Is a feminist economics possible?

// 19 January 2010

I have been reading a lot recently about feminist economics, which essentially comes up with a fascinating, radical idea: GDP – the basic measure of how an economy is doing – renders many women invisible. Why? Because women who do not contribute to the “paid economy” (and there are more of them in the world than men, for sure), who are responsible for such things as childcare, domestic labour, elderly care, are just not recognised in the nation’s accounting.

We are living in times where few people (including myself) really understand in detail our economic crises, but where most people (including myself) find the way that they are being dealt with unjust. In conventional economic analyses, it is a given that the lives of real people are not taken into account. The market rules, the obscure formulae live on, credit and property continue to be considered as true goals for the homo economicus. Meanwhile, public spending is slashed to an inch of its life.

Away from the same old frustrating story, all this has huge implications for women’s rights. Yes, more women are educated and work now compared with 50 years ago, but doing what? Traditional examples still prevail – teaching, nursing, cookery, sewing, and in many countries it is hard for them to go beyond these poorly paid, “caring” trades. Even in the UK, where the gender pay gap is only incrementally narrowing, it is rare for women to reach the top of our service- and light industry-based economy – they are PAs, assistants, secretaries that “care” for their male bosses. Would more female economists give rise to a more feminist economic culture? I’m not sure. (Although, imagine if there was a 50/50 quota enforced at the London Stock Exchange!) What might help, however, is if unpaid work was taken into account when measuring the country’s success, as many feminist economists argue. It’s tough and complex (how can you count the hidden economy?) but worth a thought for state leaders when they inevitably try to score political points by saying they “fixed” the economy. Gender inequity is not good for economic well-being.

Caroline Sweetman has written a great background paper on feminist economics, and argues for changing the tools used as economic indicators, such as GDP. That means either replacing or complementing them with others that capture both paid and unpaid activities. The UN Human Development Index and the Gender Empowerment Measure are two that governments could pay more attention to when they are trying to prove they are improving our society.

There is so much more to be said on this subject, as well as on the topics that it brings up: gender roles, international aid and development, the male-dominated political and economic elites, time use… I will leave that to the experts (and the commenters on this blog, of course!). In the meantime, I will leave with this statement by former WHO director Gro Harlem Brundtland:

“In many countries, women own nothing, inherit nothing and earn nothing. Three out of four of the poorest billion people of the world are women.”

Comments From You

Laura // Posted 19 January 2010 at 6:12 pm

I don’t know much about this topic at all, but UNPAC’s statement that “the amount of buying and selling going on in a country has little relationship to the health of the people within that country because not all economic growth is actually good for people” seems to tie in with other critiques being made of GDP. I remember reading a bit about this recently:

“extra growth does not automatically translate into human welfare and happiness”.

This is an area some economists have tried to deal with for several decades, by attempting to subtract from GDP figures the social or environmental consequences of growth. Cleaning up an oil spill counts towards GDP, but the environmental damage it causes does not; pumping the oil out of the ground counts as economic activity, but the resource depletion it implies is not accounted for.

For years, the economists trying to come up with alternative measures of welfare or sustainability were treated by the mainstream of the dismal science as tree-huggers who were trying to value things that were impossible to count, and therefore best ignored. This was partly because economics was going through an intensely mathematical phase, in which the goal was to prove everything with models and fancy equations. But the limitations of conventional economics were brutally exposed by the recession – and critics say the time has finally come for a long-overdue paradigm shift.” (The Guardian)

gadgetgal // Posted 19 January 2010 at 6:57 pm

I came across an article on Bhutan where I found out that they don’t actually use GDP as a measure, they use GNH (Gross National Happiness) – I know it’s really only applicable to Bhutan in the way that it’s measured, but I thought it was fascinating all the same, and it include economic wellbeing as well as loads of other factors – I quite like that idea because I think it adds to the plain old figures you get that don’t tell you much about how people are doing in general.

earwicga // Posted 20 January 2010 at 10:38 am

“We are living in times where few people (including myself) really understand in detail our economic crises” or just gogle neoliberal economics for other explanations. With respect, feminist economics doesn’t wash within a capitalist neo-liberal economy when very few people own anything – female or male.

Kristin // Posted 20 January 2010 at 11:38 am

Very interesting post. Yes, most women the world over are doing work that is either poorly paid or not paid at all. If this was taken into account (which it currently is not), the picture would look very different. Without all this unpaid work a lot of people (mainly men) could not continue to hold full-time paid jobs. It is this poorly paid or unpaid work which underpins most countries economies – hence the ongoing agenda to deny women equal pay and equal opportunities.

Rosalind // Posted 20 January 2010 at 12:31 pm

There is also this by the New Econmics Foundation which assesses the value of different professions. It suggests that childcare workers for example generate more money than they get paid due to their contributing to others being able to undertake paid work.

There are clear gender and class biases in the perceived economic value and prestige of particular occupations. It would be lovely if those in power were not allowed to just tell us how valuable they were because they made a certain amount for the company. If the money you make for the company comes at the expense of the country as a whole (as the report suggests in regard to advertising professionals) then you are not as valuable as you think.

If those professions were then paid less (and the more actually valuable ones more), the prestige and competition for them would change and there should be more diversity within fields of work.

I, like many others, am not very knowledgable about economics. But that doesn’t mean that we are ineligible to have opinions about economic issues as they inevitably affect other things which we do know about.

I love the idea of Gross National Happiness as a framework for a successful country though.

Sabine // Posted 20 January 2010 at 12:41 pm

Women! Your countries need you to do unpaid, unacknowledged work so that society and the economy won’t collapse. If you want paid work don’t expect as much as the menz get, because then the economy will collapse. And don’t whinge about how you have to come home and do unpaid work after you’ve done the paid work, because it’s tough out there in the real world and if you want to have it all that’s the price you pay. Don’t go on about menz not doin’ their share either, because they’ve got all that important paid work to do so that the economy won’t collapse.

Phoebe // Posted 21 January 2010 at 7:01 pm

Feminist economics, my favourite subject! Very interesting post and comments. I’m currently coming to the end of an economics degree, which, I am ashamed to say, I decided to study at least in part to prove I could do ‘a boys subject’. And yes, I do think that more ‘feminist economists’ would give rise ‘to a more feminist economic culture. To a limited extent this is happening, albeit slowly.

I have had some brilliant teachers over the past couple of years, sadly though I have only been taught by two female economists. Incidentally, but perhaps beside the point, they are both absolutely gifted teachers as well leading academics. It is interesting to see though, how the female lecturers have taken more of a ‘caring’ role within the department – they are the teachers whose doors’ are always open, you know the ones that everyone goes to see when they’re having a crisis, the ones that go above and beyond… despite the fact that they are not paid extra for the work they take on!

In terms of the way ‘feminist economics’ is approached in my degree, I would say that it is acknowledged, but not mainstreamed. The trend is that gender issues in my economics courses tend to be a one-week topic in a 10-week course, so for a labour economics course there might be one lecture on gender pay gaps.

As for my future career, I’m choosing nursing over economics I’m afraid. When it comes down to it, although I know that the large number of women in underpaid caring roles is responsible for the gender pay gap in this country, I am far more attracted to a ‘caring’ career than one crunching numbers and wearing a suit.

Anna // Posted 24 January 2010 at 3:07 pm

I’ve been getting interested in participatory economics, affectionately known as parecon. This is an alternative to capitalism (oh yes!) which is built around a participatory planning system based on consensus decision making groups of 25-35 people. This idea was thought up by two economists in the US, Robin Hahnel and Michael Albert, and has a small but committed but TOTALLY male following over here. However, from what I’ve learned about it (from my boyfriend!), it seems that it has the capacity to deal with gender equality issues much more than the marked-driven supply and demand model we have now which produces a lot of stuff which we have to be convinced we want.

Of course I don’t think our current economic system is going to change any time soon! But within it there is room for pockets of differently-organised space, within which people opt out of the capitalist economy to a greater or lesser extent (eg – puts you in touch with your neighbours for exchanges of goods and skills).

There’s an introduction to, and lots of information about parecon here:

Lianne // Posted 27 January 2010 at 8:11 pm

Interesting questions, and points on ‘time-use’. Also of course natural resources are never valued by ‘GDP’ or other such measures. Both women and the environment are on the receiving end of androcentric epistemologies, meaning that exploitation and suffering can be written out of reports.

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