By Radhika Chanda
Feminism, as a force to gain gender equality, has been in progress for decades now. While there exists a universal agreement for achieving the underlying ideas of feminism in the social and political sphere, the idea of the need of feminism in economics might puzzle many. Though one may agree that the socio-economic role of women in a society needs to be uplifted, its impact on economics is often ignored. This blog-post tries to see economics through the lens of feminism and understand the workings of gender roles in an economy.
The core principles of economics work under the assumption of demand and supply. Rational consumers demand and firms supply, and these forces of demand and supply are regarded as the invisible hand in an economy which restores the occurring discrepancies in the system. For this reason, a lot of government policies are also based on such assumptions of demand and supply. Feminism in economics tackles these very assumptions. Whose demands are we referring to while adopting trends and legislating policies? For instance, most governments do not regard menstrual sanitary care as an important part of the economy and hence welfare products do not cater to making such essential health products available as products of necessity (rather, menstrual health products are often defined as luxury products). This primarily occurs due to the lack of consideration of its demand in the market sphere since individual demand has a tendency of being linked to the demand of a man.
The role of women in an economy is highly disregarded. Unpaid work of women in domestic settings does not form part of the Global Domestic Product (GDP) of a country; neither is it included in the labour force. Prostitution is also not considered part of the labour force in the market, even when it constitutes a major part of income in the country (there are around three million prostitutes in India) (Rajasekharan). This is extremely problematic because not only is the role of women in economic well-being not acknowledged, rather, their functioning in a system that they are a part of, is positively ignored. Such a habit of ignoring women is what feminist economists find problematic. Not only does this create a social impact of demeaning the ability of women and making them more vulnerable to the patriarchal violence, it also creates an inconsistency in data collection and analysis.
The social impact of not incorporating women in an economy can be elaborated as follows- firstly, when their work does not form part of the system, they are incidentally excluded from welfare schemes related to minimum wage. Further, the lack of acknowledgment legitimises the belief that their work is not important enough, thereby undervaluing their contribution. This is a major concern for a society that already works under the system of patriarchal oppression. It leads to women not being able to access legal remedies like exploitation of labour because either their work is not morally acceptable or it doesn’t form part of the economic definition of work. It also leads to fudging of statistics released by the government. For instance, labour productivity of a country is calculated as the ratio of GDP of a country to its labour force. When an economy doesn’t consider certain labour as part of its economy, it creates a flawed representation of labour productivity.
The market structure assumes that individuals are rational beings, free to make their choices. Feminist economists challenge this assumption of free choice. It is asserted that in a society where sexism is ingrained and internalised, the option of true free choice does not exist. All choices are constructed by societal expectations and hence, this assumption needs to be evaluated. The bias against women is also ignored while theorising workings of an economy. For instance, women not working in paid jobs or jobs that aren’t well-paying is understood as the result of one’s individual choice and isn’t examined through the sociological lens of societal pressure or harassment at workplace. Further, it is assumed that a rational employer would employ people with regard to their capabilities and qualifications, and that gender would not play a role. This assumption is often flawed in a patriarchal system where women are intrinsically seen as less capable than men (even with similar or better qualifications). (Bergmann)
The distinction of gender roles in economics is essential for equitable distribution of welfare schemes between men and women. Interestingly, a feminist perspective would differ from the classical approach to economics that believes in zero State interference. Such a system would be problematic for women because there inherently exists an uneven division of roles that men and women perform in an economy. Further, the obligations and resources that a woman has within the household make it difficult for her to react to changes in market prices in the same way as men. Not only does a woman generally have fewer resources at their disposal but also has a primary responsibility of the unpaid care of family members. As such, active government interference is needed for bringing men and women to a leveled playing field.
Certain schools of thought like those of New Home Economics (NHE), explain the existing gender ratios in jobs through the theory of comparative advantage. They reason that the division of labour exists as women and men specialize in different areas and as such have a comparative advantage over different fields. Feminists have strongly criticized such an analysis because they feel that the supposed advantage of men in market arises from the discrimination that is practiced against women in the market space and also due to the refusal of the traditional patriarchal man to take on a fair share of unpaid domestic work when his wife takes up a job in the market. (Bergmann)
One important agenda of feminist economics is to involve men in the household caring activities as much as women, to provide an equitable environment for both genders to develop. They believe that such an arrangement can be achieved through little economic loss and even if it does lead to a certain quantum of loss, it should be accepted for the achievement of equity (Bergmann).
The unchanging representation of women as housewives who contribute less to the society needs to change. It not only creates an unfair platform for women but also makes all behavioural researches skewed due to their lack of taking women into account. The inclusion of women or prevention of their exclusion would help in the betterment of an economic system in the long run. The newly recognised demand and supply needs would create an economic system that is more stable and equitable.
Bergmann, Barbara R. “Feminism and Economics.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 18.3/4 (1990): 68–74.
Rajasekharan, K. ” Legalise prostitution in India to address problems of sex industry” http://www.economylead.com. 18 June 2014. 2 April 2017.
Radhika Chanda, the author, is a third year law student at Jindal Global Law School.
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