Changing Gendered Values
What Is Our Work Really Worth?
Riane Eisler, president of the Center for Partnership Studies and author of The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics, argues that a new definition of the economy--that better includes the contributions women make--will set us on a path to a healthier, more robust economic future. Eisler is currently working on a public policy initiative to advance healthy economic priorities.
Women worldwide need equal access to education, well-paying jobs and credit; we need to change laws and customs that discriminate against us simply because we were born female. But--and this is what I want to focus on--women need more than that.
In order to change the shameful fact that, worldwide, the mass of the poor and the poorest of the poor are women and their children, and in order to move to a more equitable and sustainable future, we not only need a bigger share of the present economic pie. To use a women's metaphor, we have to bake a new economic pie.
This means thinking outside the box of conventional economic systems, whether capitalist or socialist. Our old economic systems were constructed without taking into account the female half of humanity; indeed, often without taking into account the humanity of either men or women. These old systems have failed to give visibility and adequate value to the most basic and important human work: the work of caring for people, starting in early childhood. Work without which there would be no workforce; work without which none of us would be alive; work that has traditionally been relegated to women, and is still considered inappropriate for so-called "real men."
The current economic crisis offers a window of opportunity to re-examine and redefine what is and what isn't productive work. We women must take leadership in this redefinition, not only for ourselves, but for everyone else as well--women, men and children. Indeed, this redefinition is essential as we move from the industrial to the post-industrial knowledge/information economy.
A New Perspective on Economics
Economic systems are human creations. We need a new economics that takes us beyond the tired debate of capitalism versus socialism, and all the other old "-isms." Both capitalist and socialist theory ignore a fundamental truth: the real wealth of nations consists of the contributions of people and nature.
Adam Smith and Karl Marx ignored the vital importance of nature's life-sustaining activities. For them, nature exists to be exploited, period. As for the life-sustaining activities of caring for people starting in childhood, this they considered merely "reproductive" labor, and not part of their "productive" economic equation. Their focus was on the market--for Smith to extol it and for Marx to excoriate it. Neither included the life-sustaining sectors in his economic model: the household economy, the natural economy and the volunteer economy. Yet without those sectors, there would be no market economy.
These three sectors, which are ignored in conventional economic measures such a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are all in one way or another traditionally associated with women or the feminine. So to change economics, we all must recognize that we have inherited a gendered system of values in which anything stereotypically associated with women--such as caring, nonviolence, and caregiving--is seen as secondary, "soft," impractical, and that in reality the opposite is the case.
We clearly see this if we look at the economic systems developed by Nordic nations such as Sweden, Norway, and Finland. These nations developed policies that combine positive elements of socialism and capitalism, but went beyond both to create an economics in which caring for people and nature is a top priority. They have government-supported childcare, universal healthcare, stipends to help families care for children, elder care with dignity, generous paid parental leave, generally sound environmental policies, and devote a higher percentage of their wealth for aid for poorer nations.
These caring policies were not the result of greater wealth. Indeed, in the early 20th century the Nordic nations suffered from extreme poverty and famines. But today, they have a generally high standard of living for all. They have low poverty and crime rates and high longevity rates. Now these nations not only rank high in the United Nations annual Human Development Reports in measures of quality of life; they are also in the top tiers of the World Economic Forum's annual Global Competitiveness reports.
Making the Invisible Visible
To effectively address our growing economic, social, and environmental problems, we must recognize that the exclusion of caring and caregiving from mainstream economic theory and practice has caused enormous human suffering.
Conventional indicators of productivity (such as gross domestic product and gross national product) actually place activities that harm life--like cigarette sales and the health and funeral costs from smoking--on the plus side, even though they give absolutely no value to the life-sustaining activities of both the household economy and the natural economy. In fact, economists speak of parents who do not hold outside jobs as "economically inactive," even though they often work from dawn to late at night.
Some people say that this household work cannot be quantified. But the reality is that it can be--in fact, is being--quantified. Thanks to the activism of women's organizations worldwide, many nations now have "satellite" accounts that quantify the value of the work of caring for people and keeping clean and healthy home environments that has traditionally been considered "women's work." For instance, a Swiss government report shows that if the unpaid "caring" household work were included, it would comprise 70 percent of the reported Swiss GDP! Yet none of this information is found in conventional economic treatises.
The work of caregiving is given little or no visibility (and hence economic value) in measurements of "productivity" when it's done in the home, and the devaluation of this work is further reflected in the fact that, in the market economy, professions that involve caregiving are paid far less than those that do not. In the United States, people think nothing of paying plumbers, the people to whom we entrust our pipes, $50 to $100 per hour. But childcare workers, the people to whom we entrust our children, are paid an average of $10 an hour without benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And while we demand that plumbers have some training, we do not demand that all childcare workers have training.
This is not logical; it's pathological. But to understand, and change, this distorted system of values, and to effectively address seemingly intractable problems such as poverty and hunger, we have to look at matters that are only visible once we recognize the invisible system of gendered values.
Economic Policy, Poverty, and the Hidden System of Gendered Values
Many people, including politicians, think it's okay to have big government deficits to fund prisons, weapons, and wars--all stereotypically associated with men and "real masculinity." But when it comes to funding caring for people--for child care, health care, early childhood education, and other such expenditures--they say there's not enough money.
Not only that, while politicians often say their goal is ending, or at least decreasing, poverty and hunger, they hardly ever mention a staggering statistic: women represent 70 percent of those in our world who live in absolute poverty, which means starvation or near starvation. Also ignored in conventional discussions of poverty is that globally, women earn an average of only two-thirds to three-quarters as much as men for the same work in the market economy, and that most of the work women do in families--including child care, healthcare, elder care, housekeeping, cooking, and subsistence farming--is not remunerated.
This is not to say that men do not also suffer in present economic systems. But even in the wealthy United States, families headed by women are the lowest tier of the economic hierarchy. And the poverty rate of women over sixty-five is almost twice that of men over sixty-five, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The fact that even in an affluent nation like the United States older women are so much more likely to live in poverty than older men is not only due to wage discrimination in the market economy; it is largely due to the fact that these women are, or were for much of their lives, caregivers, and this work is neither paid nor later rewarded through social security or pensions.
Endings and Beginnings
The first step toward building a truly new economics is a full-spectrum economic model that includes the household economy, the natural economy, and the volunteer community economy in addition to the market, government, and illegal economies. This more realistic and inclusive economic map will give real visibility and value to the most essential human work: the work of caring for people and for our natural environment.
Local and global market rules must be changed to reward caring business practices and penalize uncaring ones. To make these changes, we must show that this benefits not only people and nature but business. Hundreds of studies show the cost-effectiveness of supporting and rewarding caring in the market economy. To give just one example, companies that regularly appear on the Working Mothers or Fortune 500 lists of the best companies to work for--that is, companies with good healthcare, childcare, flex time, parental leave, and other caring policies--offer a higher return to investors.
There are many ways of funding this investment in our world's human infrastructure which could be amortized over a period of years, as is done for investments in material infrastructure. One way is to shift funding from the current heavy investment in weapons and wars. Another is to consider the savings on the immense costs of not investing in caring and caregiving: the huge expenditures of taxpayer money on crime, courts, prisons, lost human potential, and environmental damage. Taxes on financial speculation and other harmful activities, such as making and selling junk food, can also fund investment in caring for people and our natural habitat.
Good care for children will ensure we have the flexible, innovative and caring people needed for the postindustrial knowledge/ information era. Both psychology and neuroscience show that whether these capacities develop largely hinges on the quality of care children receive.
Educating and remunerating people for caregiving will help close the "caring gap"--the worldwide lack of care for children, the elderly and the sick and infirm. It will lead to a redefinition of "productive work" that gives visibility and value to what really makes us healthy and happy, and ultimately results in economic prosperity and ecological sustainability.
We must build a political movement to pressure policy makers to make these policy changes--or change the policy makers.
We can all be leaders in building the gender-balanced foundations for an economic system that truly meets human needs, be they material, emotional or spiritual. If we join together, we can build these foundations and help create a future where all children can realize their great potentials for consciousness, empathy, caring and creativity: the capacities that make us fully human.