Women and Work in a Rural Community
Far from the stereotype of idyllic pastoral living, the experience of rural women workers can be challenging and stressful, according to research led by Barbara Ames of MSU's Department of Family and Child Ecology. Economic restructuring in rural areas can precipitate poverty related to gender issues in agriculture and service-sector employment, seasonal work, low wages, inadequate availability of child care and health care, long commutes to jobs and schools, and lack of technology such as access to the Internet.
To better understand the experiences of wage-earning women in the context of rural economic restructuring, Dr. Ames and her co-researchers, Whitney A. Brosi of Oklahoma State University and Karla M. Damiano- Teixeira of the Universidade Federal de Viçosa, Brazil, recently undertook a qualitative study of women workers in a rural northern Michigan community. MSU's Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station funded the study and MSU Extension county staff helped recruit local participants for semi-structured interviews.
Not surprisingly, Ames' study found that the prevailing economic concerns were low wages and lack of jobs with benefits. Women workers in the study often had ties to rural family businesses, but no clear demarcation between their jobs and those of their spouse and extended family. Family-owned businesses, some agricultural, were a common source of employment, but often in addition to other jobs. As one participant said, "I'm just glad my three jobs could be during the day." These women were also the members of the family who addressed school, child care, and health care issues.
Several of the community leaders who participated mentioned, with pride, the "community support team" that had been established to assist families in need, but, said Ames, "none of our women participants mentioned it. They used their own strategies and personal employment approaches to adapt and cope with these difficult situations." Assistance from friends, coworkers, and family members was seen as a major resource. These informal social supports and family ties were identified as reasons for staying in the challenging circumstances.
According to Ames, some of the challenges that rural women workers face could be addressed, at least in part, by policies and practices that:
- Explore technological solutions (such as courses via teleconference or the Internet)
- Develop child care options through incentives (such as tax breaks or vouchers for employers) to support providers who offer nontraditional hours
- Address the realities of kinship care for children, the elderly, and the chronically ill.