Lesley Riddoch: Women have a place in this debate

We must alter the fact that conferences on our future happen with few women present, writes Lesley Riddoch

“The purpose of studying economics is … to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists” – a prescient observation by the British post-Keynesian economist, Joan Robinson.

“The labour of women in the house enables men to produce more wealth than they otherwise could – in this way (stay-at-home) women are economic factors in society.” Another interesting thought from turn-of-the-century American social reformer, Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

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You probably haven’t heard of either, any more than you’ll have heard of the charming, modest, Belfast-born Quaker and astro-scientist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell who discovered pulsars but saw the Nobel Prize go to her male supervisors instead.

International Women’s Day last week brought the usual flurry of insights, transparent injustice and token recognition. Now we can all return to business as usual, where conferences on our constitutional future take place with almost no women or young people present and academic men invent insurmountable constitutional problems only to be lauded when they finally resolve them weeks after ordinary people on twitter, online forums and in general conversation.

Or maybe not. Two weekend developments could augur well for greater involvement of women in Scotland’s Great Debate: the childcare pledge, made by Alex Salmond; and the suggestion of a Women’s Parliament in Holyrood next International Women’s Day, not made by Alex Salmond.

The SNP leader pledged that all three- and four-years-olds will be entitled by law to 600 hours nursery provision a year by 2014 at his party’s Glasgow conference. This move should close the gap between provision in Scotland and England and may mean mums qualify for tax credits by being freed up to work the required minimum hours – if they can find jobs, while 370 Scotswomen a day are losing them.

Salmond said the move creates “the best package of free nursery education on offer anywhere in the UK”. But Labour’s Young People spokesperson Neil Bibby said: “The SNP promised 570 hours of nursery provision five years ago and only two Labour authorities – Glasgow and East Renfrewshire – are delivering it. They also cut funding for vulnerable two-year-olds, claiming it didn’t work.”

Party politics aside, the SNP’s childcare proposal is clearly a good thing and the mere fact children were actually mentioned by the First Minister matters too. But he’s proposed a solitary and unviable lever (council tax-frozen councils are the ones who must deliver) when what’s needed is a wider strategy to put lost value back into the domestic sphere and into all stages of child development (especially 0-3).

We won’t get that until economists recognise the household as a source of value and creator of wealth … and we won’t get that until domestic labour is accounted for and included as an economic outcome. That’s unlikely as long as male economists dominate the political sphere like Worshipful Masters whose Important Pronouncements automatically make headlines regardless of import or content.

If the domestic sphere is recognised as a source of value, economists could agree that “leakages” must be properly plugged – otherwise we get a loss of value and social breakdown like the “London riots” and high rates of self-harm, alcohol abuse, violence, under-performance and low productivity. In a world dominated by the narrow value system of Alan Sugar that may sound like cod economics.

But since women are working outside the home in equal numbers to men, the household is losing labour and energy. If we view the household as an important source of value and creator of wealth then that should matter to more than human rights campaigners, feminists and child-care activists. That should matter to politicians and economists. But it doesn’t, much.

There’s only one female economist on Alex Salmond’s Council of Economic Advisors (the other two women are a political scientist and a micro-biologist) – and the radical, free thinker and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has been an impressive addition but only a virtual presence at meetings.

If Scotland is to use home rule differently – and if women are to get interested in a debate that currently sounds like a convention for constitutional car mechanics – our country must make a wholehearted reassessment of value and create a new human base for the Scottish economy.

That will not happen through welcome but token measures which leave existing conceptions of economic value unaltered and fail to tackle the current macho, “come on if you think you’re hard enough” tone of political debate.

Women are staying out, keeping quiet and (maddeningly for enlightened debate organisers) failing to come forward when (finally) invited. See tokenism, see enough already.

Here’s an alternative: In 2013 a rather novel idea produced by this newspaper will come of age – it’s 18 years since The Scotsman became The Scotswoman on International Women’s Day. That day male staff, editors and photographers went home, female staff produced and edited the paper and used the planning time and column inch space to deliver a complete package of alternative thought and opinion across every section of the paper (within tough financial constraints).

Now it’s time to go one further.

The SNP’s Jean Urquhart MSP opened a Women’s Day conference in Edinburgh last week, organised by the feminist group Engender, with the observation that it was like a different sort of Scottish Parliament – thanks to the sheer numbers of women packed into the Botanic Garden Lecture Theatre. As is the wont of the woman behind Ullapool’s Ceilidh Place, Ms Urquhart started something. Why not convene a Women’s Parliament next year in Holyrood? International Women’s Day 2013 falls on a Friday when the chamber is not being used and the occasion can be used to debate a women’s economic strategy for Scotland drawn together by Professor Ailsa McKay, whose speech at the event contained most of the quotes and analysis in this article.

Who should be there and how they should be chosen? These important details are nonetheless details. In 2009 a woman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for the first time. Is that because women can’t count … or because the “women’s realm” has never been counted in the hard, macho, failing world of Anglo-American capitalism?

It’s one thing to talk of joining the Nordics. It’s another to embed social values in the economy, welfare state and constitution as they have done.

Unless Scottish politicians are ready to break the mould, will independence ever make a big enough difference?