Matthew Yglesias has some provocative thoughts on the impact of a prolonged economic downturn on gender roles:
One thing you could expect to see in a downturn would be families working fewer hours and having less money and, consequently, paying for fewer of these services and doing more of it themselves. That could, however, play out in a bunch of different ways. You could imagine a world in which the disemployment spreads around at random and you have an equal number of two-earner households in which the man loses his job or is forced into part-time work as you have two-earner households in which this happens to the woman. In that case, you can expect to see further evolution of gender norms in which newly unemployed or underemployed men wind up shouldering more of the burden for cooking, cleaning, and childcare as their newly-poorer households need to cut back on expenditures. Alternatively, you could see a scenario in which the reduction in total hours worked comes disproportionately in the form of women doing less paid work. Then you’d see existing imbalances in the amount of domestic labor exacerbated and existing, but fading, gender norms further re-enforced.
Alternatively, I could easily imagine higher income women – whose rates of educational attainment far outstrip their male counterparts – achieving disproportionate representation in white collar sectors of the economy. On the lower end of the economic spectrum, however, the education gap is less pronounced and gender roles have a stronger hold on employment practices. So perhaps white collar employment will become dominated by female higher-ups whose presence reinforces existing trends in favor of social pluralism, whereas blue collar employment reverts to a more traditional understanding of gender roles. Obviously, this is idle (and uninformed) speculation. But I find it hard to imagine the male-female achievement gap in higher education simply disappearing over the course of a recession. A new cultural fissure that exacerbates existing tensions between liberal office park yuppies and the white working class, on the other hand, sounds fairly plausible.