Image: creative commons license
By Aliya Hamid Rao, Ph.D.
John is a white, college-educated professional who lost his job. When I interviewed John, he chalked up his job loss as being a business decision, “A work superior explained to me that the business outlook was not looking good for the upcoming months. And consequently, it was a business decision, and not related to my work performance.” John added, “it was all based on dollars.” As I explain in a new article published in Gender & Society, for John and for dozens of other unemployed men that I interviewed, the process of losing a job was a fact of the contemporary U.S. economy. For some it also appeared to reinforce their professional value. James, a white project manager in healthcare described the meeting on the elimination of his position as “awkward” because his superiors “did not want to see this happen…Based on their professional and personal respect for me and based on the contribution and the value that I represented.” James felt that his bosses valued him even as they eliminated his position.
When I interviewed women who had lost their jobs, they were far less sanguine. Some women too saw their job loss as a business decision. For instance, Claire who worked in media explained that this “isn’t my first layoff,” referencing the reality that layoffs have now simply become an inevitable part of many sectors. Yet, unlike many of the men, even when women saw their job loss as a business decision, they did not emphasize that this process provided a sense of value. Moreover, women who had lost their jobs also often saw their job loss as a deeply personal decision made by employers and which devalued women’s professional worth. For instance, Kelly’s job loss unfolded over months, after she was assigned a new manager. Kelly felt that the new manager was contemptuous of her and did not see her as having any professional value. She describes how she felt, “I certainly must be doing something wrong. I must be awful at this job.” Once she was informed that she no longer had a job, Kelly internalized this lack of professional worth even more acutely, describing, “So I kind of absorbed that and for a long time I carried that with me.” She added, “I would cry my eyes out because I felt so worthless. It was just a cruel way to leave and I felt bad for a long time.” Sighing, she said, “I was so crushed emotionally.”
Why would men and women understand their job loss in such different ways? I argue in this article that women who lost their jobs often viewed this event through a long lens of being disrespected and devalued in the workplace over years, even decades. While Kelly’s manager’s treatment of her made Kelly doubt her professional worth, other women emphasized how their sacrifices for their job – especially time with young children – was recompensed through the institutional payback of losing their jobs. The data on women’s devaluation in organizations and in labor markets is robust: women’s qualifications, their leadership, and their personality are routinely questioned in a way that men’s simply are not. In this context, job loss becomes another pivotal moment for women in particular. For men, for the most part, job loss is of course an unpleasant experience, but it does not typically function to make men completely doubt their professional worth in this manner.
What do these understandings of job their job loss mean for the professional pathways that men and women pursue subsequently? I find that participating in paid work remains of primary importance to unemployed men and they imagine three main pathways: 1) no change in professional aspirations and searching for a full-time standard job with benefits; 2) searching for lucrative, albeit short-term and non-standard, contract work; 3) pursuing entrepreneurial pathways that they often see as an appropriate response to unreliable employers.
Women too had three pathways: 1) most women who lost their jobs also wanted full-time, standard jobs with benefits; 2) some wanted entrepreneurial jobs for the flexibility they saw this pathway as offering or because they viewed this pathway as minimizing the control an unkind superior could have on them; 3) for some women, job loss often served as a key moment to reassess their relationship to paid work. This latter group comprises women who saw their job loss as personal and those who did not. More than women’s interpretation of job loss, age of children appears to matter: unemployed women with young children tend to reconsider the role they want employment to play in their lives overall. Grace, a white unemployed woman, described her job loss as a leaving a “bad taste” in her mouth. Losing her job prompted Grace to rethink her professional pathway. She said, “I realized that you don’t always have to follow the track that you’re on. I was on a full-time career track and miserable in it.” Grace added, “I never thought ‘Well can we [manage finances] if I go to part-time or consult? Until I was forced in that position.” For these women, the lack of care infrastructure and the hostility of many workplaces to recognize childcare needs which disproportionately fall on women, in addition to job loss, was key in rethinking their attachment to paid work.
Job loss is pervasive and women in particular are more at risk of losing a job through practices of downsizing and restructuring. In this context, we must conceive of job loss as an expected – not anomalous – workplace experience. Research on getting hired or getting promoted shows how the gendered labor market disadvantages women. In this article, I ask that we turn our attention to job loss as a gendered and prevalent workplace experience. My research is a step towards illuminating how the experience and interpretation of job loss matters for gendered inequalities in professional pathways.
Dr. Aliya Hamid Rao (@aliyahrao) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Methodology at the London School of Economics. Her research uses qualitative methods to illuminate the gendered experiences of unemployment in the U.S. professional middle-class.