Do men and women react equally to the adversity of falling into the abyss of unemployment and poverty? What happens in both cases by the head of the affected people? Does belonging to one or the other gender lead to a greater propensity to despair?
A study conducted by researchers from the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) tries to answer those questions. The conclusions of these experts are clear: even when men are poor and unemployed, their recognition an role is tied to work, money and markets. Women, however, have more means to attain a sense of worth outside the economic realm. That is why men tend to perceive inactivity more as something harmful to them.
According to the information published by THL, the researchers analyzed 50 written autobiographical accounts of poverty by 25 Finnish women and 25 Finnish men aged 28–57 years submitted to a writing competition. The participants were informed that their texts would be used also for research purposes.
“Male respondents tended to think that being active generated value. Women’s futures were generally defined by waiting for something better and raising children”, explains researcher Reetta Siukola from the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare.
According to the accounts, motherhood brings with it an acknowledged position in society. Therefore, women respondents did not see unemployment as detrimental to them, as men seemed to do.
The analysed texts cover retrospective stories about childhood as well as descriptions of current poverty made by the respondents.
“The worst thing about living on a low income is that you feel your dignity diminishing with every penny you do not have in contrast with those who have them in abundance. The most important concern is finding your way and maintaining a healthy state of mind, where you can be as you are, whatever your financial situation” one of the participants wrote.
In the stories, hopeful future expectations and recognition often emerged together, and hopeless future expectations and experiences of unrecognition were likewise paired. And it can be said that, in general terms, poor women are more hopeful than poor men.
Bureaucracy, a source of worthlessness
The researchers also found that the social security bureaucracy, that the Finnish welfare state leans heavily on, was often described as a source of worthlessness.
“Professionals and officials often turned a deaf ear to people’s experiences, even though the writers felt they would have been able to express sympathy for people in subjectively unfair situations. The writers’ accounts described experiences of being left voiceless and unrecognized,” says researcher Minna Kukkonen from the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare.
Social security practices and public attitudes combined with financial shortage eroded experiences of dignity for both men and women, and left respondents prone to exclusion. To avoid stigma and shame, many respondents reported withdrawing from social relations.
Findings from outside the social security system, however, revealed that loneliness was heavily reported by male respondents.
“Men may feel left alone if they are not able to perform the sole permitted gender contract of a salaried worker and a family supporter. Meanwhile women have more room to move between social motherhood and the working woman”, says research manager Anna-Maria Isola.