Panel: women hit hard by recession

Many people and organizations are experiencing the negative effects of the ongoing recession, but American women are among the hardest hit.

The “Gender, Jobs and This Recession” panel organized by the School of International and Public Affairs’s Gender Policy Working Group brought professional women from private and public sectors to the International Affairs Building to discuss how the financial crisis has affected women both here at Columbia and all over the world.

A packed room of SIPA students heard grim prognoses on the current job market, work-life balance, and the gendered nature of professional stress as Sylvia Hewlett, director of SIPA’s Gender Policy Program and founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, outlined the effects of the recession on women. She said that although men and women had both experienced an increase in stress levels at work, women were more likely to quit their jobs as a result. Working longer hours in increasingly high-pressure environments puts women at “flight risk” due to the imbalance it introduces into their relationships and childcare responsibilities, according to Hewlett.

Although women have stepped up to take more responsibility in the current crisis, they frequently do not receive extra compensation. There is still more “leveling at the top with no pulling up from the bottom,” said Subha Barry, a panelist and managing director at Merrill Lynch.

“Although 63 percent of women feel unprepared for retirement and more families are becoming reliant on women as their sole breadwinners, there’s a real gap in media coverage of this issue,” said Heidi Brown, a senior reporter for Forbes.

The short-term outlook may seem tough, but even more difficult changes may be required further down the line. “A fundamental transformation in the social contract between states and societies and workplace and employees is inevitable if we are to prevent another financial crisis in the next 30 years,” said Shyama Venkateswar, director of research and programs at the National Council for Research on Women.

The panelists agreed that the current lack of diversity in top leadership positions and corporate boards is inherently unsustainable in the long run.
Venkateswar suggested additional economic security measures for women since, in times of recession, women are disproportionately more affected than men. Violence against women is reported to rise during times of financial instability, a disturbing spillover effect of unemployment and stress. Directing part of the Obama administration’s stimulus plan towards building infrastructure to ease work-life balance could help in this regard.

According to the panelists, these effects have implications for college graduates. As corporations in the financial sector lose top talent to stress and lower-pressure jobs, graduate students will have more opportunities to re-enter the work force. Hewlett encouraged students to be flexible in terms of location and job sector when looking for job opportunities.

“There are certain sectors and, globally, certain areas, that are doing better than average in this economy,” she said. She called current seniors the “millennial generation” that will change the way both women and men are treated in the workforce. “Your generation, not ours, will be the one to step up and demand a more balanced life, and, as corporations see that, they will reassess their expectations.”

Anesa Diaz-Uda, SIPA ’10, acknowledged that, though asking for a work-life balance in this economy may be a tough sell, she looks forward to finding purpose in her job. “Although we here at Columbia are all overachievers who wouldn’t balk at putting in extra hours on the job, I think the sense of purpose we’ll find at work will tide us over the lack of work-life balance,” she said.

Maya Paley, SIPA ’10, disagreed, stating, “If we continue to compromise on the work-life balance and put it off as a long-term issue, we’ll never get anywhere.”

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