August 15, 2022

The Female Factor: Greek Women Try to Soften the Blow of Austerity

“It’s an attempted defense against the crisis,” said Maria Karamesini, an associate professor of economics at Panteion University who briefs the European Commission on gender equality issues. “As joblessness rises among men, a growing pool of women are seeking to offset losses in household income,” said Ms. Karamesini, 51, who has been supporting her husband since early 2009 when he lost his job as an architect. “Most aren’t finding work, of course.”

Natalia Papapetrou, a 36-year-old architect who speaks three languages, never expected to apply for work as a cashier at her local supermarket in Athens. But five months after losing her job as an adviser to a state-run organization, and 18 months after her husband lost his, the responsibility of feeding two children weighed heavily.

The couple moved their elder daughter from a private school to a state school, and their parents are helping with mortgage repayments. With virtually no money coming in, finding work has become a pressing concern.

“I’m willing to do anything,” said Mrs. Papapetrou, who has applied for dozens of positions in stores and offices, but has yet to get a single offer.

Government statistics show that unemployment among Greek women rose 4 percent in the last quarter of 2010, reaching 17.9 percent, compared with an average of 9.7 percent in the 27-member European Union. For Greek women aged 29 and under, the rate stood at 33 percent. Joblessness among men increased by about the same rate, reaching 11.5 percent compared to an E.U. average of 9.5 percent.

The spike in male unemployment reflects months of layoffs that have fueled frequent angry protests in Athens. But there have been no mass redundancies in female-dominated areas like the public sector and the service industry — at least not yet. So the main reason for the rise in women’s unemployment would appear to be the unsuccessful search for jobs.

Economists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris are drawing the same conclusion. According to the agency, the labor force participation rate among Greek women (those either employed or actively looking for a job) increased 2.9 percent over the past three years — nearly triple the 1 percent E.U. average. But the employment rate for Greek women fell 0.8 percent in the period.

“This shows that Greek women ventured into the labor market in a bid to cushion the impact of the recession on their family’s income but often failed to find a job, at least one that is reported to the government,” said Paul Swaim, principal labor economist at the O.E.C.D. Mr. Swaim noted that women in Spain, where unemployment among women is above 20 percent, there had been a similar reaction. In Ireland, also weathering a tough recession, discouraged women tended to give up the job search.

In the 1990s, after the fall of communism, many women in former Soviet and East European countries became the main breadwinners — or tried to — after their husbands lost their jobs in the transition to a market economy. Many women also lost jobs after the closure of Soviet-era factories and plants. Some resorted to menial work, often being paid under the table, while caring for children and trying to console unemployed spouses who lapsed into apathy, alcohol abuse or violence. A handful managed to open small businesses. Others, failing to find jobs, moved abroad.

Oxana Ovseenko, for example, came to Athens in 1997 from Ukraine. She has worked ever since as a cleaner in the offices of a shipping company, sending money to her husband and son who earn a pittance as security guards back home. “In my country, all women work and they have to keep the family together, too,” said Ms. Ovseenko, 50, who was a textile factory worker back home.

Although the Greek economy is very different to the post-Soviet one, Greek women face similar challenges — and the same lack of options.

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