Women’s liberation and autonomy are good for productivity.
oes the economy have a problem with sex? According to Victoria Bateman, yes. For the economist from Cambridge University, the discipline of economics has been dominated by a biased and unipolar male view of societal development. The questions that The Sex Factor – How Women Made the West Rich (Polity, 2019) seeks to answer are, for example: why did the West become so rich? Why is inequality growing? To what extent should markets be “free”? And what has sex got to do with it? Victoria Bateman argues, quite rightly, that history generally focusses on industrialists and financiers, all of whom are men. However, women’s freedom to decide about work and family was as important in creating the seeds of prosperity as the role of men.
We can only understand our time and economy if we put sex and gender – “the sex factor” Bateman talks about – at the heart of our analysis. Undertaking a global, temporal analysis, the economist makes convincing arguments regarding how women’s status and freedom in society are key to prosperity. In this book, Bateman argues that women’s liberation is good for productivity, and that female autonomy, especially when it comes to their bodies, is vital to economic development.
As a discipline that moulds our policies, economics needs to be more feminist. In other words, a feminism not only based on values, but which assumes that, in terms of cost-benefit, gender equality has considerable influence on creating prosperity.
Bateman is not an anti-capitalist, but would like to see the economic debate, which usually pits market against State, resettle in “no man’s land”, the economic zone where the market can’t act, and the State can’t take control. In her words, this is the area of love and family, of reproduction and the body. Her analysis argues that governments should give priority to wide-ranging gender equality policies, as the economy cannot continue to function on the presumption that there is always someone at home to do the ironing, wash the dishes and look after the children, while the other person sits at a desk and works late.
If we really want to understand why the West became so successful, something that the rest of the world wishes to emulate, we need to look at women’s part in the story. And, as a result, if we want today’s poorest economies to become richer, inequality to be reduced and climate change to be controlled, we need to increase women’s freedoms. In relation to political and economic decisions, these should be considered first rather than last.
by Gustavo Cardoso
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