The feminist vision of the economics of the future

Anna Zachorowska-Mazurkiewicz

When thinking about the economy, we should consider what factors have a significant impact on its shape. Undoubtedly there are many, but here I would like to focus on the one hand on mechanisms called “integration models” by Karl Polanyi, and “economic principles” by Jean-Louis Laville, and on the other hand – on gender relations. Such an approach enables better understanding of the reasons of the inequality of women and men to the detriment of the former, which, in turn, will provide some guidelines as to what must be changed to achieve greater gender equality. And since the position featured here aims to present the feminist vision of the future, first we should have a good grasp of what underlies the currently observed inequality of women and men.

The economic theory describes the relationships within economy, focusing on people involved in the production (and reproduction) process. There are three fundamental integration models, i.e. methods of transferring goods and services, which can occur on the market either with the use of money, according to the principle of redistribution with the involvement of the authorities, or finally, as a gift based on reciprocity. These mechanisms, however, are not only the ways to transfer goods and services. As proposed by Elizabeth Anderson, they involve values – market values, gift value, and common values. They are what determines differences between social relations emerging when goods are supplied by the market, and relations connected to non-marked institutions. The first model is market exchange. It relates to transfer made on the market with the use of prices, and the relationship of the buyer and the seller. This relationship is created as a contract based on information concerning potential benefits. According to the principle of redistribution, the authorities are responsible for the division of goods and services, and redistribution itself is done through the procedure of specifying fees and taxes, and using means acquired in the process. In order for it to work, there must be an existing and functioning political central authority that makes decision in the scope of the allocation of goods and services to people subject to such an authority. And finally, the third model – reciprocity based on interrelated gifts. It consists of relationships created between groups and persons through actions which are significant as a demonstration of social bonds between the parties involved. It should be emphasised that the method of transferring goods and services does not result from other motivations behind the gift, or market exchange, but it rather relates to the structure of human relationships. A gift creates a bond between the parties, as it involves reciprocity. Reciprocity may be postponed, while a market transaction is concluded here and now, without creating virtually any relationships. Similarly, redistribution creates connections which, nevertheless, stem from authority. These are values created by a certain community which subjects itself to this authority. Elizabeth Anderson claims that the gift value and shared values collapse when they begin to be transferred via the market, which, in turn, can lead to the weakening of such social values as trust and mutual obligations.

Nowadays, despite the existence of various forms of these processes’ coordination, the dominant form with a special place in economic considerations, which also translates into the social reality, is the monetary exchange on the market. The remaining forms – redistribution by the state and gift related to reciprocity – are treated as supplementary to the former. This also impacts the hierarchy of activities in which market-related activities, such as paid work, are given more respect than those performed without pay, like care work. Furthermore, Michael Sandel, among others, remarks that unmonetized aspects of the economy seem to be increasingly strongly subjected to the market. Samuel Bowles indicates that features related to the market include anonymity, indifference, mobility, lack of responsibility and independence. And at present, the market is a school where people learn particular skills which are subsequently assigned worth. As early as 1891, Thorstein Veblen argued that when we speak about an individual, about their worth, we do not mean their morality or ethical conduct, but their success expressed in wealth, which affects the respect they enjoy.

How these considerations translate into the experiences of women? It is worth quoting global data concerning women’s work. Irene van Staveren writes that the gender division of paid and unpaid work differs across the world. Yet on average, women spend more time on unpaid work, while men – on paid work. Furthermore, the combined duration of women’s work is longer than men’s. Such a division of work has direct consequences in the form of the division of income, but not only that, as it also determines their standing in our society. The report on social development prepared by UNDP in 1995, devoted entirely to gender relationships, indicates that women perform 53% of all global work, while men only 47%. And yet 75% of work performed by men is paid, compared to only 33% of work performed by women. The report of the International Labour Organization from 2018 indicates that 76.2% of unpaid care work in the world is performed by women, and this percentage is three times higher than men’s share in this type of work. Estimates based on data concerning time budgets from 64 countries (which amounts to 66.9% of the world working-age population) show that each day, 16.4 billion hours are spent on unpaid care work. It is the equivalent of 2 billion people working 8 hours a day, without pay.

Such estimates are possible thanks to the tendency to market an increasing number of goods and services – which means the opportunity to get them for money – but at the same time it enables making comparisons. Thinking in market categories, we assume that we can put a price on anything, i.e. everything can be expressed in identical units, without any loss of value. However, Luís Francisco Carvalho and João Rodrigues indicate that such an approach ignores the exchange of gifts that cannot be expressed in terms of money. Estimates presented above concern precisely the type of actions whose expression in monetary terms is not entirely possible. Care work is relational which means that apart from performing certain activities, its essence lies in creating a bond. Such a bond cannot be commodified, i.e. expressed in monetary value. This, however, does not curtail estimates that attempt to express the combined value of care work, which stems not only from the ease of making comparisons, but also from the society’s adoption of money as a measure of worth.

According to Polanyi, society which will be integrated only through the market mechanism, will lose its capacity to reproduce. This results, to a certain extent, from the considerations presented above. If value is expressed in terms of money, lack of such valuation means a complete lack of worth. Kari Polanyi-Lewitt indicates directly that students of economics are being taught that unpaid work simply has no value – and social perception of activities performed outside the market is based on the same conviction. This pertains precisely to the economic activity of women whose major part is performed outside the market, which renders it invisible; it is not taken into account in economic analyses, and moreover, even when it does occur within the market, it is not well-paid. This relates to the portion of work which is performed predominantly for free within households, but it also covers any work for which women are paid, and it manifests in the gender pay gap. Worth is assigned to this work in terms of competition with unpaid work, but due to the fact that society perceives women through the lens of their involvement in household (and this happens regardless of what type of work they perform), this affects their salaries in general. Claudia Goldin writes that relative remuneration is often treated as an indicator of social worth and economic value. Although women have undoubtedly achieved success in reducing the gender pay gap, they still earn less than men, and the closing of the gap halted a while ago. Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn argue that we can predict the gap will remain also in the future. A considerable portion of that gap is related to the structure of employment – gender differences in terms of the choice of profession still remain significant. Women dominate in professions corresponding to the role traditionally assigned to their gender, like care and service work, while men dominate occupations involving physical strength, as well as leadership. Julie Nelson writes that women are still the most numerous among carers on the official market, and their salary remains low compared to employees of other professions which require similar preparation and with similar work conditions. Thus, care work remains a low-status occupation with low pay, it is unregulated and does not provide social benefits. The low status and low salaries of full-time carers reflect the current lack of respect for care work in society. We should also remember that part of that gap remains unexplained and perhaps the answer could be provided by exploring the dominant model of integration.

This is what the portrait of the contemporary economy looks like – but what can we expect in the future? Firstly, due to changes in demography, the demand for care work increases. In 2015, 2.1 billion people worldwide required care, including 1.9 billion children under 15 (including 0.8 billion children under 6) as well as 0.2 billion senior citizens. By 2030, the number of people who require care will increase by 0.1 billion children and 0.1 billion elderly people. International Labour Organization carried out two simulations connected to demographic changes before 2030. The first assumed the current tendencies will continue (status quo scenario), so the change will reflect demographic changes, but the employment rate, standards of quality and work conditions will remain the same, which means the care work deficit will be maintained. In this scenario, by 2030, employment in education, healthcare and welfare sectors will increase by a quarter, reaching 248 million employees. The second scenario was drafted on the basis of sustainable development goals set out by the United Nations and Decent Work Agenda prepared by the International Labour Organization. In this scenario, the number of jobs in the care sector will increase to 326 million. Another broadly commented change is brought by robotization and automation – processes which seem crucial in this context. The McKinsey Institute published a report predicting that about half of paid activities performed currently by people will be automatized. Authors of the report assume that considering the current trends in technological development, it can happen by 2055. They prepared a list of 2,000 activities describing 800 professions which may be automatized. At this point we should reflect whether this will have bearing on the division of work between women and men, and between paid and unpaid work. The World Economic Forum predicts that the loss of jobs by women and men will be relatively equal (48% women and 52% men). However, other experts indicate that in the production sector, the potential for automation amounts to 60%, while it is only 36% in care work and 27% in education. Considering the current structure of employment in particular sectors, in their estimates for 29 OECD countries, PwC indicates that although women are at risk of losing their jobs in the short term, in the longer perspective 36% of men’s jobs and only 26% of women’s jobs are at risk. Changes concerning the division of work are not just the result of long-term trends. Sudden, unexpected events can be a factor as well, as evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this case, what turned out to be the fundamental problem was social isolation and difficulties in accessing the care system. Studies conducted in mid-2020 by Oxfam indicate that 70% of all students worldwide experienced restrictions in access to educational institutions due to national or local regulations which temporarily closed these facilities. This, in turn, caused the extension of time devoted for work at home, including care work, like caring for the children, the increased amount of work related to maintaining sanitary conditions, or care for the sick. Still, a disproportionate amount of activities and chores is assigned to women, even though during the pandemic, an increase in men’s involvement was notes. In countries where the study was conducted – USA, UK, Canada, Philippines, and Kenya – about half of the surveyed women declared an increase in unpaid work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a significant proportion of women in the US and UK reporting an increase in such work by over 3 hours a day (26% in the US and 39% in the UK).

What vision emerges from these deliberations? The amount of work is decreasing, but not for all types of work, as the amount of care work increases. Are these optimistic perspectives for women? I believe that with a little good will effort they can become optimistic, but just as well they could transform into a trap. There is a real possibility of a scenario in which women will be pushed to the private sphere where they would be performing unpaid work. Jill Rubery writes precisely about such a threat. She indicates that women can be encouraged to leave paid work in order to focus on unpaid work, like it has already happened after both World Wars in the first half of the 20th century. Thus, the supply of unpaid care work would increase, enabling men whose jobs had been made redundant to take paid work. Such changes will not bring about the transformation of the system which would be beneficial for women. A different kind of change must occur, where the existing amount of work – both paid and unpaid – is divided evenly among women and men. Perhaps the solution is such a balancing the forms of coordination of the processes of production and reproduction that all three models of integration would be treated equally, and providing unpaid work would not be treated and worthless.