried the new job will be a step backward in my career pay and status wise). This discussion and others give me the impression that women as primary breadwinners is not unusual in our society any longer. Maybe we need to be more vocal…

CV Harquail April 3, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Amy, it’s interesting that although the situation has changed, with more and more women being the primary earners (and with this trend spiking as many men get laid off), the interpretations of what these changes mean to us are still often skewed in a sexist way. And, the solutions are skewed too.

I wish that I had noted more closely and then written about the critiques of the Stimulus Plan, where so much more money was directed to industries with primarily male employees vs. those with primarily female employees. I also wonder– in the provisions of these stimulus grants, were there any requirements or expectations that women and men were to be treated equitably– for example, by rehiring/retaining the same percentage of male/female full-time/part-time workers? Did all boats rise when the tub was refilled a little, or only the full-time (usually male) boats? Just wondering.
Thanks so much for your comment…let’s keep talking about this!

Julia Moore April 4, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Thanks CV–a very important topic in these economic times.

Also not mentioned is what happens when the laid-off working mom is SINGLE and the sole support of the family? Or maybe not single but is the near-sole earner, as in my case? I know that if I got laid off, I would not spend my days fulfilledly taking care of my kids because they are older teens who couldn’t care less whether I am home or not when they are at school. Plus, without my income the family would descend into near-poverty within a few months. Any woman would tell you that they would not be relieved if they were laid off–if a woman works at a job for pay, there is ALWAYS a reason and that reason is always MONEY.

AnonymousDW April 4, 2009 at 4:15 pm

My husband will likely be laid off in the next couple of months. While I have not publicly admitted it. I did have a passing thought “wouldn’t it be great to have a house husband.”

Amanda Davis April 4, 2009 at 4:16 pm

It’s amazing how widely embedded and accepted gender roles are, as portrayed in original article. Women and men need to have the choice whether to work or be home – it is not selfish to have a career for either gender.

Thanks for the post.

Pamela Skinner April 4, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Speaking personally, it would be quite distressing for any single head of household (male or female) but more for those with financial responsibility for others. Some of my research on displaced industrial workers indicates that those with primary financial responsibilities are often reemployment faster than those who do not.

Kerrie Halmi April 4, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Excellent article. It reflects how much bias is still out there. Check your own bias about women in the workplace by going to https://implicit.harvard.edu It’s very eye-opening–I specifically work with women in Corporate America and I still had deep-seeded bias that more closely associated women with home and men with work (and my husband is stay-at-home, while I work full-time!)

The article also brings to light something I am seeing a lot recently. Bad economic times can bring out the worse in people, including bias.

The more educated we are about these topics the better–keep them coming!

Katie Albers April 4, 2009 at 6:32 pm

There is so much packed into this, almost invisibly. There’s the assumption that women are naturally those who work inside AND outside the home; the belief that a woman’s income is optional; the theory that women’s natural sphere is the home. And of course, the reverse assumptions for men in the world. Equally, that men would never be relieved to be laid off (which they sometimes are. It seems to mirror all those 1950s story lines where the husband assumes that he could do his wife’s job easily and better and she would be at a loss to do his job. Of course, that never proved out.) And those are just the tip of the iceberg.

We do know what sexism means…we’re just constantly shocked to find out that it’s so resilient and good at disguise. But sexism is and always has been the practice of believing that women and men are fundamentally different as human beings, not merely in their biological functions.

Scott Hubbard February 21, 2010 at 12:08 pm

I agree with you. Getting laid off from a job probably does affect men and women differently. For men, it certainly is an “ego” thing. But I feel it can affect women the same way. Many moms are highly qualified in the work place and do have full time, challenging jobs. A lay-off can be devastating.

But today we are seeing both moms and dads starting internet marketing businesses which allows one or both of them to work from home. There are many advantages and disadvantages for moms to operate their own home based business.

Just as you point out, there are challenges to working from home. Women need to consider those in making their decision.

Women working in a home business come from different backgrounds. They each have different skill sets. If a woman does not have a genuine interest in the products, services, or business she represents, she will have a difficult time achieving success.

One thing for moms to consider is that they are able to utilize the skills and talents they possess as they operate their own business from home.

So many times, women find this new venture both fulfilling and rewarding. It’s an option that should not be dismissed. Thanks for the article.
.-= Scott Hubbard´s last blog ..A Job or an Internet Home Based Business Opportunity – Moms and Dads Must Answer This Question =-.

cv harquail February 23, 2010 at 10:27 am

Hi Scott,
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. Certainly, one important way to deal with gendered dynamics in the labor market is to take yourself out of it and into your own business, be that ‘at home’ or elsewhere. Many argue that work-life pressures are what send so many women to start up their own (small) businesses. I’ve also seen, though, that men and women who have their own businesses still get caught in dysfunctional divisions of work/family labor, so changing the work context is not always enough. Wherever we take our work, we also have to take our commitment to treat each other as equals, regardless of gender (and family status).
Thanks for your post on home based businesses (which folks can get to from the comment above)!

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 1 trackback }