The current global economic meltdown has brought forth many analyses of what went wrong and a long list of suggestions on how to mend the crisis and prevent it from happening again. In recent months, some policymakers, journalists and women's rights advocates have begun putting forth women as "the" solution. Citing facts that women make up half the world's population, form the backbone of most economies with their paid and unpaid work and are an increasing percentage of business owners, entrepreneurs and consumers, more and more prominent figures are sounding the call that investing in women will solve the current crisis and achieve long-term economic sustainability.
Few, including I.M.O.W., would dispute these points. On the one hand, women are the world's everyday economists. Around the world, they balance household budgets and in a few cases, the balance sheets of entire nations and companies. Often they must figure out how to stretch scarce resources to provide for the needs of all under their care. Women have long anticipated and addressed economic crises by making up for gaps and shortfalls, by creating enterprises large and small and, more recently, by participating in policymaking at the local, national and global level.
On the other hand, women, who are 70% of the world's poor, are under-resourced and underrepresented. Due to wars, disease, discrimination and migration for work, a growing number are also single heads of households. The majority of the world's women continue to work long, demanding hours inside and outside the home, yet most cannot afford rising food and transportation costs, increasing school fees and costly medicines--much less education, health care and employment training for themselves.
In many ways, the current financial crisis represents a window of opportunity to address such challenges and promote women's expertise. Concrete support for women's economic participation--in the form of loans, schools, health clinics, skills training programs and social protections against violence and exploitation--would go a long way towards reducing poverty and helping families. Investing in women is, without a doubt, a good thing.
At the same time, we must think carefully about the limitations of an investment-only approach. For example, is economic participation the same thing as empowerment? Will enabling women to contribute more fully to the economy actually improve their lives or create new burdens? Can we really raise women up without also addressing cultural practices and beliefs, redefining gender roles and transforming economic systems?
The current crisis raises a larger, more fundamental question that must not be ignored: What kind of economy do we want, and what purpose should it serve? Is increasing women's economic participation an end in and of itself, or a means to a greater goal--for example, creating a world where everyone, men and women alike, has adequate opportunities to provide for themselves and contribute to the greater good?
For most women, the economic crisis is not new but rather a long time in the making. Well before banks and insurance companies in industrialized countries asked to be bailed out, women were bailing out governments from cutbacks on social spending. For decades, women have provided their own form of insurance: working harder and longer, taking on extra jobs for more income, giving up rest and leisure and enduring stress, poor health and disease as a result. Women have filled the ranks in factories and the rows in farms. In doing so, they have allowed countries and corporations to export and trade and they have shored up GDPs and company profits-without seeing significant gains for themselves.
While it's true that some solutions, like the introduction of microfinance programs, have provided women an alternative to poverty or exploitive work, the fact remains that women hold and control very little of the world's assets or wealth. Longstanding inequalities and systemic problems also make it difficult for women to make large-scale changes to their lives.
For example, as Alice Amsden, Barton L. Weller Professor of Political Economy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out: "In the presence of mass unemployment and the overabundance of small entrepreneurs...more education for women simply leads to more unemployment, impoverished family firms or brain drain. What women deserve is greater efforts on the demand side, by governments, to create industries and jobs above the subsistence level."
In other words, investing in women can't just be about promoting their economic participation; it has to take into account women's own needs and concerns and also generate real, lasting opportunities. Simply giving women small amounts of money or training will not shift a system that is fundamentally unbalanced and unequal.
Moreover, too few of the world's women are in decision-making positions--as village council members, elected state representatives or national ministers. Without a place at the table, women can do little to influence the allocation and distribution of resources in their societies and ensure that they are equitable.
Our goal in creating the Economica exhibition is to showcase women's broad experiences as well as their exceptional expertise. We aim to illuminate what is going on in different corners of the world, why and what can be done to make things better. We want to acknowledge that women are a powerful engine of economic growth, but also help visitors dive beneath the jargon of economics to discover deeper causes and effects and probe how things might be different. Through women's stories, we pose questions that do not have ready answers and we offer alternatives from those working locally and globally, not only to empower women, but also to transform the economy.
Women are reminding us of the economy's very literal and conceptual roots. The word "economy" comes from the Greek root oikos, which means home. A derivative word, okonomia, refers to the task of managing the home in a way that is prudent, equitable and responsive to the needs of the dwellers. With their questions and alternative visions, the women whose voices we share in Economica are reminding us that solving the current crisis isn't just about restoring markets and national coffers, but about creating economic systems that are prudent, equitable and responsive to people's needs. This means including women: counting their contributions and actively involving them in imagining and creating the economy on a local and global scale.
We invite you to contribute your own stories and thoughts to this exhibition, and we look forward to participating with you in reimagining and reconceiving an economy that works for everyone.
1. International Labor Organization. (2003). Facts on women at work. Geneva, Switzerland. Retrieved 9 Sep. 2009 from http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_067595.pdf.
2. This data is drawn from organizations that collect and aggregate information at a global level, including the U.N. Millennium Campaign, the World Bank, UNICEF, UNESCO, the U.N. Population Fund. Secondary information retrieved 10 Sep 2009 from http://www.womensfundingnetwork.org/sites/wfnet.org/files/StatusofWorldsWomen_WFN.pdf.
3. Worldwatch Institute. (2008). State of the World: Innovations for a Sustainable Economy. Washington, D.C.: Gary Gardner & Thomas Prugh. Retrieved 10 Sep. 2009 from http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/SOW08_chapter_1.pdf.
4. U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. (2005). Gender Equality, Education and Sustainable Growth. Istanbul, Turkey, Eighth Eurasian Economic Summit: Section for Women and Gender Equality, Bureau of Strategic Planning. Retrieved on 10 Sep. 2009 from http://portal.unesco.org/en/files/28477/11223842079Instanbul_July_2005_final.doc/Instanbul%2BJuly%2B2005_final.doc.
5. U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2005). Progress Toward the Millennium Development Goals, 1990-2005. New York, NY: Statistics Division. Retrieved 9 Sep. 2009 from http://unstats.un.org/unsd/mi/goals_2005/goal_3.pdf.
6. Family Care International. (2007). Women Deliver: As Mothers, Individuals, Family Members and as Citizens. New York, NY: Women Deliver. Retrieved 9 Sep. 2009 from http://www.womendeliver.org/overview/WD_The_Facts.pdf
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8. The World Bank Group. (2007) WDI Online: World Development Indicators. Washington, D.C. Retrieved 9 Sep. 2009 from http://ddp-ext.worldbank.org/ext/DDPQQ/member.do?method=getMembers&userid=1&queryId=6