Economics and Feminism: an existential crisis?

Recently, through my pondering of my future directions and the impending grown-up-ness of turning a milestone age next year, I’ve been considering studying some form of economics as a postgrad. Economics? 18 year old me would be having a fit about now. Where did the social-progressive, pro-welfare safety net, social justice crusader go, and where the hell did this lady come from? 20-something me has realised that they are not mutually exclusive, and perhaps my social justice crusading could be best advanced by the ‘credibility’ and analysis that some economic knowledge would provide. Reading books such as Economics 2.0 and engaging with Game Theory and new ways of economic modelling which move beyond ‘Rational Economic Man‘ have of course helped my fondness for and understanding of economics as a powerful tool.

More than that though, is the realisation recently that half of what I am passionate about and half of what I spend my time thinking about is economic policy, or social policy which is fundamentally impacted on or achieved by economics. So much social justice can be understood in economic terms. Further, making strong economic arguments in favour of socially progressive policy seems to be the best and most effective way to show the social conservatives that social justice is good for their economic bottom line. Policies such as paid parental leave, including more women in business and on boards, ending discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability and many other factors, supporting diversity through encouraging free movement of labour are all things which have been variously shown to have positive impacts on economic bottom lines, depending on execution.

More than this though, economics is a field which is still, from the outside at least, dominated by the status quo – middle aged white males. Diversifying the voices within fields like this means that we can challenge traditional assumptions. Until very recently, traditional notions, such as Rational Economic Man had gone almost unchallenged in economics. Modelling all economic assumptions from the understanding that humans are dispassionately rational can create all kinds of flawed market based systems. Events as big as the GFC, or as small as shopping at a supermarket can show that humans are rarely engaged with the economy in a purely rational fashion, and that there are complex emotional investment and impulsive risky decision-making process which have little if anything to do with calm rationalism. Of course, this assumes a dichotomy between the rational and the emotional, which is also something I have previously written about (unpublished, should fix that!) The short story is that the reason/emotion dichotomy is used to oppress in all kinds of ways (see for example Prokhovnik)

Development economics and the inclusion of women in development agendas has taught us much about global economic systems, even for supposedly developed countries. If focusing our energy and attention on including and empowering women in poor countries is so overwhelmingly successful, then one would think that engaging women globally in financial empowerment will have far-reaching impacts for good. Social enterprises (SE) like Girl Effect have focused such approaches on girls in the developing world (seriously, check out the website, I dare you to find someone who doesn’t cry while they do!) while a relatively new SE in Australia, 10thousandgirl is aiming to empower women locally to take control of their finances so the next generation of both retired women, as well as working women, grow older with financial stability and security, whether or not they are partnered.

Hopefully movements such as these which encourage education and financial independence can be inclusive of the GLBTIQ communities locally and globally, as women without men for financial partners often suffer when society is built around the male breadwinner and the female homemaker. As much as our world is changing and moving away from this model, we know that pay equality is still a long way off, even in OECD countries like Australia. Of course, these figures are worse in the developing world. Australia is celebrating after a victory for the female dominated community welfare sector workers won an equal pay claim at the Fair Work Commission last week, however since then the celebration has degenerated into a fight about who will pay and how such fairness will be paid for.

Equal pay has long been the fight of feminism. After much scepticism about ruining a poignant moment in history, I watched the film Made in Dagenham with amazement last year as the Ford women joined and led a movement for equal pay for equal work. It was such a strong reminder that this was a radical notion not very long ago. When you think about how long and hard women across more than 3 generations have worked for it, the fact that the notion of equal pay is still met with cries of economic armageddon is quite outrageous. It’s taken for granted in many developed countries. I grew up with the knowledge that that fight had been “won”. Studying social work at university and realising the salaries of those in the community sector fixed that egalitarian view of society pretty quickly of course. But it’s also an example of why we need women in all areas of work, and thought. And not only women, but people of all kinds of diverse backgrounds so that discrimination and bias against many minority groups can be challenged, and assumptions which may be more true for one group of people can be called out as not very true for many other groups of people.

This extends to more than just equal pay of course, though this is the most glaring example of economics and feminist inter-relation. Economics is one powerful school of thought which is used time and time again to justify the status quo, and to reinforce and defend kyriarchical systems and structures within society. Perhaps one of the most effective ways to challenge this uncritical application of bad assumptions is to have champions within the economic schools of thought in order to call research and argument out when such assumptions are used.


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