If Women Counted: Part 1

The word economics derives from the Greek word ‘oiko-nomia’ which in its literal sense means the ruling of one’s home. This definition seems to imply that the economy should be managed as a lady manages her home. Yet only thirteen out of seventy-five academics (17.33%) in the Durham Economics and Finance Faculty are female. One woman (0.02% of laureates), Elinor Ostrom, has won the Nobel Prize in economics. What does this imply? First, it is clear that economics is no ground-breaking discipline; women are underrepresented. Second, economics is not as objective as it should be. And the deconstruction of androcentric modes of thought is precisely what third wave feminism movements set out to accomplish in the early 1990s.

In Iceland motherhood and femininity are perceived as strengths in the corporate world. Indeed, Audur Capital, a female-run financial services company was the only firm left standing after the financial crash of 2008. Risk-awareness, being direct, emotional capital, profit with principles and independence are the five main values that Augur prides itself in and sets it apart from its male-dominated counterparts. Augur’s founders hope to set a new trend by bringing female values to the table in a way that will lead to smarter better decision-making. As its co-founder Halla Tómasdóttir states “It is actually people that make money and lose money, not Excel spreadsheets.” In traditional economics, however, all that seems to matter are numbers. The homo economicus is a rational, self-interested and utility maximizing agent influenced by nothing but price. He has no responsibility or obligation for anyone but his own self. Nature, childhood, human connectedness and emotional ties are considered irrelevant. The Cartesian ideal dominates and the use of mathematical models prevails.

It is this very narrow-mindedness and hollow application of knowledge that deprives economics of its right to be characterized as a positive science. Its models and methods of mathematical precision are biased, deeply rooted in masculine-associated values that turn a blind eye to the world’s diverse nature. Its disregard for more “feminine” topics such as care work and well-being in favor of logic and abstraction fosters inefficiency. Humans are separated from the world, virtually commodified, instead of being seen for what they truly are; there is no space for sex, race, ethnicity, sexuality and class in economics. The constraints and inequalities present in social structures go by unaccounted for. What if economics was less male-dominant? What if it became more gender-inclusive?

Masculine values are common in women as much as female values are common in men. The idea behind feminist economics is to illuminate the existing bias and enrich the discipline by changing its social belief structure to a more holistic one. It is not a question of “either/or” but rather how things can work together. For once it is important to recognize the complexity of human nature; men and women are communal animals integrally connected to their surrounding environment. When facing a market choice emotional ties and feelings play a pivotal role- most individuals do not simply have a choice between leisure and ‘work’ (work as wage-labour) and they are greatly influenced by their concern for others. Furthermore, economics should aim to be recognized by its ability to generate positive social and environmental change rather than being defined by profit-seeking goals. Measuring the world’s wealth in human well-being and individual potential, for instance, instead of the monetary worth of goods and services would be a start.

World production and growth levels are measured by the United Nation System of National Accounts (UNSNA). National accounts are thought of as an essential feature of government planning and management because they enable the monitoring of the nation’s financial position in relation to foreign economies. Yet the UNSNA treats female labour as invisible. Housework, a woman’s primary activity in most communities, is not considered work. Although a rural woman in Qunu South Africa will harvest crops, milk the cattle, carry water and fuel, process the food crops, feed and care for the members of her family, she will be considered a ‘dependent’ because her work is unpaid and does not yield cash.

On the other hand, the sex-labour business, the burning of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and the manufacturing of nuclear weapons are thought of as contributing to GDP and domestic “growth”, because such activities generate income. Does the exploitation of individuals, the destruction of the environment and a death weapon really bring about more good than does food processing and the nurturing of children? It is through the use of flawed measures like the UNSNA that governments have lost the faith of their citizens. A system that prioritizes monetary value over quality cannot eliminate poverty, protect the environment or provide for real equality of opportunity… An ‘increase’ in GDP has no value if it does not improve the quality of life in society. This is what feminist economics seeks to challenge and change. If the economy was run as a lady runs her home, if women did indeed count, the world would be a much better place.