Why Feminist Economics is Necessary, Part 1: Unpaid Labour

Words by Cahal Moran, RE Support Team

Feminist economics is a key component of the movement for pluralism in economics and one that has, to some extent, been acknowledged by the mainstream of the profession. It seeks to highlight issues which affect women because (it claims) they have not traditionally been recognised in a field dominated by men. On top of this, it seeks to carve out a space for women in the discipline, both for intrinsic reasons of fairness and diversity and because it means that women’s issues are more likely to be highlighted going forward.

As far as I can see there are two major themes of feminist economics. First is the degree of unpaid labour done by women, of which the canonical example is work in the household but which also includes lesser known issues like affective, cognitive and emotional labour, all of which I will explain later in this post. Second is the discrimination women face in the economy, particularly in employment and pay, which can take many forms. Each of these deserves its own post, so in a two-part edition of the pluralist showcase I will discuss the empirical work establishing the existence and extent of these in turn.

Unpaid Labour

Feminist economists argue that women perform a lot of labour which goes unpaid and unnoticed but which keeps the economy, society, and individual families afloat. Whether this is work in the household, which is simply not remunerated because it is not in the market, or whether is the gendered expectations which push women into certain tasks and occupations, women tend to do work which is not rewarded as much as men’s work – either socially or financially. By focusing on work for wages – and with many textbook examples classically men’s jobs, such as those in manufacturing or construction – economic theory has harbours an implicit male-centred bias.

It was Marylin Waring’s 1988 book If Women Counted which brought women’s work into the view of the profession and policymakers, arguably even marking the birth of feminist economics itself. As Waring meticulously detailed, women perform a vast array of tasks, mostly in the home, which are obviously work: cooking, cleaning, childcare, travel, adult care, and more. This was reflected in national income accounts across the world, which went on to influence policy. Not too long ago the ONS finally started measuring these things with time-use surveys. These measure how long members of a household spend performing each activity, and this time is then multiplied by a comparable wage were such activity to be done in the private sector. As of 2016 their estimated value to the UK economy is a not-to-be-sniffed at £1.24 trillion, or 63% of GDP, as shown by Figure 1.

Although the UK data have too short a time frame to draw many conclusions, studies from the USA go back much further and they show that unpaid labour affects our interpretation of growth in interesting ways. It tends to be counter-cyclical, rising in recessions to offset the decline in the market economy and making the economy appear less volatile. This is because in recessions people tend to eat at home instead of going out; repair things instead of replacing them; and some even start to grow their own food. Adding household production to GDP also reduces income inequality, since low-income households engage in it more. The value of unpaid labour usually grows at the same rate as standard GDP (almost by construction) so it does not much affect overall growth, although including it does make the entry of women into the workforce less noticeable and so reduces long-term growth over the latter half of the 20th century.

How we consider different types of labour affects our interpretation of policy, too: the always excellent Women’s Budget Group produced a report in 2017 showing that austerity disproportionately affects women. On the other hand, men tend to bear the brunt of recessions themselves. This much is obvious when you think about who does market and who does home labour: recessions spell a decline in the remuneration of the former, while austerity spells a decline in remuneration of the latter. Another, even more subtle point about how male versus female labour is valued is whether childcare and education should be considered ‘investment’, as opposed to physical infrastructure projects typically done by men: after all, they surely create wealth for the future, right?

Unpaid Labour at Work

It would be wrong to believe that unpaid labour stops at home, though. Modern research has looked at the ‘emotional labour’ performed by women at work. In particular women are expected to do little, menial tasks that do not advance their careers but are necessary to keep the workplace going. These range from literally doing the housework in the office – keeping the place tidy, bringing in food – to taking minutes, supporting others, creating schedules and the like. Echoing household labour, this work is not as visible as, say, giving a presentation or leading a project. The latter are more likely to be done by men, and this is one explanation for the so-called glass ceiling. One in-depth study of 335 households showed that emotional labour was primarily done by women because they are generally more likely to be concerned about whether people feel valued, whether messages have been communicated properly, and whether teams are progressing as a whole. This is perhaps best summed up by the phrase “if I don’t do it, no one will”.

At the risk of introducing too many new concepts with pretentious names, there are a couple of other types of labour worth mentioning, both of which are inseparable from the rest. One is the Marxist concept of affective labour, which in plain English means ‘being nice, pleasant and accommodating’ and also ‘looking good’: think customer service as an archetypal example. Everyone has to do these things but once again, the burden tends to fall on women – consider the disproportionate time and money women spend on their appearance versus men both in leisure and in work.

Finally, there is the mental load, an idea popularised by French cartoonist Emma last year. This is simply the burden of not only having to perform all of the tasks detailed above, but of knowing that they need to be done. It is primarily women who have a more complete awareness of the range of necessary tasks at work and at home, and whether they are finished or unfinished. This is cognitively taxing and should not be underestimated: according to the charity Bright Horizons, 86% of women “cop the mental load” at home, including mums who are the primary earners, and 52% say they are burning out from it.

A common response to all of this is to ask if women simply prefer to do these tasks or are better at them. This is an inherently difficult question to answer because it’s a chicken-and-egg problem: if women are socialised into doing these things, they will get better at them and also appear to have a ‘preference’ for them. Another way to look at the problem is to ask how it affects women and their careers, and the results are not encouraging. A review of 183 studies on exhaustion concluded that women are more likely to feel exhausted than men and their rates of burnout are 80 per 1,000 higher. Furthermore, an experiment showed that emotional labour is not only expected of women; it is necessary for them to attain the same evaluations as men who haven’t done them! In summary, the fact that women are measurably exhausted and are asymmetrically punished for not doing this labour makes it hard to believe it is all a result of voluntary choices.

It would certainly be nice to get some more systematic statistics on all of this, since many – albeit not all – of the cited studies above are detailed studies of relatively small numbers of people (not that I’m one to denigrate qualitative analysis, which is crucial for social science). That such data has not typically been collected is perhaps a reflection of the gender bias in the first place. I would bet good money that were such data to be gathered, it would simply confirm that women do most of this work. A moment’s reflection on your own workplace will likely support this point, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.

Women do large amounts of labour which is rendered invisible by social and financial conventions, and economic theory has traditionally failed to recognise this. Better data and an incorporation of these concepts into economists’ and society’s ideas of ‘labour’ would be a huge step forward. But the need for feminist economics doesn’t end there, and in the next post I will look at the discrimination women face in the economy and how it affects both their pay and career choices, including within the economics profession itself.


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