Essay

Erasure

Women, economics and language

...is the economics profession a functionary and tool of patriarchy – or is patriarchy a functionary and tool of economics?
Marilyn Waring

 

THE DAY I was completing this essay, I joined tens of thousands across Australia to March 4 Justice against sexual assault and gendered violence in the wake of two events that struck at the heart of our democracy: former Liberal adviser Brittany Higgins alleging she was raped inside Parliament House and the historical rape accusation against then Attorney-General Christian Porter, which he has denied. The energy of the crowd was resolute and massing. Women had had enough of silence. We were speaking our truth and making change. Suddenly a new and better world seemed possible, imminent.

Women were already outraged by the devastating impact of the COVID-19 lockdowns on our paid and unpaid work. When most of the world moved inside and ‘the economy’ halted, women took over: we were teachers, nurses, therapists, logistical managers trying to make sense of the implications of the cascading news cycle and government packages (JobKeeper, JobSeeker, rent pauses) for our families and communities, while our regular unpaid work – cooking, cleaning, washing, gardening and so on – seemed to treble. As the lockdowns and forced isolation made clear, women still do the bulk of this endless domestic labour despite the fact that most of us are also doing or struggling to hold down paid work in the foundering global economy. And yet this vast and ongoing labour of motherhood and of all unpaid domestic and care work is still defined by economics as ‘unproductive’, a category error made blindingly clear by COVID-19. At the same time, we learnt that policy can switch instantly to ‘welfare’ when the middle class needs it: workplaces suddenly demonstrated a new flexibility around working from home and governments suddenly found millions of dollars to spend propping up ‘the economy’. Economically, the rupture of 2020 showed us two things: that our lives depend on care work, especially the unpaid care work still mostly done by women; and that another way is possible.

It’s timely that COVID-19 has brought women’s traditional realm, the household, into clear and blinding view – because economics, the intellectual discipline that most shapes policy and funding decisions around the world, has its root in the Ancient Greek for household management. And if any discipline is in need of an influx of expert household managers to transform its ossified thinking and reimagine it for this new millennium, it’s economics. In its current state, mainstream economics is failing to address the many critical issues of our times, including gendered and racial violence, climate change, inequality, poverty, hunger, species extinction, ecosystem destruction, land theft and the privatisation of water. As Ross Gittins, economics editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, wrote in 2020: ‘leading thinkers among the world’s economists are still grappling with the embarrassing question of why their profession’s advice over many decades seems to have made our lives worse rather than better.’

As the past year has demonstrated, women excel in household management. Yet it was thanks to a series of deliberate decisions made during the nineteenth century that women’s critical labours were designated ‘unproductive’ and simply wiped from view. Key to these erasures was Alfred Marshall, the revered father of neoclassical economics, who advocated strict limits on women’s choices lest they behave selfishly. Feminist economist Nancy Folbre tells this insidious history in Greed, Lust and Gender, remarking that Marshall’s view exemplifies ‘a moral double standard: men should pursue their own self-interest whatever it might be, but women should subordinate themselves to the needs of others’. Women’s reproductive labour had already been excluded from the realm of economics by Adam Smith and others, but Marshall mapped this onto a new distinction between market and non-market work. It was bad enough that the 1881 Census of England and Wales had explicitly placed wives and other women engaged in domestic duties in the ‘Unoccupied Class’; but subsequently, following Marshall’s advice, the ‘Unoccupied Class’ was struck from the census categories altogether. Why? Because if this main female occupation had been included in the reckoning, ‘the proportion of occupied women would resemble that of men’. In his influential work Principles of Economics, published in 1890, Marshall wrote that employing women was ‘a great gain in so far as it tends to develop their faculties; but an injury in so far as it tempts them to neglect their duty of building up a true home, and of investing their efforts in the personal capital of their children’s characters and abilities’. Does this sound outdated? Marshall’s view continues to inform the mathematics of the global economy, the census reports and national income accounts that generate the allegedly objective numbers that global policymakers depend upon.

This erasure was institutionalised in the United Nations System of National Accounts (UNSNA) in 1953, an accounting system that had come into its own in the 1940s to allow the US and Great Britain to manage their wartime economies. Governments now use the UNSNA to generate annual gross domestic product (GDP) figures, which have become the default measure of economic growth. By their calculus, the following expenditures all boost GDP and so, by definition, boost economic growth: the costs of war (currently estimated at US$14 trillion a year globally), illegal people and drug trafficking, and cleaning up pollution such as oil spills. But women’s unpaid domestic labour and all unpaid caring work are not counted and so don’t contribute to GDP or economic growth. Yet in 1995 the UN Human Development Report estimated the value of women’s unpaid work at US$11 trillion per annum. It suggested that if women’s work was properly valued, it’s possible women would emerge in most societies as equal if not the major breadwinners, given they put in longer work hours than men. If national statistics fully recorded women’s ‘invisible’ economic contribution, the report stated, it would be impossible for policymakers to ignore them in their policy and funding decisions.

If only our work were counted – then we couldn’t be ignored! We are half the world’s population: the numbers are on our side. So what if we demanded, in this new Covid-inflected world, that every government redirect that US$14 trillion currently spent each year on war and death-mongering into our life-giving and nurturing work?

 

IF THE ECONOMIC erasure of women is palpable, it’s bound to my own flesh and blood. In 2018, after ten years of writing about capitalism, I began to think specifically about women and economics. It’s a recurrent theme in my family: my grandmother, as a runaway teen, worked as a clerk at the Bank of England during the First World War; two of her daughters graduated in economics during the Second. I studied economics in the late 1980s and now my daughter is studying economics.

When my grandmother died she left me her scrapbook. The tale I read there in newspaper cuttings is one of four dazzling children: three girls and a boy, my father. But there’s a darker story behind its fragments, a story of women and economics. My father’s lifelong illustrious career stands out, first in economics journalism, then in finance and banking – and behind it sit the thwarted careers of my aunts, brilliant women at a wrong moment in history. The early promise of the youngest, Nancy, is told in a flurry of press clippings.

When Nancy first appears aged twelve, she’s already a radio veteran: ‘In the two years she has been in Sydney since coming from England, Nancy Gleeson-White…has made 150 appearances on the radio.’ Soon after, there’s this:

Trained for the stage, Sydney actress Nancy Gleeson-White has won high Economics honours at Sydney university, being the only woman in the history of the Economics School to graduate with first-class honours. Now a cadet with Department of External Affairs…she hopes her career will take her abroad. Aged 20, she was one of three women from all over Australia to fill cadetship vacancies.

Then I read that Nancy dreamed of being an economist and an actor: ‘A grandfather who edited a magazine noted for its powerful cultural influence, and an aunt who sang in Covent Garden opera, gave Nancy the right background for the career on which she was determined… Nancy hopes to do research work in economics when she comes down, and to combine that with radio and stage work until such time as she is able to make the stage her whole-time career.’ In 1953, aged twenty-four, she became the first Australian woman diplomat to be appointed to Great Britain. As I understand her life, this was the moment of her undoing. In London she fell in love with a leading British diplomat and in order to marry him, she had to give up her own career. That was the rule of the day. From then on in my grandmother’s scrapbook, Nancy is Lady Tomlinson, the charming wife and society hostess of a star British ambassador. She fades from view, first engulfed by articles about her husband, then vanishing completely.

In 1974, after breaking down, Nancy was given one of the last leucotomies in England – or lobotomies, as they’re called in America.

Five decades on, the female erasures my aunt so horrendously and literally embodied still infect and misdirect the mechanisms that govern the global economy. 

In 1993, the UNSNA did introduce ‘satellite accounts’, which give guidance on valuing unpaid household work by calculating either its inputs (what the unpaid labour would cost if paid for) or its outputs (the value of the goods and services produced). But this labour is still defined as being outside the UNSNA production boundary, so it’s still excluded from ‘The Economy’ and therefore from the official statistics that run it. In Australia in 2006, the last time this work was measured by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), unpaid household work would have increased the GDP by 39.2 per cent. While the ABS parroted that measuring the value of this work was ‘a worthwhile pursuit’ because it gives ‘a more complete picture of the nation’s economic activities’, it nevertheless continues to churn out incomplete pictures of Australia’s economic activities: annual GDP figures that give unpaid household and other care work the exact value of zero.

This, along with the erasure of the rest of the living systems of the planet, is literally killing us. Economics is historically blind to women and households, and to the natural world.

 

THE SUBJECT OF women and economics is vast and ancient – but as a scholarly enquiry, it’s relatively recent, dating to the landmark 1988 book Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth by Marilyn Waring, former New Zealand politician and founder of feminist economics. Waring has said of her research into the UNSNA: ‘As a feminist in the 1970s, discipline by discipline, we were uncovering the ways in which male experience spoke for all. I suspected economics would be the same, and yes it was.’ When she finally read the UNSNA’s many volumes, what she found made her weep: a passage that ‘casually dismissed all the unpaid labour traditionally done by women as “of little or no importance”’. This value judgement was used to justify its exclusion.

If this begins to suggest the systemic magnitude of the problem, here are three more facts that bring it home. First, in Australia in 2020, women were paid an average of $242.90 per week less than men – women are still undervalued and underpaid, and our work is generally more precarious than men’s. Second, one in every 130 women and girls on the planet – twenty-nine million people – lives in modern slavery, a term that includes forced labour, forced marriage, debt bondage, domestic servitude and human trafficking.

And finally, men own over 80 per cent of arable land on Earth. This shocking statistic was calculated by Oxford economist Linda Scott, author of The Double X Economy: The Epic Potential of Empowering Women (2020). For Scott,

[t]his single fact rolls up into a monopoly on power and wealth that is earth-shattering to contemplate. By cornering humanity’s main source of material wealth, men have been able to retain power over the world’s capital for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

As Nancy Folbre observes: ‘Historical scholarship details the many laws that gave fathers and husbands property rights over daughters and wives, enforced male control over female wealth and income, restricted women’s access to education and systematically excluded them from access to lucrative jobs.’ And despite the many advances women have made to overcome oppression, economics, finance and money are still stubbornly male realms. Writer and feminist activist Rickey Gard Diamond states this clearly: ‘Money talks in a male voice. Our financial systems, rules and tools were not invented by us and generally omitted, misnamed and discounted females.’

Given this, it’s not surprising to learn that economics is still the most male-dominated discipline in universities across the globe – even more so than science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It’s time to change this. Reproductive rights, freedom to leave abusive relationships and other freedoms are nothing without economic empowerment. This is about more than improving individual conditions; this requires wholesale systemic change, the sort envisioned by Gard Diamond and her colleagues in 2020 when they founded An Economy of Our Own (AEOO) to unite, educate and economically empower women and minorities.

The discipline of modern economics is usually dated to Adam Smith’s iconic book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Smith’s upbeat view of the emerging factory system and its purported governing mechanism, the market, still infects economics more than two centuries on. His deification of the market as supreme arbiter and manager, and the subsequent institutionalisation of cost-benefit analysis as its unerring compass, smack of magical thinking, such as Smith’s belief that if each man acts selfishly, an equilibrium of wealth distribution will result. And his famous paean to the market is a quintessential expression of male blindness to half our species: ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner but from regard to their self-interest.’

As Folbre dryly notes: ‘Smith neglected to mention that none of these tradesmen actually puts dinner on the table, ignoring cooks, maids, wives, and mothers in one fell swoop.’ Yet Smith’s blindness set the key for the UNSNA, which was rolled out across Europe as part of the postwar investment program under the Marshall Plan. It was imposed on the ‘developing’ nations by postwar financial behemoths such as the UN and World Bank, whose investments in their economies required measurability and accountability – and economic measurement and accountability are synonymous with the UNSNA and GDP accounting. Since then, these figures have been used as policy tools to help national governments maximise economic growth, governed by the ‘Kuznets curve’. This is economist Simon Kuznets’ theory that ‘income inequality would automatically decrease in advanced phases of capitalist development, regardless of economic policy choices or other differences between countries, until eventually it stabilized at an acceptable level.’ Or, as economist Robert Solow put it: ‘Growth is a rising tide that lifts all boats.’ Kuznets later described the thinking behind his Nobel Prize-winning theory as ‘5 per cent empirical information and 95 per cent speculation, some of it probably tainted by wishful thinking’. And Solow’s ‘Growth Model’ came with this footnote: ‘One can imagine the theory as applying as long as arable land can be hacked out of wilderness at essentially constant cost.’ In 1988 Waring correctly called these ‘propagandistic models’.

Rickey Gard Diamond and her team at AEOO are contesting this economic sophistry by educating and empowering women and minorities to become agents for change in the public conversation about our money. They’re running local public and Zoom events on issues such as the gender pay gap and childcare and are networking with advocates for generative change, especially for communities of colour. Gard Diamond says: ‘For us, economics is not just about numbers and the bottom line, but about a gendered system of values that valorizes money bullyboys and demeans all things “feminine” including our Mother Earth.’ Here’s how AEOO views our economic history:

our economy is the product of 2,400 years of male culture which has generally omitted, misnamed or discounted women’s essential production, passionate attention, and ideas… Most women have not owned this economy’s parts or its money output. Why? Twelve thousand years ago, women’s reproductive powers became the first property…

In February 2021, AEOO held a ‘Zoom of our own’ about feminist economic futures and building a better economy in the wake of COVID-19 and recent uprisings for justice. The first speaker, Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, the LBJ School’s associate dean for civic engagement, called the pandemic recession a ‘she-cession’. Lead author of ‘America’s Recovery from the 2020 “Shecession”’, DeFrancesco Soto said what we all know: the shutdown of places of congregation – including schools, universities, entertainment venues, shops, restaurants, food outlets and other workplaces – forced by COVID-19 hits women the hardest, especially women of colour, because we’re over­represented in the service sector. If, traditionally, recessions affect men, this coronavirus is also novel because it’s more significantly affecting women: we’re losing jobs and struggling under an escalating burden of household work. Many of these jobs were already precarious because of automation and many may not return.

So here’s another reason for mobilising and acting – now. This is the moment not only for retraining women and rethinking our work, as DeFrancesco Soto advocates, but also, more fundamentally, for redefining our ideas of work itself and its value. It’s time to make unpaid and underpaid care work central to our economy, our global household. It’s time to invest in the structural change required to create an economy that actually values the work that’s essential to sustain us and the ecological systems that make life on Earth possible.

It’s devastating to learn that what you know to be the real wealth of the planet – not only all that unpaid care work but also the living biosphere – is defined as unproductive and valued at zero. I’ve written extensively about what seems to me the insanity of attempting to include these values in the existing global accounting systems as quantified monetary measures (insane because this economic calculus can never express the infinite value of the Earth’s living systems) – and simultaneously about the horrendous erasures and trashings that go on if we don’t. In 2014 I explored these issues in Six Capitals through a new accounting paradigm that attempts to address contemporary social and environmental crises by asking businesses to account for four ‘new’ stores of value, or ‘capitals’, in addition to traditional financial and manufactured capital: intellectual, human, social and natural. Since then, I’ve been in the uncomfortable position of believing the problems my book addresses, the missing wealth of ‘people and the planet’ and the failure of our current corporate and national accounting systems to value them, are critical issues of contemporary economics – while also fervently believing that the proposed way to address this, by conceiving of this uncounted wealth as ‘capitals’, is the wrong way to make them count. I state this in my book. But because I named it Six Capitals, its title became a shorthand that effectively erased my reservations and the complexities and alternatives I discuss, giving the idea a kind of iconic resonance that has sounded loud and clear in the global halls of power.

If, as economist Kate Raworth contends, economics is the ‘mother tongue’ of public policy because all policy is expressed in its terms, then the words it utters have material effects. The scale of destruction caused by the language of capital and its casual (violent) deployment to describe a unique living forest, an ecosystem’s only source of fresh water, the harried people working for a multinational corporation or the women in a Bangladeshi factory working punitive hours for paltry wages finally tore me apart. In 2016, I was in Manhattan to speak at the New York Hedge Fund Roundtable’s inaugural sustainability conference – an event itself inspired by Six Capitals. I’d accepted the invitation because I believed that speaking from the heart, or attempting to, in these centres of power might crack open just one mind, one heart. But on that occasion, it was my own mind that cracked, at a morning session where three high-profile investment managers extolled the next sure-fire sustainable source of value, a natural capital. They called it ‘blue gold’ – and it took me some moments to realise they were talking about water. Not a capital, not gold of any sort. But a priceless, life-sustaining molecule. During that long day, I was filled with an inchoate sense that I was speaking the wrong language, a language that was somehow defaulting me to the wrong side, the side of those financiers who saw water as the next big thing rather than a basic human right.

For all those years I’d been speaking in my father’s voice, not my mother tongue: that was how I later put it to myself. And by using my father’s voice I was somehow betraying and silencing myself, one of the erased and uncounted in the economic system. But I was versed in economics – and I’d thought I could use its language and logic to demonstrate its own flaws to itself, to expose the omissions in the systems we’d constructed over several centuries.

The problem was right there, with that ‘we’. There was no we about it. This was an economic system that had been constructed piece by piece, law by law, concept by concept, economic theory by economic theory, over centuries by men. It’s a fact that’s hidden in economics’ assured, ahistorical abstractions. With her unerring clarity, Waring had already called it for what it is:

[GDP’s] central pretension was that it was a clinical, detached, objective, empirical scientific measure, devoid of political interests. But in Counting for Nothing, I showed how GDP in fact imposed an ideology of applied patriarchy onto the measurement of economic progress, alongside many other limitations.

I wouldn’t have put it like that at the time, but that day in New York I felt the force of this truth to my core: I’d somehow got trapped in the language of applied patriarchy. My books had plunged me into an underworld of global capitalism where I’d met people in business, government and non-profits, mostly men, who were attempting to deal with a multitude of increasingly obvious social and environmental crises. After five years of listening to their rhetoric and following their initiatives, I realised that although many of them genuinely wanted to care for ‘people and the planet’, their thinking, language, work and institutions remained locked in a system the default of which is set to privilege money, profits and economic growth at the expense of everything else on Earth.

When in 2019 I was given the chance to revise and update Six Capitals for a new paperback edition, I thought back to that moment in New York and my realisation that the words we use carry material effects. I also recalled the many people who’d thanked me for that book when it was first published; it had allowed them to smuggle what they called ‘revolutionary ideas’ into the bastions of finance and government. I especially remembered the young financial consultant who’d followed me out of her corporate headquarters to confess, tearfully, that my book had given her a language to take the environmental issues close to her heart from the basement where sustainability had been sidelined to the top floor where those with financial power resided. She’d watched her father plough entire crops back into the ground because they didn’t fit supermarket standard sizes. ‘Natural capital’ gave her a new way to speak this waste to corporate power. I threw all of myself into this new edition of Six Capitals, completed in December 2019.

Then in January 2020, preparing to speak about the book in Europe and the US, I broke down again. I’d never been reluctant to speak in public before – and now I was positively petrified. As it turned out, COVID-19 postponed these conferences. But looking back now, I think I was scared of betraying myself – and violently – by speaking that old patriarchal language of capital once again.

That was my point of no return. I will no longer speak of those six capitals and of attempting to value ‘society and nature’, ‘people and the planet’ in their terms. I reject their terms. Their terms are too small for us: too small for all that we are as humans and the Earth’s living systems. I still stand by my book: it does important synthesising, clarifying and narrating work, and it continues to inspire those working within the system – but while the ‘six capitals’ accounting model is an effective diagnostic tool, it is not a cure.

Several months after that breakdown, I agreed to write this essay. Almost immediately, I pulled out. When the editor asked why, I was shocked by the flood of rage and grief this question unleased – grief from my own experience in the belly of capitalism, and rage at the enormous ‘invisible’ work done by so many countless women over so many, many years. And I found that I was still haunted by my brilliant aunt, Nancy Gleeson-White, whose early promise is written in the clippings that fill my grandmother’s scrapbook. And whose beautiful mind had been erased – sundered – forever, when she was just forty-five years old. Nancy embodied the idea of erasure, so terribly and so powerfully, in a family whose lives were shaped by the language and expectations of economics.

In June 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, when women’s mammoth unpaid labour was suddenly so glaringly illuminated, Marilyn Waring demanded that governments see and invest in it – now:

For 50 days women carried the country, but the work they spent the most time doing, the work that kept Aotearoa going when the ‘economy’ contracted, all the adjustments households are having to make, won’t be part of the equation in the ‘economic recovery’. Those who do the most work should benefit in the investment of resources – NOW.

Contemplating the urgency of a new language and economics for the future, I looked around me in Sydney on Monday 15 March 2021 at the crush of people of all ages and genders, from grandmothers to babies, at the March 4 Justice rally. It was one of forty marches across the country that drew an estimated 110,000 people, all mobilised by a tweet from Janine Hendry, who called for a circle of women around our national Parliament House. That massing crowd reminded me, of all things, of the realisation reached by Steve Bannon, arch-right US political strategist and former investment banker, that these global women’s marches are a formidable new political force: ‘It’s not Me Too. It’s not just sexual harassment. It’s an anti-patriarchy movement. Time’s up on 10,000 years of recorded history. This is coming. This is real.’

I listened to the voices of those women who spoke, the leaders, powerful, undaunted and determined, some of them survivors, whose stories testified more potently than any statistic to the systemic erasure of women – we, who are 51 per cent of Australians – that has rendered us invisible and silent. Aboriginal Elder Aunty Shirley gave a Welcome to Country and described ‘the systemic mistreatment of Aboriginal women as “less than human beings” since colonisation’, adding that ‘the historical facts of rape of women…go back to 1788’. This is evidenced in many of the devastating testimonies in Jess Hill’s award-winning 2019 book See What You Made Me Do, which includes a chilling reminder that domestic abuse and violence against women were introduced to this continent from Great Britain 200 years ago: ‘Unlike Indigenous law, which even missionaries praised for its strictness, British laws regulating domestic abuse were designed to protect marriage, not women.’

And from within this urgent protest, I saw how a radically reformed economics might look some day. In my vision, economics students sit outside barefoot on the ground, whose touch and smell tell them that this very earth is the matter at hand. They listen to the wisdom of their elders, First Nations women first, welcoming them to country, this land, telling their stories and sharing their wisdom. They learn that economics is the art of managing and caring for the earth, this planetary household, and therefore for ourselves, all of us, equally; and that the economy is a sacred social space organised around relationships of care. 

And in this future world the ‘unlikely truth’ that Linda Scott realised in 2012, using hard, newly available data, will have become a reality: that ‘equal economic treatment for women would put a stop to some of the world’s costliest evils, while building prosperity for everyone’.

Just as my own lived experience inside the language and matter of economics has taught me that women and the Earth do count, it’s also taught me that relationships of care, not quanta of capital, are the things that we must maximise. Urgently. Now. 

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