To mark International Women's Day, Professor Naila Kabeer looks back over the history of feminist economics and outlines her reasons why it matters for the future.
1. Male voices and perspectives tend to dominate economics, but feminist economists are challenging this
Like many other areas of life, male voices have tended to dominate economics. Throughout history, millions of women have been subject to systems and structures that privilege male perspectives at their expense. Feminist economics challenges this version of reality.
Emerging out of the women’s movement in the 1960s, feminist economics has played a crucial role in exploring gender relations within the different social and economic situations in which we find ourselves. Feminist economists dispute the gender-based assumptions that underpin the way our economies work – especially the many policies and programmes established to help improve the lives of people in less well-off regions of the world.
Take Ester Boserup. In 1970 she wrote a book which questioned the way the home was represented by development policymakers. This model, based on stereotypical assumptions about the idealised ‘Western nuclear family’ (made up of the male ‘breadwinner’, female ‘homemaker’ and their dependent children), informed the way much data was collected and determined how resources were allocated. The problem was that this picture of the typical household was, more often than not, a myth.
In fact, the division of labour within families and communities varied considerably across regions, with women putting longer hours than men into agriculture and trade in much of the world. This failure to recognise women’s productive roles had led Western (and Western-trained) policy makers to channel things like credit to male ‘heads’ of the household, while channelling welfare programmes (maternal and child health, family planning, nutrition) to women.
Boserup’s work sparked a series of studies that challenged the notion that households worked in this way, replacing it with a model which acknowledged the different preferences and priorities between household members, paying greater attention to the incentives for co-operation and conflict among the people in the home.
2. Mainstream economic policies can disproportionately affect women. Feminist economists are speaking out
Feminist economists offered further challenges to the mainstream in the 1980s. As neoliberal economics became the new normal, policy makers began shifting away from specific development projects to focus on macroeconomic policy, reducing the role of the state, cutting back on public expenditure and liberalising markets and trade (more macroeconomic changes). The idea was that this would encourage people to allocate the resources at their disposal via the free market, maximising economic growth.
Feminist economists criticised these policies in a number of ways. They pointed out that the uneven division of roles, resources and responsibilities within the household made it difficult for women to respond to market prices on the same terms as men. Not only did women generally have fewer resources at their disposal but they also had primary responsibility for unpaid care of family members. Gender discrimination within the wider economy further disadvantaged women in their ability to respond to changing market forces. State interventions that had helped to make their efforts easier had been shelved.
3. Economists are saying gender equality brings economic growth. Feminist economists are digging deeper, asking under what circumstances and whether growth brings gender equality
More recently, attention has shifted to the relationship between gender equality and economic growth. Policymakers say the ‘business case’ for gender equality is proven by findings reported by various economists that gender equality in education and participation in the labour force contributes to the pace of growth.
However, studies by feminist economists offer a more complicated picture. They note that the apparent connection between gender equality and economic growth is strongly influenced by which measures of gender equality are actually used. So if increasing gender equality in productivity is not matched by a corresponding increase in wage equality, growth rates may indeed be increased, but only by exploiting women’s weaker position in the market.
In addition, feminist economists have pointed out that whether or not women’s contributions increase economic growth, there’s very little evidence to show that economic growth necessarily promotes their wellbeing or rights.
The most recent World Economic Forum report found that 6 of the 49 countries that made up the highest income group were ranked below 100 on the gender equality index out of 149 countries, while 7 of the 19 countries classified as lowest income countries were ranked above.
It’s the pattern, rather than the pace of growth, that determines its impact on gender equality, together with the efforts on the part of both public and private sector to use the resources generated by growth to distribute the gains from growth more equally between men and women.
4. Feminist economists are rethinking economics and bringing questions of power back into the conversation
Feminist economists play a key role in rethinking the way we do economics. They’re building an economics discipline that’s better able to reflect the various contexts in which men and women participate in the global economy and the often unequal terms on which they do so. They stress that power is a factor in economic life and want an approach that takes account of how our behaviour shapes, and is shaped by, relations of power that operate in everyday life and at the societal level.
Finally, they want to see an economics that operates with a total rather than a truncated understanding of the economy, that recognises the interdependent relationship between the productive and reproductive sphere, between paid and unpaid work, and between earning a living and caring for the family. This would make it easier for economists to realise that getting it wrong in the productive sphere of the economy can have disastrous consequences in the reproductive sphere – and vice versa.
* Naila Kabeer is Professor of Gender and International Development at the Gender Institute, London School of Economics. This article previously appeared in Economy.
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