This week, women around the world will protest the devaluation of their labourby Jessica Abrahams / March 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
“First we marched, now we strike! Wednesday 8th March will be a day without women!”
These are the kinds of battle cries currently doing the rounds on social media as women in the US and dozens of other countries prepare for a general strike on International Women’s Day on Wednesday. The idea is to withdraw from economic activity—both paid and unpaid work, and spending money—for 24 hours to prove the value of women’s labour and to protest recent assaults on women’s rights.
The event recalls the legendary Icelandic women’s strike of 1975, when an estimated 90 per cent of the country’s female population took the day off to protest unequal pay. Chaos ensued. With men forced to take on childcare and employment responsibilities, schools were shuttered for the day and shops were empty. Male managers had to take on the duties of junior female employees. Icelanders later said that children could be heard screaming in the background of radio news bulletins. Legislation on gender equality was passed within a year.
The incident came to mind last year when, faced with a right-wing government attempting to introduce a near total ban on abortions, Polish women hit on the same tactic. Though much smaller in scale than the Icelandic strike—a feat in size that has never been repeated—thousands and thousands of Polish women nonetheless boycotted the office for the day and poured into the streets instead. The proposed legislation collapsed later that week.
Women have recognised the economic power they hold, even as their work goes undervalued. In the office, the gender pay gap persists at 18 per cent, according to the latest government figure, and traditionally female career paths involving care work continue to be among the lowest paid. In the home, their unpaid labour goes unrecognised in economic output figures, though it props up the economy and is essential to the making of government savings. Unpaid carers—most of whom are women—for the elderly and disabled save the government more than £130bn a year, according to a University of Sheffield and Carers UK report; while the Office for National Statistics recently calculated the value of unpaid childcare at about £315bn.
If that work is not included in the figures, it doesn’t get taken into account in policy or budget making. For example, cuts to services are made without considering that it increases the burden on unpaid care work, reducing the ability of women to participate in the labour force. In a speech last week, shadow women and equalities minister Sarah Champion pointed to another example—that spending on physical infrastructure (such as the wages of construction workers building roads) is defined as public investment in economic figures, while spending on social infrastructure (such as the wages of teachers) is defined as expenditure. This, again, tends to de-emphasise the economic value of traditionally female work.
It is this kind of thinking that is behind Champion’s call for “gender budgeting.” Speaking at the London School of Economics, she said that policy making needed “fundamental, structural” change because, under the current system, spending decisions disproportionately favour men. Labour would introduce an economic equality bill to prevent this from happening, she said.
“The perceived assumption is often that budgets are neutral; that they benefit and impact on everyone equally, regardless of gender, ethnic background or disability,” said Champion. “We know this is not the case.”
Going back to the second wave of feminism, it has been argued that economics is hopelessly male-centric. And women’s campaigners have been arguing ever since the recession that women have borne the brunt of cuts largely decided on by men.
Women are, on average, more reliant on welfare and frontline services than men, since they earn less, have greater caring responsibilities and are more likely to be single parents. They are also more likely to work in the public sector. Some women’s groups estimate that changes to tax and welfare since 2010 have hit women’s incomes twice as hard and that women have shouldered about 85 percent of the burden of government cuts—a figure supported by a Labour-commissioned House of Commons Library analysis. Women’s unemployment reached a 25-year high in the years following the recession.
Since women’s paid and unpaid labour contribues to the economy but is devalued by the current system, failing to recognise these figures is bad economic management.
But gender budgeting goes further and argues that the differential impact of budget making on men and women should be recognised not only because it might make economic sense, but because the failure to do so directly contributes to inequality.
“Gender mainstreaming”—the assessment of the differing implications of proposed policy or action on men and women—has become standard practice in some fields, such as development aid from the UK and elsewhere. But while it has been adopted in dozens of countries, including many in Europe and some in Africa and Asia, it has yet to be absorbed into budget making in the UK.
Despite it all, the women’s strike on Wednesday is unlikely to have a significant economic impact: mobilising such an extraordinary proportion of the female population as the women of Iceland achieved in 1975 is a challenge. But with increasing attention on the devaluation of women’s work and the persistence of inequalities, perhaps their point will be heard.