Why do male socialists seem to ignore this great inequality? – Laura Waddell

In the age of Covid, the importance of cleaning, as seen here at Juniper Green Primary School in Edinburgh, is suddenly much more obvious (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)In the age of Covid, the importance of cleaning, as seen here at Juniper Green Primary School in Edinburgh, is suddenly much more obvious (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
In the age of Covid, the importance of cleaning, as seen here at Juniper Green Primary School in Edinburgh, is suddenly much more obvious (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Feminist thinking is vital to making sure the economy works for everyone as we reshape society following the coronavirus pandemic, writes Laura Waddell.

During Covid, the skeleton structure of society has shown its bones. It has always been there. But the importance of work across the care sector, domestic sphere, and in grocery retail has never been more acutely apparent. No matter what else has been stripped back from our everyday functioning ecomony, these things have remained essential – literally designated so.

With this comes the realisation that the kind of work all of society tangibly depends upon is among the lowest paid. This is old news, but rarely is the principle so starkly illustrated across the nation. Will the sentiment convert to swings in political sympathies once the clapping stops? I imagine, at least, that lobbyists for privitisation are having fraught discussions about stopping the bottle back up.

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Yesterday a joint report from Scottish feminist policy groups Close the Gap and Engender was published, making the case for a gendered strategy in rebuilding the economy post-Covid.

The Gender & Economic Recovery report reasserts that equality is good for economic growth (this is generally accepted, if not so much asserted by actions, by financial bodies and several of the Scottish Govenment’s own strategies) but that, in contradiction, essential domestic and care work continues to be overlooked as a contributor to the economy. “Women’s work in care, cleaning, catering, retail, and clerical roles has for too long been undervalued, underpaid, and underprotected.”

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Now is an ideal time to act on these principles of inclusive growth by building gender into any post-Covid economic recovery plan, as well as reassessing what economic growth outcomes should actually look like in a progressive nation. If anything is to change, bold policy will always be necessary. Politically, it helps that the public are newly attuned to the care sector and how essential it truly is.

The problem is that women remain worst off in times of boom and bust, with workforces overwhelmingly made up of women clustering around the bottom of each income bracket, as well as taking on the bulk of unpaid work. As the report states, “Gender-sensitive inclusive growth is about the pattern of growth and not its rate. Repatterning growth means seeing the poorest women’s income rise both along with the poorest men’s and also relative to men’s as a group.”

Clearly, the accounting alone is failing to tell the full story. The proposal to include “gendered well-being indicators” alongside GDP as a barometer of growth is a good one.

The report also argues for investment in a ‘care economy’ and calls for wage-setting powers to increase pay. “Care is as essential to our economy as bricks, steel, and fibre-optic cable. Investment in childcare and care for disabled people and older people should be considered as necessary infrastructure for a sustainable well-being economy and a good society.”

As mentioned, the Scottish Government is committed to inclusive growth in principle, like many other nations and organisations, but the report is critical of its ‘trickle down’ style outcomes. “It conceives of [inclusive growth] mostly as sharing out the spoils of growth, rather than reconceptualising how growth might be created. Growth itself is not acknowledged as a gendered process.” The report is critical of equality findings used as analysis afterwards, rather than shaping budgeting. One problem is that some ‘jobs for the boys’ employment-boosts exacerbate income splits, rather than raise the fortunes of all, by placing funds primarily in sectors already made up of a majority male workforce, resulting in inequal access to the new opportunities or skills offered.

In reading the report, it wasn’t news to me that women’s work is undervalued, but something I hadn’t appreciated as a non-economist was how different types of work are actually categorised in financial planning by governments, with care work generally considered expenditure, not capital spending, including by the United Nations System of Capital Accounts (UNSNA).

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“Investment in physical infrastructure is counted as capital spending (investment bringing economic returns in future time periods) while spending on social care infrastructure such as child, elderly and social care is considered a cost in the current time period,” says the Gender & Inclusive Growth report. Understanding this matters when seizing the opportunity to reshape the economy post-Covid. The report describes “the invisibility of the economic contribution of unpaid work to the global economy, without which it would not function”.

“This work is not routinely featured in impact measures of inclusive growth strategies, but rather mentioned as a ‘barrier’ to women’s productive potential. However, from a feminist economics perspective, women are already hugely productive as they work more hours than men in total if unpaid work is included with paid work. The difference is that paid work is explicitly valued as a productive output in economic terms whereas unpaid work is not.”

It’s a little chilling to see how this work is categorically excised. The pattern of domestic burden blown up to a national scale, and planned into our futures. Planning economic growth on such basis, and measuring its success accordingly, is a little like considering the tip of the iceberg to be all that counts, ignoring the supporting mass hidden from view.

It reminds me how frustrating I find it when this kind of analysis is ignored by men of my peer group, otherwise keen to brandish socialist or progressive credentials, or who have views on the future of Scotland. Do they struggle to mentally connect the dots between gender inequality and socialist goals because they too see anything pertaining to women as irrelevant?

Scotland’s working-class women have historically been overlooked by brawny socialist theorists. I have heard gender inequality dismissed outright by those who insist wealth disparity is all that matters, like it’s a full stop, showing ignorance that the worker class does not advance in step.

“Unless it works for everyone, the economy does not work.” Economic inequality cannot be tackled without understanding why gender is one of the biggest factor of wage disparity across the world.

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