A human economy for women and men

by Oxfam Canada | July 24, 2017
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If the world turned upside down and we replaced all the women with men, and all the men with women, we still wouldn’t have gender equality.

This is because although there are many examples of women and men who have crossed the gender division of labour – the ‘lean in’ focus of women’s success in the mainstream economy, is often more about reinforcing and reproducing gendered norms, than it is about challenging and changing them.

Gender equality is not about who does what in the existing economy; it is about the roles themselves, and how they are recognized, valued and rewarded. Understanding gender is about seeing the economy as a gendered structure, containing norms and assumptions about roles, responsibilities, and behaviours.

For example, the working day (roughly eight hours or more) is not possible to balance with reproducing a single individual (never mind reproducing more individuals). It is assumed that a ‘worker’ will have some kind of help to do this, in the form of a mother, wife, other relatives or staff hired to reproduce the worker, contribute to the community and transfer social and cultural beliefs and ideas (social reproduction).

The working day is not possible to balance with reproducing a single individual… It is assumed that a ‘worker’ will have some kind of help.

Feminist economists have explained a lot about what it means to see the economy as a gendered structure. The idea of a human economy offers the opportunity to re-imagine the economy in a way that includes both the productive and the reproductive elements. It allows us to think about how a transformation of economic structures can challenge and change the gendered norms and assumptions that underpin ideas of value, of worth, of impact, evidence, and achievement

So how do we go about imagining something different?

The work being done in Oxfam on unpaid care challenges underlying gendered structures and allows us to think about, what is work? Who are the workers? Where are they? And how are they valued/paid? Our research has shown that if we include the time spent by women in unpaid care, the contribution of women to the economy looks like something we should take far more seriously.

Because domestic and other unpaid work is not paid, it is uncounted and undervalued. But if we recognised the true value of unpaid work, might it make us re-think how we value investment – making public services look like a better investment than investment in business loans?

If we recognized the true value of unpaid work, might it make us re-think how we value investment.

How would it look (for example) if in a human economy there were tax breaks, for companies or organisations which provided good quality childcare or elder care, rather than for companies producing wealth? This would shift the idea of what is valuable from purely financial to the value of (re)producing a good (human) society.

What if carers were not only paid adequately for the actual work of getting people out of bed and sorting out food, but also for the time they take to talk and get to know the individuals they are caring for? Would they be invited to contribute to care strategies for example? Their insight into the lives of others is hugely valuable, but rarely sought or recognised.

These examples help us to think through some of the ‘economic norms,’ to do with the value of work, which contribute to gender inequality. In addition there are ‘gendered social norms’, which affect how ideas of gender contain and perpetuate disadvantage. These are the embedded social ideas about who does what, they are very ‘sticky’ – and so very difficult to change with economic policies and programmes.

We need to ask: whose voices are heard? And do we really understand what they are saying?

A ‘human economy’ then needs to be about how to change things. We need to ask: whose voices are heard? And do we really understand what they are saying?

If we understand that value in the economy is about more than just wealth creation, our strategies must also reflect this. Oxfam programmes promote women’s transformative leadership, and show the importance of making space for women to organize. If we are going to have any success at tackling these thorny gender norms NGOs need to take their place alongside others to reinforce the power of collectives, both within and outside the workplace. This will allow us to leverage power through communities of people. It also has knock on effects for how we understand women’s role in the economy, and how we access and give voice to women, pursuing strategies that genuinely support their interests.

It is the economy (and our responses to it) that is ‘gendered’, not just the people in it.

About the Author

Fenella Porter is acting Gender Policy Adviser at Oxfam. Her background is in Gender and International Development, Global Labour and Trade Union Studies. Her work has included academic research and teaching, and extensive work with NGOs, women’s organizations and trade unions, both in the UK and internationally. She is a member of several professional and activist networks and associations, and is currently a trustee of Womankind Worldwide.

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