Feminomics: calculating the value of ‘women’s work’
TheStar.com – News/Insight
Published On Sat Oct 30 2010. By Antonia Zerbisias Feature Writer
According to the old maxim, a woman’s work is never done.
It certainly never counts, a least not by the economic formulae that figure out the wealth of a nation.
That’s why the gross domestic product (GDP) counts as positive all the money related the Alberta oilsands that’s changing hands, no matter how devastating it may be to human health and the environment.
At the same time, the GDP completely ignores the birthing, nursing, diapering, nosewiping, nurturing and all the other countless — and thankless — tasks that usually fall to mothers.
“Unpaid work makes all the rest of work possible,’’ says political economist Marilyn Waring, a former New Zealand cabinet minister and now professor of public policy at the Institute of Public Policy at AUT University in Auckland. “The market wouldn’t survive if it wasn’t able to survive on the backbone of unpaid work.’’
Waring calculates that unpaid work is the largest sector of any economy. And, all around the world, most of that work is performed by women.
In 1988, Waring’s groundbreaking Counting for Nothing — later retitled If Women Counted— introduced the then-radical notion that the way we measure wealth and well-being runs contrary to true wealth and well-being; that is, while traditional economics values what somebody spends commuting to work, it ignores what goes on back home.
Waring calls that a “patriarchal economic paradigm’’ — and says it has to go if the planet is to thrive.
In Toronto last week to give a keynote speech at The Economics of Mothering conference hosted by Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI), she reminded the researchers and academics that the English word “economics’’ is rooted in the Greek for “managing a household.”
“For me, the patriarchal economic paradigm is the theory and practice of economics that says that women’s unpaid work is not worth anything at all,’’ she told the Star. “It’s not that I want to estimate its monetary value. I want to make it visible for policy-making purposes, for fairness and equality.
“If you’re not visible as a worker, then you’re not visible in the distribution of benefits.”
Those benefits include everything from the design and availability of urban infrastructure in the developed world — community housing, daycare, playgrounds and the like — to the location of public water sources in the poorer nations of the Global South.
For example, according to the UN, in some parts of rural Africa, women have to use up to 85 per cent of their daily caloric intake to fetch water. They suffer from anemia, water-borne diseases, as well as spinal and pelvic deformities from walking miles carrying heavy pots well before their families rise in the morning.
In Canada, for most women, it’s not nearly as dire.
But how will we know in the future? This past summer, the Conservatives, in rewriting the long-form census, eliminated only the section on unpaid work. That means that, in the future, StatsCan won’t be able to tell us with any certainty that men perform an average of 2.5 hours of unpaid work per day while women do 4.3 hours, like they did in 2005.
“I see this mirrored in so many conservative governments in the post-recession period,’’ says Waring. “They want to rule according to ideology not according to evidence. So one of the most important things they can do is to obliterate evidence so they can operate on the basis of propaganda.’’
Think “mother load,” not motherlode, when it comes to how public policy-makers approach women’s work.
“Feminists have said motherhood is the unfinished business of the feminist movement,’’ says conference organizer Andrea O’Reilly, a women’s studies professor at Toronto’s York University. “That’s why I started MIRCI, largely because of the invisibility and marginality of mother work.
“The majority of women become mothers today, well over 80 per cent globally,’’ she continues. “So it’s still a huge defining part of women’s lives, in time (consumption) and in defining who they are. Everything impacts mothering and mothering impacts everything. ”
But, O’Reilly adds, it’s completely taken for granted.
“I was just at a meeting about health care,’’ she says. “It was all about ‘we have to cut costs, we have to rely less on institutional care and hospitals, we have to do home care.’ But nobody says who will do that home care — mostly women.”
Indeed, a recent B.C. Human Rights Tribunal decision overruled a blanket policy of banning disabled persons from hiring family members as caregivers with funds from a special provincial program. An adult quadriplegic woman and her father, who had quit his job 20 years earlier to look after his daughter, were able to prove discrimination because he was unable to get paid for his work.
Of course, notes Waring, pointing to similar cases in New Zealand, it would take a man doing traditional woman’s work to change things.
“How interesting it is that, when it’s fathers taking the case, all of a sudden the state can’t rely on a mother’s so-called natural duty and we’re beginning to get legal decisions going another way,’’ she says.
Still, shifts are being felt. They’re happening at the UN, in academia, among NGOs and charities.
“What women do is absolutely crucial to the sustainability and survival of the family,’’ says Liberal MP Keith Martin, a doctor who has travelled to and practised in some of the poorest parts of the world. “If women are valued for who they are, there will be a greater chance that they’ll be valued for what they do.’’
Campaigns such as The Nike Foundation’s The Girl Effect push the notion that educating a girl results in healthier and wealthier families and communities.
Last year, The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, along with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, authored the eye-opening Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women,which advocates for the recognition of women’s work.
Even McKinsey & Company, one of the world’s largest management consulting firms, now acknowledges that making social investments to empower women in developing countries is good business.
“One recent study, for example, estimates that lower education and employment rates for women and girls are responsible for as much as a 1.6 percentage point difference in annual GDP growth between South Asia and East Asia,’’ it reported in January. “Educated, income-earning women are especially powerful catalysts for development because they tend to invest more of their money in their families’ health, education and well-being than men do.’’
That’s if they have money.
Although women make up half the world’s population, they own only 1 per cent of its wealth, says the UN. As a result, the vast majority have no collateral for a formal bank loan to start a business or buy land to farm.
Even their subsistence farming, which can often result in healthier and more affordable food than the processed goods brought in by multinationals, doesn’t count in a country’s GDP. But money spent on food imports does.
“Because women subsistence farmers are not seen as productive, nobody is going to invest in assisting them to get more production out per hectare or to dry it better or to process it better or to store it better,” says Waring. “But if they weren’t there, then the effect on the family would be even more desperate.”
O’Reilly credits Waring for putting the spotlight on what women bring to the table as well as put on the table.
“That’s why I love her work, because she is asking questions differently,’’ she says. “As a result, there’s been a coalescing of various issues that has put motherhood more on the agenda, both politically and, specifically, academically.
“When I started this work — I’ve been doing this research 20-plus years and trust me there were no conferences, no journals, no press, nothing — people would just do roll their eyes and go ‘What’s that? You don’t study motherhood. That’s just what women do.’
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