Is a feminist economics possible?

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.”

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