Gender economics: ‘When we empower women, we all win’

Oct 12, 2021 - updated Nov 21, 2022

6 mins

Gender economics: ‘When we empower women, we all win’
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

Here are some eye-opening figures to mull over: while 80% of the Earth’s farmable surface is owned by men, 71% of modern slaves are female. Women do most of the unpaid work, which gives them fewer opportunities to do paid work. Women around the world are losing out on huge sums because of the gender gap. Although inequality is starker in many developing countries than in most of the rich world, it’s fundamentally the same subject everywhere: the fabulous potential of the Double X Economy remains largely untapped.

Linda Scott, who is a professor at the University of Oxford, has become one of the world’s most renowned experts on gender economics. In her must-read book The Double X Economy, she describes the shocking inequalities built into our global economy. And she makes a strong case that empowering women could help to tackle some of the world’s biggest social and environmental problems. “When we empower women, we all win,” she writes.

We tend to think about gender inequality the wrong way around: that a country needs to be developed first and tackle gender inequality second. In fact, tackling inequality will help a country to develop. “It’s not that the rich nations could afford to set their women free, but that setting the women free made them rich,” she writes.

The case Scott makes to world leaders about the economy can equally be made to decision-makers in corporations. Economic inclusion for women is not a zero-sum game; gains by one sex do not happen at the expense of the other.

“Women and men work an equal number of hours in total, but the men are getting paid for most of their time, while the women are doing more unpaid work.”

“The more housework women do, the less economic opportunity they have. Subservience in the household also imposes disproportionate losses and risks on women. They are typically expected to subordinate their own ambition to that of their husbands. It is virtually always the woman who quits or shifts to part-time work when children come.”

-Linda Scott in The Double X Economy (2020).

How love is used to stop women from having money

In many developing countries, women still can’t really own property because they are themselves seen as property. Today’s Uganda, for example, resembles the United Kingdom at a time when Jane Austen was writing her novels in the early 19th century: women can’t inherit, they have no access to credit and they are forced into marriage for the economic advantage it brings the men in their family. Women are traded to forge family alliances and consolidate fortunes. But these transactions, past and present, are nothing but “human trafficking”, Scott insists.

“The darkest aspect of the Double X Economy is still slavery. Human trafficking preys disproportionately on women and targets those who are most economically disenfranchised. The International Labour Organization estimates there are 40 million slaves in the world today, of whom 71 percent are female and 15.4 million are women forced into marriage.”

A lot of the practices still prevalent in the developing world used to be the norm in the developed world not so long ago. For example, there was a legal principle in the UK called couverture, which meant that a married woman, “covered” by her husband, had no legal or economic identity of her own. She had to hand over control of whatever assets she had to him. Whatever economic or political power a wife could hope to have depended on the affection she could elicit from him.

Couverture disappeared progressively from the law, but not that long ago. Only in 1982 was it wiped from American law when the Supreme Court declared that the state of Louisiana’s “head and master” principle was unconstitutional. Although it’s no longer the law, our culture still bears the marks of that legacy. Women still accumulate a lot less wealth. They do not inherit as much, even when the law doesn’t penalize them. Their income is often perceived as a secondary wage. When they have children, they sacrifice their economic opportunities “for love” and let their spouse “cover” for them.

The relationship between money and love is as old as women’s economic oppression. Many of today’s feminists have rekindled their interest in all the mechanisms that make women sacrifice money in the name of love. It’s also the subject of Mona Chollet’s new book Réinventer l’amour (Reinventing Love) in which she explains that “the current model of heterosexual love only works when women keep their mouths shut”.

The motherhood penalty is a danger for all women

Love stops economic equality between men and women. But motherly love prevents it definitively. Also in the developed world, when women become mothers they see their chances of earning money and remaining independent as severely impaired. Many of them start working part-time. Others quit working but find it hard to get back into the labor market afterward. And virtually all of them will see their career progression stall one way or another.

The motherhood penalty is a concept familiar to feminists and sociologists: when women become mothers they lose out on wages and economic opportunities.The Economist reported that in the US, a woman’s salary will decrease by 40% over the first 10 years of her child’s life, compared to a close-to-0% decrease for men. Even in Denmark, a more egalitarian country, women lose 21% of their salaries. One of the worst of the developed countries in that respect is Germany, where the motherhood penalty is as high as 61%.

Germany really is a case in point. Most mothers (66%) who work do so part-time. Although many of them would like to work full-time and remain economically independent, schools and childcare institutions are open only in the morning. Taking maternity leave is encouraged. When mothers do go back to full-time employment, they are discriminated against because of the “gaps” in their resumes and their supposed lack of professional ambition.

In many countries, like Germany, inequality between mothers and non-mothers is higher than between men and women. But it would be a mistake to think that the motherhood penalty is a problem only for mothers. In fact, the stronger this penalty, the more discrimination there is in the labor market against allwomen of child-bearing age. It’s also a huge waste of talent for the entire society. Many women are educated and trained at high costs only for their talent to remain unused in the labor market.

As many countries face acute shortages of workers, all these mothers who would like to do more paid work but aren’t given enough professional opportunities represent a valuable pool of talent that could solve many recruitment problems. All the paid work these women are prevented from doing because of a lack of childcare options, discrimination, or toxic management is a loss of wealth for the entire economy. Conversely unleashing this female potential would be an easy way to foster growth and opportunities for everyone else too.

Last but not least, the huge cost of motherhood pushes more and more women to opt out of motherhood altogether. The choice to have children or not is real only if women don’t have to choose between career and motherhood. This could explain why countries such as Japan, Korea, and Germany, which are notoriously bad at supporting working mothers, have low fertility rates. The policymakers who pretend to encourage their people to have more children by pushing mothers to stay at home have it all wrong. Helping mothers (and all parents) to remain economically independent is the only way not to discourage them from having children.

Why equal pay fails over and over again

For a couple of decades now, women have been more qualified than men on average. A 2021 report from the Pew Research Center found that women in the US are outpacing men in college graduation, so a lack of qualification cannot be put forward to justify the persistent gender pay gap. Furthermore, most Western countries have had equal pay laws since the 1960s or 1970s. So why hasn’t it been achieved anywhere on the planet?

There are three arguments that are generally put forward to justify the gap: first, the motherhood penalty; second, the fact that women cluster in lower-paid professions; and third, a lack of advancement in their careers. For Scott, this means that women are blamed “for having children, working in all the wrong places and, in one way or another, not trying hard enough”.

For the author, the main reason is actually “*an absence of will on the part of governments that has kept the gender pay gap in place.”* Employers do not really risk anything when they pay women less than men. It is extremely difficult to prove discrimination. And even if you manage to prove it, damages are too low to discourage discriminatory practices. That’s why across the European Union, all efforts to achieve equal pay have failed so far. Let’s add that there’s no agreement on how to measure the gap. It could well be largely underestimated because the current definition and metrics are far too conservative.

It would be easy to feel downcast after reading Scott’s book, which shows that inequality is deeply entrenched and the mechanisms that perpetuate domination or oppression are durable and powerful. Fortunately, Scott’s book ends with concrete actions that individuals can take as investors, consumers, employers, and activists. Start by reading the book if you want to play your part too.

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