Why economics is not just for elite white men – Eleri Birkhead

We live in a country where economic inequality is growing, and while 83 per cent of people think that economics is important, only 12 per cent say they understand it, writes Eleri Birkhead of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council.

A greater understanding of economics can help us all (Picture: John Devlin)
A greater understanding of economics can help us all (Picture: John Devlin)

This knowledge gap is not surprising but it presents a significant challenge to understanding and influencing the way our country manages the economy. One of the reasons why our grasp of economics is patchy is a lack of diversity in the field. Historically women have been excluded from economics, which has often been seen as a subject that only elite, white men can understand or are interested in. This exclusion has come at a significant cost, with women disproportionately bearing the negative results of today’s economic policies, particularly in relation to welfare.

Government austerity has had an alarming impact on women in particular. Universal credit disproportionately affects women, by advocating a two-child limit, childcare payments made in arrears and in-work conditionality, the requirements of which impact on the daily lives of single mothers and women who are struggling to make ends meet. We have to ask whether this would be the case if women were better represented in economics, particularly those most directly affected by poverty.

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To meet this challenge, the Church of Scotland has partnered with Economy, a charity whose vision is to make economics more accessible, to bring together groups of women from all walks of life in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow to create a space where they can debate and discuss economic theory and practice.

The aim of the courses is to empower women so they can become more active players in economic decision-making in their communities, and ultimately across Scotland.

Women in Cranhill, Glasgow, had their first session last week. There were cries of “Things will never change, women will never be represented in economics”. There were questions about whether or not the invention of the washing machine really did empower women. Others were more optimistic but clear about the injustices they face with the economy as it is.

The lack of financial support for single mothers and the cost of childcare make finding work that pays a challenge. Is there a better way to do things? In addition to the practical and personal, there are opportunities to think big: to critically analyse the concept of economic growth, to ask why we measure the economy using GDP and to explore how our models of economics are harming the environment.

For all of us it is easy to think that economics is not for the likes of me. However, the more I learn, through conversations such as the one in Cranhill, the more I realise that the economy is intrinsically linked to everything we do. Increasingly these discussions make me question whether the accumulation of more money is a helpful measure of success for the economy. In isolation at least it seems to me to miss so much of what is required to ensure that we, and the planet, are able to flourish.

It excites me to know that small pockets of women across Scotland are thinking about the impact of economics in their communities. I look forward to seeing what changes come about as a result of these courses. Perhaps, as we learn how to navigate the economic jargon and challenge harmful policies, we will find a way to create an economy built on the firm foundations of equality.

Eleri Birkhead is programme manager (economics), Church and Society Council, Church of Scotland