Feminisation of poverty. In Poland, poverty has the face of a woman. It is often a girl’s face.

Tenderness and freedom

Does poverty have the face of a woman in Poland?

More often than male, and often it is a girl’s face.

Nevertheless, the term “feminisation of poverty” is still not widely known.

Feminisation of poverty sounds very awkward in Polish. The combination of the scientific word “feminisation” with poverty that we don’t want to hear about or notice, makes the term little known outside of a narrow circle of specialists. In Poland, they can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Why are there so few of these specialists?

We do not have a tradition of researching the gender dimension of poverty in Poland. Until 1989, conducting such research was impossible, the publication of the results was stopped by censorship. Today it is still difficult to break through with it, because nobody wants to hear about poverty. Still, unfortunately, the neoliberal discourse is strong, in which the poor become so by choice. We re-stereotype and marginalise them.

There is, of course, no money for this research. For the last 20 years, one of the few centres that dealt with the feminisation of poverty was the Institute of Sociology of the University of Lodz.

I think stereotyping is the key word. The feminisation of poverty in Poland is strongly influenced by the family model and expectations towards social roles. It is women who are stereotypically assigned caring roles.

Although there are more women who work and at the same time perform caring functions at home than those who do not work at all, but in fact we expect all women to provide care work. And not only from those who have their own children. A woman is supposed to look after her parents, and it is even expected that she will take care of people to whom she is not related, e.g. her husband’s parents. It is the woman who will quit her job to take care of a disabled, chronically ill child. And these women from the first group do this work for free, it is a socially invisible job.

Women who do housework have full-time jobs, except that this work is unpaid. And they suffer not only the consequences of the lack of regular earnings, but also the lack of pension contributions.

We prepare girls for the role of babysitters from an early age.

And we encourage them to undertake education in the fields related to care. Which means that in the future they will perform low-paid and low-prestige feminised professions. Because it is boys who are pushed onto career paths that will automatically bring them higher salaries.

Well, a man working in a kindergarten still causes a sensation.

Such men are immediately pushed onto the “right” career path. For instance because it is not known what to do with such a “kindergarten teacher”. Therefore, he often quickly becomes the deputy director of such an institution.

There are voices of criticism towards women: “after all, they only have themselves to blame, they could loudly ask for a raise and a promotion” or: “why did they decide on this profession?” except that it’s not so binary at all.

Then why are women still afraid of asking for a raise or a promotion?

The reason lies in specific socialisation training. This is what we are taught from birth, this is how our parents, school and the media socialise us. And when we behave contrary to this social expectation, we are punished for it. By exclusion from the group, social ostracism. And these severe penalties make us quickly return to the beaten path.

Women’s work is assessed as less important. This can be especially seen in mixed teams where men and women work with the same responsibilities. Men in such teams emphasise the importance of what they do to a greater extent, and women’s work is sometimes depreciated. It is men in these teams who also demand recognition and a raise more often.

Is there a solution to that?

Only an equality policy. So, first noticing that such inequalities exist, and then deciding that it needs to be changed.

What about grassroots work?

The programme “Girls as Engineers!” has been operating in Lodz for over a dozen years. As part of counteracting menstrual poverty, on the initiative of the Różowa Skrzyneczka [Pink Box] foundation, there have also been publicly available points where you can find free pads and tampons. But how many such boxes can a grassroots women’s movement put in place? After all, this should be the responsibility of local governments and be financed from their resources.

Of course, we can still establish an awareness component, but this is also difficult to implement now, because gender studies have not been equated with other types of education, and are not subsidised by the state in the same way as other fields of study. It is actually a very risky form of activity, because non-governmental organisations that would train an equal society as part of bottom-up activities are subject to constant criticism and, at the same time, are deprived of any funds for it.

So this grassroots movement is large, but we will not be very successful without a central equality policy.

You mentioned menstrual poverty. This is a special type of poverty that affects the majority of the female sex.

Menstrual poverty consists in the fact that, for financial reasons, women and girls do not have access to an adequate quantity and quality of menstrual hygiene products, that they have to choose between their purchase and other expenses important to them and their families, that they cannot afford more expensive products such as menstrual cups or menstrual underwear.

In the context of menstrual poverty, can we speak of inheriting poverty?

Absolutely. We come back to the already mentioned transmission of patterns, taboos, because menstrual poverty is so deeply hidden precisely because of this double taboo – poverty and menstruation. Even women researchers of poverty who did not ask about this sphere of life or did not receive information about this phenomenon overlooked it. In a research project that I am currently working on, all women have heard of this phenomenon, but none have declared that it would ever affect them.

However, menstrual poverty is being talked about in the public discourse more and more, and we are silent about reproductive poverty. As if this kind of poverty did not exist at all.

Because in our country it is also a taboo sphere. And how economic inequality affects reproductive rights is also a blank spot in research. And the extent of reproductive poverty is huge. Because it involves access to contraceptives and medical services in general, as well as abortion and IVF procedures. And, of course, sex education.

Which basically does not exist in Poland. IVF is no longer financed, and the so-called abortion compromise has been replaced by an almost complete ban on performing the procedure.

Except that women who have funds will still have access to it all. The ban on abortion has divided Polish women into those for whom it is something that is difficult to access, but still feasible, and those for whom it is an impossible cost, or an organisationally impossible undertaking, in the first place. Because who will they leave their children with if they bring them up alone? How can they go abroad if they have no chance of getting time off work because they are not employed under an employment contract?

It is similar with education. Those families with greater economic capital will equip their children to a greater extent with knowledge that the school does not provide. Although there may be not-so-poor families where such education will not be provided for ideological reasons.

This component of inequality could easily be resolved while introducing decent sex education in schools.

It can be done, Lodz has been successfully running the city’s sexual education programme for 10 years.

Facilitating access to gynaecologists will not be solved that easily.

As far as I can remember, the National Health Fund does not provide access to gynaecological services, and waiting for a visit takes months. The standard of state gynaecological care is downright insulting to human dignity, which is perfectly demonstrated by the surveys examining women giving birth. At one point, we divided into those who pay for treatment and those that do not visit the doctor at all, because they cannot afford it. After 1989, we started paying the most for visits to gynaecologists. A survey that I once conducted among female students showed that half of them receive paid treatment. And it was a study carried out at a time when only a dozen or so percent of Poles used paid medical care.

And even when we get to this doctor under the National Health Fund, we hit another wall. Because, for example, they will not prescribe us a hormonal contraceptive, using the conscience clause. Or, as young girls, we will hear: “You are too young for contraception, go and study instead of having sex.” Anyway, in the case of a paid visit, such a refusal is equally painful, we have incurred the costs, and receive no prescription. It turns out that access to contraception is much more expensive than the pills themselves.

Does age increase women’s risk of poverty?

The age of women and men is differently assessed, also by the labour market.

There is a category in unemployment statistics: “long-term unemployed,” it includes people unemployed for a year and for several years. While researching this problem several years ago for a project on the feminisation of poverty in Lodz, I discovered that 52 years of age is the limit of employment for a woman. The women in their 50s whom we spoke to were no longer hoping to find a job, they knew the realities of the market. Of course, a 50-year-old man can also jump into this category of “long-term unemployed”, but he still has a chance of finding a job.

And now the question is, how do these women make a living before they reach the age for these meagre retirement benefits?

Exactly, how?

I once spoke to a female electrician with an impressive CV who had a break in employment related to having children. She tried to return to the labour market in the profession she’d learned, but either she was not given an interview at all because “they were looking for guys” or – as she managed to get into an interview, because she was a tough woman and she stumbled because of the age barrier. And she, a 40-year-old, an excellent specialist, was unemployed in the profession, and medium-qualified 50-year-old men were admitted. She ended up having to work illegally on a construction site to support her family.

Young women, in turn, hear the question: “Are you planning on having any children?”

Several dozen percent of employers admit to asking such illegal questions. The fact that women are first too young, because they will get pregnant, then they have children, so they stay at home with them or take sick leave all the time, and then they are too old to be employed, was already discussed during the second wave of feminism, and still not much for Polish women has changed in this respect.

Women will undoubtedly face starvation pensions.

When the pension system changed in 1999, we assumed that people who would collect contributions would do it for several dozen years of uninterrupted work. It’s just that people working in low-paid professions will still have starvation pensions. At the time of introducing the reform, it was also not so visible that some of us – more often women than men – do not work full-time, do not work for 12 months a year, because the problem of precarisation and precariat was unnamed or invisible then. According to many estimates, this reform has deepened the pension gap between women and men.

And then these women are again doomed to the care of younger women or the financial support of their husbands and partners.

This financial support is another stereotype, not so often observed in practice. How spouses or partners organise the distribution of finances at home and how they support each other is largely another blank spot in the research. But we are observing that this division is not even. And even if both partners work, if a man earns more, he does not always contribute to the household budget adequately to the earnings. Or he draws a lot more from this household.

This is two steps from economic violence.

And it is hard to break free from that. Because where is a woman who has no income of her own or whose entire income is taken by a man supposed to go? Because there are also relationships based on economic violence, where a man sends a woman to work, but she does not get the money.

The pandemic did not help us either.

We know from world studies that the pandemic has hit women harder. For very different reasons.

For women, the situation turned out to be less stable. The pandemic caused them to lose their jobs more often than men. And when it came to lay-offs, it was easier for men to return to work later.

If a couple had children, the situation of a woman was also diametrically opposed to that of a man. The workload from home work, this caring role, regardless of the form of employment, remotely or not, turned out to be much greater. Of course, we imposed them stereotypically on women.

But there were also male voices appreciating women’s commitment. Some partners finally noticed the enormous amount of work that women do at home on a daily basis.

But in the course of the pandemic, the scope of these responsibilities expanded even further. And where it was previously assumed that a woman takes care of children and the home, she took over all these new duties. This is also the case in homes where a man’s career comes first. Which of course may be the result of the wage gap, but may also be related to the fact that a woman’s career is perceived as less important.

And when they heard the question: “Are you continuing remote work?” women who were more heavily burdened, who clearly saw the disadvantages of this solution, more often opted for returning to work at the employer’s premises.

And I heard arguments: “I prefer to work remotely, at least I won’t have to take time off for sick children.”

So the transformational stereotype of a brave woman who does not fall into the trap of “career or child” but works at 200%, is a super mother and a super employee. This is one of the biggest lies of the neoliberal transformation, because every parent knows that it is impossible to combine work and childcare. In practice, you work at night.

What about the idea that women, despite this poverty, are more actively coping with it than men?

Professor Irena Reszke wrote about it at the very beginning of the transformation, when it seemed to us that unemployment was the main factor leading to poverty. Professor Reszke noticed how strong the belief that a woman will always cope with everything is, even if she loses her job. Because she will embrace the children, she will not neglect the house, she will even find some illegal employment. She will become the home poverty manager. And the man will probably drink. And these beliefs led to the fact that in practice women were more exposed to dismissal.

We expect more from women, we consider them to be mentally stronger, men are not allowed to cry culturally, so in a situation of failure, we let them fail and support them in this effort.

We were a bit pessimistic in this conversation. Any hope for change?

Not until the law changes. Countries that have introduced an equality policy already have more than 50 years of experience in this field, so we do not have to invent anything from scratch, just take a look at what they have done. Moreover, we can avoid their mistakes. We know the mechanisms responsible for individual areas of poverty, we have expert knowledge, but we must take this one step – make a decision to change.

Unfortunately, despite some signals that appeared in Poland at the turn of the 1990s, we are still stuck. Contesting the postulates of equality policy did not begin in 2015 with the advent of the PiS era, counteracting the phenomenon of the feminisation of poverty has never been a priority of any government’s policy after 1989. Although we have been writing about social inequalities since 1993 and we have proven that they also result from gender. This is, moreover, a feature of transformation throughout our region. Women are to be, above all, breeders, even if they are in the labour market, their leading role is being mothers.

We must also remember that the basis for a thorough change should be the fight against stereotypes. Anti-poverty programmes must not only target poverty itself, but also these harmful stereotypes.

Izabela Desperak, PhD, sociologist

Author: Magdalena Keler

Illustrated by: Marta Frej

The text was published on wysokie obcasy.pl on 16 October 2021