The impact of the economic crisis on gender relations should be addressed and analysed against the background of the economic recession, but also in terms of the policy priorities and agendas that have been introduced at the European and national level in response to the economic crisis.
First, we may observe a contradiction. At the European level and in member states where the impact of the crisis is less intense, commitment to the principles of gender mainstreaming and gender equality remains strong, and they are still widely respected in policy making and figure prominently in the policy agenda. At the national level, however, there are significant differences between EU member states. In member states more strongly hit by the economic crisis, gender issues are now considered to be of secondary importance compared to issues that seem linked to immediate economic survival and structural adjustment.
In this context, we may argue that in the “state of exception” that has been declared in member states like Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain, previous developments in gender equality have been ignored or marginalised. Broadly speaking, gender equality and women’s rights tend to be continuously undermined because they are considered secondary to the more “pressing” financial concerns. As a result, gender equality and gender mainstreaming tend to be viewed as “luxuries”.
Second, the impact of the crisis on gender relations is often viewed and analysed in a very static manner. For example, much of the academic literature on the Greek case has shown, at least in the early stages of research, that the economic recession led to a reduction of gender gaps, although both male and female employment and unemployment indicators showed a downward trend. This trend was documented in several studies, which used these findings to propose gender-neutral social policies such as minimum income and guaranteed social protection for the poor.
As explained above, the impact of the economic crisis on gender equality may prove to be more far-reaching than initially anticipated. This is mainly because the reduction of gender gaps has legitimised the adoption of austerity policies that are gender neutral. During the next stages of the economic crisis, austerity measures lacking a gender perspective may prove to have a very negative impact, and may even affect social systems that have achieved significant progress.
In particular, issues that in the past were considered to be limited to the private sector, like work–life balance, may resurface in new and unexpected ways as factors determining levels of poverty. These issues are especially highlighted in the reports of NGOs, labour unions and women’s groups, which tend to bring to the forefront problems emerging from the austerity measures more than official statistics do.
As mentioned above, the economic crisis also has indirect and often “invisible” effects on gender inequalities that may not be accurately captured by existing research, especially with quantitative approaches. For example, the impact of the economic crisis on political life may be significant, but it might not be analysed as a cause-effect relation and through the usage of statistical data. As can be observed in societies that have experienced severe unemployment and recessions, like Greece, the rise of the extremisms has also been associated with the rise of extreme racist, sexist and homophobic discourses and stereotypes. The rising electoral influence of the extreme right has also affected mainstream political parties and politicians, who have also adopted such discourses.