Thursday, June 19, 2014

Working Women: The Gendered Nature of Time Poverty

Poverty, as we are discovering, is far more complex than financial scarcity. It is a multi-dimensional structure with cross-cutting issues that affect every facet of a person's life: from their employment benefits and likelihood of upward mobility to their health and trust in doctors, from their parenting skills to their children's language skills, from their ability to process information to their ability to make good decisions. Poverty is the overall blanket that smothers a person's life in a self-perpetuating and compounding way.

Development workers have long known of 'time poverty,' a concept only now being understood in a Western poverty context. Poor people live on borrowed time that they will never, if rarely, be able to make up: the more problems happening in the moment, the less I can concentrate on the future, and the more pressing the issues (bills, food, health), the more time and concentration I give to them, resulting in bad long terms decisions in order to fulfill the immediate need. This is the 'bandwidth' part of time poverty. The second, physical, is measured in hours: poverty compounds activity: not only is my mind taken up with pressing issues of survival, but my body is taken up with working, overworking and the inability to come in some way to relieve the pressures of never being able to stop working. Relaxation, vacations, time off, these are luxuries of the rich - time that is too costly to waste for the poor.

Research has shown that living in poverty only reinforces the vicious mind/body cycle: even when shown opportunities for betterment, poor people will often not know they can take advantage of those opportunities, or not be able to see them because they are so habituated to living under the pressures of scarcity. Poverty drastically impairs people's ability to spot opportunity or take advantage of the ones presented to them.* And so the poor borrow not only money from banks at high rates, from friends and family at rates of loss of friendship and trust, but also time at rates that can never be repaid. Time from tomorrow, time from next week, time that is such a costly commodity with a sky high tax: poor people have less attention spans, less energy, less apt cognitive functioning, all due to the borrowed time. The poor can't take time off being poor to make up for the stress in their current moment.

Time poverty in the physical sense is also be seen and measured: the rich afford time savers: nannies, drivers, helpers, gardeners, cleaners, assistants. This begins to point to the extreme gendered nature of time poverty: much of the help that the rich can afford relates to traditional female roles and activities around the family and home. The current research has concentrated on developing nation women who often not only take care of the cooking, cleaning, child, sick and elderly care, but also the gardening, much of the field work, grocery and water gathering, while also tending to their husbands and fulfilling cultural duties of sexual acts when the man demands it, carrying unplanned pregnancies and taking part in any matriarchal duties in the community.

Just as in most Western states however, this burden and duty of care is barely recognized by states (save for some progressive European nations) and is certainly not economically rewarded. Equally as important, the perception of this work is always less than the perception of waged work - our economic value system rewards paid work in the public sphere far more than work in the private domain. Perception matters: where a woman's work and time is considered of lesser value, her worth as a person diminishes as well, as does the value of her girl children who will grow into the same moulds as their mothers.

It would be unreasonable to suggest that the gendered nature of time poverty does not affect so-called developed nations. Indeed, the advent of women in the workplace has not been coupled with a diminution of work at home or a shared burden of household and family care by their partners and women are finding themselves fulfilling more roles now than in the past. Is it any wonder than women view their homes as sources of high stress while men view them as spaces of relaxation? Although there is a physical separation between their workplace and their home, women often finish a day's work to return to a home where they must now cook, clean and take care of children and tend to their partners, while men return home to relax and enjoy their evening. This despite research that suggests men who help around the house also have more sex with their partners, are less likely to divorce, and report higher overall happiness within their partnerships.

For women who work from home or who are stay at home mothers, time poverty remains a constant, and in this occasion with no physical separation between work and home. They move from home care to more home care, or work to more work, without any leisure time, a concept that, worldwide, is largely owned by men. In many developing countries, women do not factor in leisure into their day at all, not even seeing it as a possible activity in which they could partake. Men, however, see leisure time as a right, part of the daily reward for their (more valued) work. This only serves to increase the difference in value placed on men and women: women must continue to work because their time, energy, and the work they do is of less value - men are allowed leisure, because their time has been spent more valuably, and so they are considered to have more value overall. In the developed world it is no less true: the OECD reports men spending more time for leisure than women on a daily basis.

Is it any wonder that global poverty has also been largely defined as gendered: women are more susceptible to poverty and with what we are not discovering about the many adverse affects of poverty, it could be suggested that women bear more of the brunt of these cognitive, confidence, and bandwidth affects as well. While in developing nations, fundamental changes to the root causes of gender inequality are needed, developed nations must reconfigure their notions of success and work to include family-friendly workplace policies and governments that place more value on the work done within the private sphere. Where developing nations must redefine their value systems and prioritize women's education, time, health and economic opportunities, developed nations must work to remove second-generation gender barriers from the workplace and promote women's confidence through empowerment and more women in power with decision-making abilities.

Neither world has got it right and each can learn from the other. Moreover, the rich and the poor have such widening gaps between them that they barely understand the other's experience, resulting in a lack of empathy and co-operation which looks to be increasingly impossible. In a world where gender issues and women's rights are more and more at the forefront of economic development and social well-being, it would seem pressing that governments must incorporate the varied nuances that gender represents within their wide reaching policies. Moreover, men and women must work together for better unity in the long term. Women's issues are men's issues too, and the way in which we spend our time and the value we place on it is an important part of the attitudes we have toward each other. 

*This was exposed to me in a brilliant This American Life podcast last year on the hidden failures of the job market in the US, concentrating on disabilities numbers. In many of the interviews, when people who had been jobless or underemployed for a lengthy period of time or who were on disability were asked what they aspired to, their aspirations dropped significantly to match their current situation. When presented with alternatives, they responded that they did not even imagine such a job, or that such a lifestyle could be available to them.

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