Why we need to change gender norms in our economies

Clothing designer Lara Khoury in her studio in Beirut, Lebanon. 
Photo: UN Women/ Joe Saade

This blog is written by Chiara Capraro, Policy and Advocacy Manager, Womankind Worldwide. It is the fourth in a new blog series on women, work and economic empowerment


The recent report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Gallup reveals the opinions of women and men across the world with regard to women’s paid work. It sends a clear message: globally the majority of both women and men (70% and 66%, respectively) would prefer women to be in paid jobs. But if this is the case, why does women’s participation in the paid labour force still lag behind – at 50% globally against men’s 76%?

Here, again, women and men worldwide agree: one of the main issues is the inability to combine paid work with unpaid care and domestic work, due to lack of affordable care for children and relatives. For those who have been working to shed a light on unpaid care this is no surprise: around the world women still spend at least 2.5 times more time than men on unpaid care and domestic work. Target 5.4 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which calls for recognising and reducing women’s unpaid care is a global policy achievement, successfully fought for by women’s rights advocates worldwide.

However, consensus has yet to be reached on how to tackle unpaid care in practice. While many programmes and interventions focus on shifting gendered social norms in the (heteronormative) household, they often leave a critical site of gendered policy untouched: macroeconomics. The unequal division of unpaid care and domestic work in the household is due to deeply held gendered norms around women’s roles and responsibilities. These gendered norms do not stop at the household level but inform every aspect of society, including the way we think about the economy.

The dominant advice from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which yields enormous influencing power on macroeconomic policy globally, has been to privilege the reduction of budget deficits and cut public expenditure, including through privatising social protection and freezing public sector wages, rather than invest in universal public services and infrastructure that can reduce and redistribute unpaid care and domestic work. When services are cut or privatised, and become less affordable for users, women spend more time on unpaid care and domestic work and are therefore less able to enter paid work.

The lack of time-use surveys, and quality disaggregated data on tax payers and service users, hinders analysis of the impact of these policies. Where data is available, feminist economists and activists have been using it to expose the gendered impact of macroeconomic policies. For example, in the UK the Women’s Budget Group, a network of academics and activists that monitors the UK government’s economic policies, has calculated that 86% of cuts to public expenditure between 2010 and 2020 will come from women’s pockets. In particular, black and Asian single mothers will be the worst hit, losing an estimated £4,000 per year up to 2020. In Africa, Femnet – a pan-African feminist network – has started approaching the issue of illicit financial flows form a gender perspective and is planning a summer school on macroeconomics for women’s rights advocates.

But a lack of data is only part of the issue; the gravest consequences for women’s rights and gender equality stem from the artificial separation of reproductive and productive economy. Economic policy is presented by decision-makers as technical and driven by efficiency rather than as profoundly political and heralding consequences for the realisation of women’s rights. As a result, women’s rights organisations tend to be excluded from policy decisions over the recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care and domestic work, which sits with those holding the state’s purse strings: the ministry of finance. Such exclusion of women from economic policy decision-making is reflected in formal political representation: in 2016 only 25 women held the economy/development portfolio in governments across the world.

Emphasis on shifting gender roles at household level is important, but it is no substitute for the radical change needed in the design of macroeconomic policy. For low-income households where both women and men spend many hours performing paid work to put food on the table, shifting gender roles is not enough. Recently the IMF has recognised female labour force participation as a macro-critical issue and started including this area as a condition for its lending programme, for example in Jordan.

But the IMF’s advice on fiscal policy has not shifted across the board and continues to ignore the conditions of inclusion of women in the paid labour market, and the impact of macroeconomic policies on women as employees and users of public services, as small business owners who are looking to improve productivity, as carers of family members, and as individuals in need to care themselves.  That the majority of both women and men around the world consider that women should be able to enter the paid labour force is a good start, but it means little if macro-economic policies continue to undermine women’s economic rights and their ability to obtain paid decent work.

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