Feminist Economics: What they don’t teach you in an Economics Degree

Sam Wigglesworth highlights a feminist economics critique of mainstream economics. In particular Sam shows how women in the global economy are disadvantaged under the approach to economic thinking.

 Money makes the world go around. Or perhaps the phrase should be that the global economic system makes the world go around. We have infused it with an enormous level of value and left it free to paint the world red. With it, however, we’ve let a few problematic tendencies go; (probably because it helps to make money for a lot of powerful people) like the reality that for the system to work, certain, more informal types of work have to happen quietly, in the back, with little acknowledgement going towards the people doing it.

This is because, for the economic system to ‘work’, we need some people to quietly raise the next generation on their own and look after the growing aging population, with preferably little to zero state support. Ideally, they need to also work while doing this, otherwise they are statistically unproductive to the global economy.

It could be men doing this type of work, but the other reality we are dealing in is that they aren’t. Time after time, study after study, from Europe, to the United States, to India, to Asia, women at on the global level are doing more of unpaid work than their male counterparts.

Laura Forest / Creative Commons License

Laura Forest / Creative Commons License

This means that the economy, for all it’s bells and whistles, is at it’s core, a “value system in which all good and activities are related only to their monetary value”. In other words, the way the economic policies are organised places no value on the work that primarily women do, and yet the entire economic system relies upon their ability to do this work and not be recognised for it.

In the UK, this is a debate that is gaining attention and traction, particularly in the wake of austerity justifications. The Fawcett Society, a group working to advance women’s rights, took the Lib Dem/Tory Government to court over their 2010 ‘emergency budget’ to find out whether there had been due consideration about the ways in which different measures impact differently on men and women.  It was a unique interpretation of  the Gender Equality Duty, now replaced by the 2010 Equality Act, which places an obligation on public authorities to ‘assess the impact of their current and proposed policies and practices on gender equality’ and produce what is commonly known as a ‘Gender Equality Impact Assessment’ (GEIA).

As it turned out, the Government hadn’t but little has seemingly changed. The Huffington Post  highlighted that that under the Lib-Dem/Conservative government from 2010-2015, “more than 80% of the revenue raised by the Treasury from tax and benefit changes came from women’s pockets.”  Cuts to local governments budgets have seen domestic services close down, and women are experiencing higher levels of violence, no doubt a result of the austerity policies implemented in the wake of the financial crisis. Some cry that women are in more jobs! Well yes, but there isn’t much talk about what these jobs are, as the Fawcett Society stated: “Jobs growth is welcome but our economy is disproportionately dependent on low paid part-time work and insecure employment [and]  75% of part-time workers are women.” It goes without saying that these impacts become worse for black and minority ethnic (BME) women.

Gender Summit / Creative Commons License

Gender Summit / Creative Commons License

However, it isn’t just the UK. International institutions are culprits too, accused of simply “ignoring women, their activities, their work and their various contributions to the societies in which they live.”  The IMF and World Bank has a long history of promoting economic policies that impact women’s economic lives in a negative way, from the structural adjustment policies of the 1970s to conservative fiscal policies in the aftermath of the 2007 global financial crisis.

Solutions however are being discussed. Most cited is Diane Elson’s “triple “R” approach” which involves recognition of the unpaid work women do in the global economy; reduction of unpaid work and the redistribution of this work within the family.

However, despite the existence of practical ideas to solve these issues, it’s hard not to realise that the implementation of these solutions are sketchy at best. Arguably because women don’t feature in any of these institutions. There is a lack of understanding about the reality of women’s experiences in the global economy which has meant that policies, both at state and international levels have repeatedly failed to create, enhance and protect initiatives that support women’s economic development. To change this, we need more than a few token women thrown in for the perception of equality and we need to address the assumption that the economic system is gender neutral and effective, because when it only factors in the work of half the global population, we can barely maintain with the straightest of faces that it’s working at all, and it’s long time we stopped.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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