How do married couples react when one spouse becomes unemployed? According to Aliya H. Rao’s research, their reaction will largely depend on whether the unemployed spouse is a man or woman. Rao, a sociologist, is a former Clayman Institute postdoctoral fellow and current assistant professor at the London School of Economics. She recently joined Clayman Institute Director Adrian Daub and Executive Director Alison Dahl Crossley to discuss her 2020 book Crunch Time: How Married Couples Confront Unemployment as part of the Celebrating Clayman Institute Authors series.
Rao’s book draws on interviews with unemployed, heterosexual men and women professionals and their spouses, including extensive family observations. At the outset of her talk, Rao described how her study began as an exploration of the uncertainty that stems from unemployment—an event that affects around 90 percent of college-educated workers at least once, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. How do married couples grapple with unemployment? What kinds of changes occur within families when one spouse becomes unemployed? When husbands experience unemployment, does this unexpected event catalyze a more egalitarian division of housework and childcare? Paradoxically, Rao found that unemployment ends up reinforcing gender inequality within families rather than reducing it.
In the aftermath of an involuntary job loss, the couples in Rao’s study “deployed gendered strategies” to deal with the uncertainty of unemployment. For unemployed men, job loss was viewed as an urgent problem that needed to be resolved quickly. Some wives even saw their husbands’ unemployment as a moral failing. For unemployed women, on the other hand, the importance of job loss was generally downplayed—even in circumstances where the woman had significantly outearned her husband’s income. Couples did not feel the same sense of panic or urgency around a woman’s unemployment, and instead framed her loss of income in terms of “pared down needs” as opposed to “relative deprivation,” as it was generally seen for a man.
Rao also found that couples dedicated unequal amounts of time and resources towards reemployment depending on the gender of the unemployed spouse. There was a tremendous expectation that men would prioritize job searching and that they would demonstrate this intense focus to their wives. In addition to providing emotional support, wives helped unemployed men organize their time around job searching, allowing men to continue doing less housework than their employed wives. In her talk, Rao shared several quotes from her participants to illustrate how time became gendered during unemployment.
For instance, Terry, one unemployed man had exclaimed: “I’m home to find a job. I’m not home to do [housework].” No longer able to be “ideal workers” in the world of paid work, unemployed men instead focused on becoming “ideal job-seekers” at home. In stark contrast, unemployed women primarily organized their time around domestic tasks—especially childcare—and did even more unpaid work at home. Resources, including time, space, money, and emotions, were not redirected towards unemployed women as they were towards unemployed men. Rao shared one quote from unemployed Cheryl, whose loss of income had meaningfully changed the dynamics in her marriage when it came to housework: “[My husband] would take more turns doing things. He would help with the dinner, meals, or cleaning. Now that I’m not working, it’s not even the realm of even anything he’s thinking about.”
Resources, including time, space, money, and emotions, were not redirected towards unemployed women as they were towards unemployed men.
One of the most notable gendered differences in the allocation of resources Rao observed pertained to physical space in the home. Unemployed men received designated space at home or spent money on things like new hardware, software, or even furniture to upgrade existing home offices for their job search. Unemployed women did not receive the same allowances, often job searching from anywhere—the kitchen table, dining room, on the kids’ desks or even job-hunting while sitting in the bleachers at their childrens’ extracurricular events. One audience member asked Rao why she thought the women in her study didn’t simply ask their husbands for their own office space and time. Would their husbands have refused? Were the women less vocal about their needs? Or did they not feel it was necessary to isolate themselves in order to accomplish personal goals? Rao replied: “It was more the sense of your searching for a job is just not that important right now. You get to be the kind of mom you couldn’t be before because you were doing paid work.” Interestingly, however, Rao later found that many unemployed women who had initially relished the opportunity to be a “better mother” felt that this sensation dulled over time. The daily tasks they performed to “pamper” their children no longer felt as fulfilling—particularly among those mothers with older children. Rao also mentioned how some mothers felt unsure of how to “demand” support (on both a strategic and emotional level) from their spouses.
While Rao’s data were collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, her findings speak to the many challenges mothers faced in the wake of remote schooling, high unemployment, and the shift to remote work. During her talk, Rao cited news articles covering how men often had dedicated work spaces throughout the pandemic, while women had to shut themselves inside bathrooms and other small spaces to avoid interruption during Zoom meetings. Rao’s research also sheds light on how the symbolic devaluation of women’s work likely contributed to the recent “she-cession” over the same period, with many more women than men downshifting their responsibilities at work or leaving the workforce entirely to care for their school-aged children. In sum, the findings of Crunch Time reveal the durability of gender norms, both at work and in the home, as well as the obstacles that continue to prevent the equitable coordination of work and family for modern couples.