It's obvious: In times of recession, women are usually the ones to see its ugliest face. In Greece, where, in December 2013, unemployment reached 27.5% for the general population, women earned a 31.6% badge of unwanted honor. They are the first to go from their usually low-level and low-paying jobs and they are the most vulnerable combatants in the world of cutthroat workplace competition due to the perceived inflexibility caused by their family priorities.
But this is not the most worrying part.
Recessions come and go and you can more or less fight against what you perceive as wrong, with whatever means you find or make available. Through my pregnancy in early 2010 in the expectant mothers' forum and whatever prenatal yoga classes I managed to squeeze between work and glucose challenge screenings, I met my fair share of other pregnant women, with whom I bonded over essential pre-birth purchases and, crucially, our maternity leave rights and choices.
Four years later, half of them have not returned to work. Not to the one they took the leave of absence from, not to any other paid job, inside or outside the house.
Some of them were just ready and eager to quit a job they didn't like, but only endured until they had a baby. Others would be at least willing to return, but the numbers wouldn't add up: their salary was -- or was bound to become, as the crisis set in -- too low to justify childcare expenses, added to the emotional cost of being, for 8, 10 or 12 hours a day away from their 6-month-old. A few tried unsuccessfully to find a new job, after being made redundant or falling out with a manager on the basis of statutory maternity leave and/or benefits.
However, most of them are now part of a growing trend within the Greek society of legitimizing women's downshifting and romanticizing the return to domesticity. Well-educated and creative women, who would have never dreamt of relinquishing their financial independence, are suddenly touting staying at home as the pinnacle of finally discovering and enjoying the simple life.
The idea that the joys of paid work are in no way comparable to family and kids is suddenly making an improbable comeback.
Women's ambition and careerism are often viewed as symptoms of a distorted value system that really needs a slap-in-the-face of the redundancy sort in order to be fixed. Athens-based clinical psychologist Filio Tsoukala says:
As humans we always have the need to invest into what seems to be our reality. We seek to attribute a dimension of personal freedom to our current circumstances and we usually feel more comfortable by building an ideology around our personal choices or unavoidable arrangements, such as becoming unemployed and staying at home with the kids. And at a time when, for most Greek women, the workplace does not lend itself to grand visions (not even to a smooth and rewarding career path), work-related sacrifices cannot be easily justified and domesticity becomes again the sole sphere of dominance and optimism."
Now, is it wrong to adapt to the social and economic reality around us? It certainly isn't. Is it degrading to choose to stay at home, to be a full-time mother, to reconsider priorities? Of course it is not. Downshifting is a perfectly valid choice when you feel you also have the option not to take it; when you have all the information you need in order to make an empowered decision; when you have been given (or have earned) the tools to really choose; when you feel that you do have the potential to see how the color of grass fares on the other side of the fence. In other words, what would happen if more women had the opportunity to rise in adequately paid and fulfilling jobs? What would be their drop-out percentage if more of them were encouraged to explore challenging and rewarding career paths? How eager would they be to keep looking for a job or to create one for themselves, if the whole of society (our men, our media, our politicians, other women) avoided falling back to the conservative way of thinking that a recession always encourages?
According to a telling working paper by the Swedish Institute for Social Research, which analyzed data from 18 established democracies, women with access to higher education will stay in paid work regardless of the family-friendliness of their countries' government policy. From abc.net.au: "their individual resources 'enable ... them to make real choices', and the choice most women make when they have a range of good options and the freedom to choose among them is to stay in paid work."
For women in Greece and other debt-ridden countries the range of options is narrow right now, and is unlikely to broaden for quite a while. Masquerading this serious problem as a conscious lifestyle choice may be a comforting coping mechanism for a while. But it should not become an excuse to let the freedom too slip through the cracks.