Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Women and the Economy - Various Viewpoints

Jen Nedeau is Change.org's women's rights blogger, as well as a resource and frequently-quoted expert in online media. She recently pulled together a summary of some of the current thinking on the impact of our current economic situation on women, noting the that the opinions range from very pessimistic to somewhat positive (if you believe that women becoming the majority of the workforce because more men are losing their jobs is a good thing).
  • Dana Goldstein, The American Prospect: How the Stimulus Sells Women Short, suggests that the difference in the rate of layoffs among men and women isn't something to celebrate - most families can't afford to lose one income if they need two to get by. The piece also notes that in the typical heterosexual family, the female's income is generally about 35% of the income for the household.
  • Rebecca Traister, Salon.com: So You Still Want to Date a Banker: Traister takes on the the conversations related to how job loss for men will affect their relationships with women (a discussion stimulated by the NYT's piece on the faux-group, Dating a Banker Anonymous). Traister raises an interesting question about the impact of this significant economic downturn on the roles of men and women in the workforce and society, noting that "previous moments of economic crisis have also sent women into the workforce in large numbers -- see the Depression, World War II, the 1970s."
I have yet to see data that breaks down gender job loss based on professional and managerial positions in organizations - doesn't mean it isn't out there, I just haven't found it yet. But in the time that I've been in the workforce, downturns in the economy have generally been considered a negative influence on women's employment in white collar positions - that there is a tendency in some organizations to "circle the wagons" so to speak with the people most like senior management (typically white men). Such has been the experience of some women in the financial arena, as noted in Forbes.com's Terminated: Why the Women of Wall Street are Disappearing. In the article, author Anita Raghavan notes:
  • "In the worst financial crash since the Depression, financial services and insurance firms have cut 260,000 jobs. Seventy-two percent of the missing workers laid off have been women, even though they constituted 64% of employment before the crash began."
Raghavan also shares one of the arguments used as a defense in response to claims by women of gender-based layoffs: "perhaps some new moms and older women have simply lost their mojo."
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Monday, March 16, 2009

Beatification in the Cape Town Townships

On day five in Cape Town, we finally saw how a large portion of the population live: in the townships. We learned that there are many issues facing this particular demographic: high HIV/AIDS infection rates; prevalent domestic violence issues; high incidences of opportunistic diseases, such as TB and meningitis that attack AIDS patients; and finally we learned that drugs have become a big problem, such as crystal meth. The newest host for problems has been violence related to xenophobia; South Africa has faced a large influx of immigrants and refugees from other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Mostly Zimbabweans have come to find a place to live, but there are Congolese, Somali refugees seeking peace and have found violence in South Africa. One young man explained to me that it is the high unemployment rate among South Africans that led to such hostilities.

One thing that stood out to me, were the proliferation of micro "Hair Salons." Every corner we turned had either a salon or a barber shop in a smaller Cape Town township called Joe Slovo. I found this to be a positive message for both entreprenuerialism and a sense of aesthetical beauty. If people invest something in making themselves appear nicely, then they must be aspiring for something better. And there must be some money to be made or else we wouldn't have seen so many salons.

We met with whom I would call the unofficial mayor, a woman who was running a community center. She was strong, sincere and patient when she told us about the challenges to feed the children who attend the pre-school, to administer their medications and care for them when a parent is sick. She also introduced us to the two community care workers who are educating the population about HIV/AIDS, taking care of the sick in the absence of a medical doctor or nurse, and counselling the community on domestic violence issues and child abuse.

After learning about the work being done, we asked a question about resources. The response was that the government provides resources only when they are available. There didn't seem to be anything regularly scheduled for a day to day or week to week agenda. Literally the women we met seemed to be facing these challenges alone. What made them not alone is that they were standing on the work that their mothers and other women in the community had pioneered.

After the discussions we were given a tour of the modest day-care, or creche, as it is called in South Africa. The faces of the children were of course beautiful and smiling. There were a couple of children who looked like they weren't feeling so well with running noses in the 30 degrees Celsius heat. What was striking were the conditions of the creche. They were bad. The floor linoleum was missing patches. The roof was coming apart. But, the children were singing with a teacher and there was a pot of rice with corn and vegetable oil cooking on the stove. All of the children gave me "five" as I left.

This place touched me. It was so dramatically different from anywhere else in Cape Town. The Cape Town government was helping to provide new housing for the residents who were living in shacks. The problem described to us is that when they build a nice neighborhood and relocate families, they try to give the new homes a small yard. Then within months, an extended family member will come and build an informal structure, or shack, and attach it to the new build. This has been a constant challenge facing the government's housing projects. We saw the evidence as we passed through the neighborhoods. But again, what I found so interesting is that there was a hair salon or two or three on every street. It rendered hope, because if a community cares about making themselves feel better by looking good, that is fine with me. In fact, I think it is a positive statement.

I got the address for the "unofficial mayor" in the event that I could ever come up with an idea to join her efforts. I really saw her good intent and I trust my instincts. One example of her discernment is that we saw a little boy walking with his grandmother. The little boy was bare bottomed. While we thought it was cute, the unofficial mayor called out to the woman and spoke in Xhosa. She told me that the reason the child didn't have pants was because they were all dirty. The unofficial mayor said to me, "that is abuse of the child."

The only thing I was able to offer her at the moment was the money I had in my pocket. I asked if I could give it to her, she said it would help feed the children; that was R200. About $20. It won't do anything to really help the community. There is a guilt that this brings, how can I do more? The way forward is to create sustainable mechanisms for employment so that people can provide themselves with nutrition and good health. That is a debate on its own... to figure out the best way. We witnessed a community garden on the outskirts of Joe Slovo. The problem though facing the garden is theft. It is difficult not to resign to despair when a solution meets something as evil rooted as theft.

I committed to concluding this entry on a positive note, so I will. What I saw in this impoverished neighborhood was a space for hope. I am not sure the government housing is the answer. I'm not sure micro-enterprise is the answer. I think the answer is simpler, yet more profound, then those means of intervention. I really believe that there needs to be a joining of hands and communication of hearts from the elite to the impoverished--this is true in any society. There will always be theft. There will always be entreprenuerialism. Both of those acts are of human impulse. And, I believe there will always be leaders willing to come together to resolve community issues. Open dialogue between all of the classes must be included in the way forward with a sense of volunteerism--which South Africa didn't seem to lack. So, again, I want to state that I saw hope in South Africa, even in its poorest parts.
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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Four Men

Internet access has been slow, my blogging entries will be back-dated. Most importantly will be for me to write about the observances I have made about the women I have met and seen in action.

It is week two. Week one was filled with observation; I was breathing in the culture, society, politics, gender relations, etc. Week two has been a period of reflection; this nation has embraced our travels in a warm, in-depth and accepting manner. In such a short period, I have not been able to get my head around South Africa's societal state since apartheid. Apartheid is such a significant, omnipresent part of everything I have witnessed. I have not been able to formulate my own perspective on equality concerning gender or race. What I have been able to understand clearly is economic disparity as a polarizing force.

Four men have crossed my path from the various meetings we have held. Usually we are meeting with women who are on the ground working to fight AIDS, poverty, HIV infection, social problems such as domestic violence and access to food. Conversations with men are more rare. So, though I have not yet decided my own perspective on race and gender in South Africa, I am able to point to a dichotomy that I have heard from the voices of four men.

I met two white men on two different business occasions. I met two black men on two different business occasions. In South Africa, it is appropriate to identify people as white, black or colored, thus the reference to the race of the men above. On discussing South African progress and change, the two white men told me that South Africa is getting worse, that safety, poverty, infrastructure, and the economy are worsening every day. Conversely, two black men told me that South Africa is getting better. One referred to a suburb of Johannesburg, Soweto, and stated with hope that there has been so much improvement since 1994. The dichotomy involves the government, the economy and public health and welfare.

The truth is that both points are equally valid. This is a country in the midst of power shift, a new democracy, and a battle field for HIV/AIDS. Though I have not yet conceived of how I truly perceive this nation, I do see hope and good as well as struggle and challenge. I also see women who are deeply connected to their communities and working tirelessly for the welfare, equality and improved public health of this country. The women have not openly stated whether things are getting better or worse, they are entrenched in the work to save the country.

There have been men that we have seen who are also working for the public good, and are supporting and encouraging the type of work that needs to be done to pull this country out of its problems. But from my observance, mainly women are on the ground from doctors and nurses to community care workers, teachers and lawyers. Women are taking the lead with the situation they have inherited and doing the best they can without disclosing their perspectives of the direction ahead. Rather than debating the dichotomy, they are in action, hands joined, mobilizing to transform what this country faces.
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