Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Gender Bias and Family Distress: The Privatization Experience in Argentina

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Gender Bias and Family Distress: The Privatization Experience in Argentina

Article excerpt

Introduction

The intention of this article is to examine structural adjustment and the particular impact of privatization on the lives of women and families. Although privatization is occurring on a global scale, this study draws conclusions specifically from the Argentine case. In doing so, it intends to ask the following questions: how did the process of privatization in Argentina affect the situation of women? Which women were most affected? Were women affected differently than men? Have changing economic conditions--in which privatization plays a strategic role--elicited new strategic responses from families?

Structural adjustment in Argentina began in the mid-1970s. Since that time, adjustment in Argentina--as in Latin America in general--has resulted in a deterioration of living conditions for a significant proportion of the population. The failure of several economic programs during the late 1980s prompted the government to begin implementing privatization in 1991. Privatization produced some economic benefits, but also exacerbated the falling standard of living, with significant sociological consequences.(1) Rising unemployment, falling real salaries (especially those of male breadwinners) and a general spread of poverty have resulted in major changes in family roles and dynamics, including shifts in women's domestic and economic roles that force them to devote an increasing amount of time and effort toward their productive tasks in addition to their reproductive tasks.(2) Due to their central role in the management of family resources and administration of the household, women face major challenges as family incomes shrink(3) and formerly public social services become increasingly expensive and inaccessible.(4) At the same time, the tenuous employment conditions of male heads of households have forced many women into the labor market, where most face poorer working conditions and earn lower salaries than men.(5) In this context, increased labor participation by women from the lower and middle social strata should be understood not as an option for individuals to pursue personal growth--an argument better suited to a minority of highly educated, upper-middle class women--but rather as a survival strategy among families threatened by poverty.(6)

To provide further context for these issues, the first section of this article will review economic trends of the last two decades, focusing on major changes in the labor market of the Buenos Aires metropolitan area since the new economic program began in 1991.(7) The second section discusses the effects of these changes on Buenos Aires' women and families, including some of their major adaptive responses to economic hardship. The third and fourth sections are devoted to an analysis of some specific characteristics of privatization efforts within several major enterprises and their quantitative and qualitative effects on employment and working conditions, especially within the two privatized enterprises with the biggest share of female employees. Finally, some concluding remarks draw out specific policy-oriented conclusions.

Several thorough case studies explore the sociological effects of privatization on Argentina's manufacturing and extractive industries, which mainly employ male workers. These studies are similar in that they all stress the changes in family roles and dynamics that have occurred as a consequence of male unemployment following privatization, and female compensation for the lost income.(8) However, there are no systematic studies that quantitatively assess the specific effects of privatization on total employment in Argentina or its major metropolitan areas. Neither are there studies dealing with the effects of privatization on women employees, nor available statistics that dissagregate employment in privatized firms by gender. This statistical failure parallels the fact that changes within newly privatized firms, although not deliberately directed against women, frequently result in gender biases against female employees by simply ignoring gender asymmetry. …

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