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Feminist economics. Why and for whom?

A new look at the economy

FE was created in the 1980’s as a reaction to the negative results of the policy of structural adaptations in developing countries. The policy was based on the logic of the mainstream economy, and served as a precondition for providing financial aid to these countries by the World Bank and the IMF. At that time, it became apparent that it is mainly women who have to bear the costs of adaptation. This conclusion served as inspiration for further research on economics and gender equality. According to FE, it is difficult to speak about the neutrality of the economy since the results of the macro-economic policy (be it monetary or fiscal) are different for men and women. Gender equality also has an impact on the results of management – the lower the share of women employed, the bigger the loss in terms of income growth (GDP).

Similar to “green economics”, feminist economics is now an increasingly important aspect of the new perspective of the economy. The crisis has contributed to this increased interest by revealing, for example, the gaps and limitations of the classical model of the economy and its mechanisms and institutions with respect to the modern economic reality.

Limitations of classical economics

Mainstream economics is still based on classical models which rely on the assumption that women are predominantly at home. This is the world that was perceived by Adam Smith, one of the founding fathers of the model, when he worked on his theory of work and product (1776). Back then, women would work at home (free of charge) while men worked in the labour market (for money). Since the economy was about money, free work, including the interests and contribution of women, were entirely ignored. This was the basis for modern economics, including the mentality, institutions and principles of the policy. Such model takes into account exclusively the professional activity of men, their interests and contribution to the process of generating income and priorities in its distribution. The approach is particularly visible in times of crisis and restrictive macroeconomic policy, when unemployment goes up and spending is cut so as to balance the budget – the first to lose their jobs are women; stadiums win against kindergartens in battles for money. Such an attitude keeps a blind eye to the economic potential and talents of women and their contributions to the construction of a modern (and competitive) economy. To make use of this potential, however, it is necessary to introduce the gender perspective to the model of the economy, its mechanisms, institutions, and policy at the level of businesses and the entire economy. The classical model does not also allow for introducing gender equality to the strategy of development. Countries now are first and foremost focusing on building an innovative and competitive economy. If we adopt the point of view of mainstream economics then gender issues will remain outside of these strategies (as they are outside of economics). Although gender equality is presented as the core value in introductions, chapters dedicated to presenting declarations, as well as in a tiny chapter as part of the social policy, all these words are not translated into either practical measures of the budget. As is the case with Strategy Poland 2030, Europe 2030 (ec.europa/Eu/eu2020) or in the report on the future direction of the cohesion policy financed with structural funds constituting approximately 1/3 of the EU budget (ec.europa.eu/regional_policy). One may wonder why nobody had noticed these limitations before. No doubt, the fact that there were no “mothers” of economy and, until recently, relatively few women economists, was not helpful in adopting a critical take on the canons of economics in force. The first woman to receive the Nobel Price in Economics was Elinor Ostrom in 2009.

Transformation and (false) assumptions in classical economics

Feminist economics points at two assumptions of the classical model which should be included in the handbooks of historical economics, but that still function as a reference point in decisions on the economic and social (pro-family) policy. The first assumption is that there are unlimited labour resources in economy (free reproduction costs). The second refers to the adaptation of the domestic sphere (free labour of women) to the changes of economic policy, manifested, for example, by the expectation that the reduction in spendings on kindergartens (budget “savings”) will be evened out by increased free care of children provided by women.

The process of transformation in Poland and in other countries has shown that such an understanding does not work. Privatisation, liquidation of the welfare state and macroeconomic stabilization has been taking place with the absolute ignorance of the interests and perspectives of women. As a result, we are witnessing a drop in the share of women on the labour market (the coefficient of women’s professional activity has dropped from almost 54% in the early 1990’s to 46%), with a simultaneous drop in birth-rate (the average number of children has dropped from 2.1 to 1.4). This shows, that the historical classical relation – the fewer women work the higher the birth-rate – is no longer true. The change also bears serious consequences for the economic policy. Keeping women at home does not revert the aging of the society. Hence, the need for other solutions to the problem of the growing deficit of the labour force and the budget (who it going to pay our retirement?).

Yet another relation has emerged: the higher the share of women active in professional duties, the higher the number of children (provided there is an institutional support offered for merging professional tasks with caring for children). Such examples come from the Scandinavian countries. There is an ever more popular thesis nowadays that the economic success of these countries (e.g. Norway) derives from the high level of employment among women (growth in GDP), who pay taxes (income to the state budget) and bear children (reproduction of labour resources).

Main postulates of feminist economics FE is a combination of a multitude of trends which are critical of mainstream economics – some more, some less. What they all have in common is that they introduce the perspective of gender to all aspects, areas, and motifs of the economy from the microperspective (the level of the company, family), in the macro sense (the level of the economy), and at the international tier (trade, finances).

The main postulates of FE in relation to macro economy focus on the need to change priorities (developmental objectives in the broader context), and to include the free labour of women into the economic model. FE seeks to reverse the order of priorities proposed in mainstream economics. The superior goal is macro-economic balance (including a balanced budget), with a subordinate sphere of production and the sphere of reproduction located at the very end. However, it is the priorities of the reproduction sphere (expressed, for example, in the structure of budget spending, ensuring the possibility of combining professional and domestic work, etc.) that should be seen as superior. FE wants for women to have their contribution to income generation be valuated and their free work to be included – also in the social benefits, such as retirement pensions. It also postulates a new perspective of other costs, such as those related to combining professional duties with housework. Why spending money on the construction of stadiums is seen as investment (growth in GDP) while on kindergartens as costs (budget spending)?

For whom? Feminist economics for everyone, mainly, however, for mainstream economists and the decision makers in the field of the economy. It is to help make a change in their way of thinking about economics and to show that gender perspectives are necessary to make appropriate decisions in economy. It is also there to include the equality perspective in the discussions on the key dilemmas regarding Polish economy, state finances, and developmental policy.

How to make the change happen?

The gender perspective is already noticed by mainstream economics, its institutions and the media. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are already introducing (though more prudently and from other perspectives than FE) the gender perspective in analyzing the situation and recommendations in the sphere of the economy. The world economic press, such as “The Economist” or “Financial Times”, is also beginning to speak about the female factor, seeing it as an important aspect in the changes in the economy and society. The OECD, on the other hand, is introducing a multi-dimensional development ratio which, apart from the growth in income, takes into consideration also such questions as possibilities for merging work at home with professional work, as well as education, health, environment, security, etc. (www. OECD.org/betterlifeindex). It is now a good time to start a debate on how to introduce the gender perspective into economics and economic Policy in Poland. The experience of the Green movement can be indeed very helpful here, as they have gone much further than feminist economics in overcoming myths. “Green economics”, though not always at centre stage, does have a permanent place in the discussion about development, while arguments such as that environmental pollution is a cost which is born by the entire economy, are now commonly recognized. The discussion should also refer to the experience of Norway and other countries, where gender equality is treated as one of the priorities of economic policy.

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Ewa Rumińska-Zimny
doctor of economy, UN expert, Professor at the Szkoła Główna Handlowa in Warsaw. She received her PhD from the SGH School of Economy in Warsaw after a scholarship at the Sorbonne. Her area of expertise is development end the role of women in modern economy. Member of numerous teams drafting UN reports, including the Human Development Report, which introduced new ways of thinking about and measuring development. She created and until 2009 directed the program “Women and Economy” based on feminist economy principles at the UN European Economic Commission in Geneva (with the participation of 56 countries, including Poland, EU member states, Russia, countries from central Asia, and the Caucasus). Initiator of the European conferences of Business Women; author of UN publications, among them “Gender Gap and Economic Policy” (2009). Coach at the summer school Gender and Macroeconomics, the GEM-IWG global academic network (2009-2011). Member of the program council of the Women’s Congress, of the International Women’s Forum at SGH, and of the International Association of Feminist Economists (IAFFE).


Added: 27 października 2011 Category: General
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