20 May 2015

Why every good capitalist should also be a feminist


Women’s equality has come a long way in the West. However, with every story of gain we all too often find another story of loss. Take this last week. On the one hand we have the recent election results, which delivered a record number of female MPs in the British Parliament. On the other hand we have the Oxford College cracking down on “excessively intimidating behaviour” towards female students (as a Cambridge don, I can sympathise). At the same time we saw how women’s issues were made the central focus of Christian Aid Week. The accompanying statement was clear: “Unequal distribution and unfair abuses of power are at the heart of poverty. And the greatest, most pervasive inequality in the world is that between women and men”. As it drafts its new Sustainable Development Goals, this is something that the UN will, we hope, choose to address.

With feminists attempting to make progress in the social and political sphere, it is now time for economists to stand up and listen. It is time for gender to seep into mainstream economic discussions – and into discussions about the future of capitalism. Economists need to take feminism more seriously.

Agency is at the very centre of economics. It is also central to the case for capitalism. Our ability to act as individuals – to have the freedom to make the choices that are in our own self-interest – is fundamental to the way economists model the economy. So long as economists get their policies “right”, the result is, we are told, that the expression of individual interest will lead to the common good: to an economy in which people choose to work hard, to invest and to invent. Smith’s invisible hand will come good. Individual freedom will bring a prosperous society. As Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman made clear, economic success and individual agency are inextricably linked.

Simple enough, you might think. However, to those with their eyes open to gender issues, a major stumbling block presents itself: up to half of the world’s population lacks agency. The very thing that economists begin by assuming is entirely lacking for a large proportion of womankind. Throughout the world, women’s ability to exercise choice is severely limited by the social and political environment that surrounds them. Their ability to become educated, to have their talent rewarded at work, to start up their own enterprises and to push for political change is hampered every single day of their lives. Until women are empowered enough to exercise agency, the global economy will be incapable of achieving its full potential.

In fact, not only does the lack of gender equality mean that up to half of the world’s growth potential is sacrificed, there is one significant difference between men and women which makes women’s subordinate position costlier than you might think. That difference is, of course, that women can give birth. This places women in an extremely vulnerable position – but also a particularly instrumental one for determining the future prosperity of the human race.

Whether a woman has children (and how many) can be central to her emotional and financial wellbeing. Whilst economists sensitive to gender issues are aware of the economic consequences of women’s inability to access education and work opportunities, what is just as important is women’s ability to take charge of their own fertility – for a woman to be in control of her own baby-making capacity.

Since most reproduction is within marriage, this in turn requires that marriage is a free choice for women (that it is not forced upon them), and that women have access to reproductive technologies. Whether married or not, women bear the brunt of men’s sexual desires – if they are powerless to stand up to them, we should at least give them the power to deal with the consequences without the threat of imprisonment. Sadly, in some countries the state’s hold over women’s fertility is so strong that even miscarriage brings risk of arrest (as if miscarriage wasn’t painful enough).

Fertility is not just a social, political or religious issue: it is also economic. As I argued in “Why economists need to talk about sex”, at the root of the West’s economic riches was the ability of women to make their own choices about work, fertility and family life. Looking across history and across countries, women with greater freedom tend to get married later in life and to have smaller families. These smaller families prevent the standard of living from being undermined by ever more mouths to feed, enable parents to invest in education (in quality rather than quantity) and to save (helping fund investment). In other words, women’s freedom over their own fertility brings a fountain of gains for the economy: from higher wages, to a stronger skill base and greater funds for investment. The fact that this freedom has been limited for most of history explains why economic prosperity is so rare – and so recent.

However, throughout the world, women’s agency continues to be under threat. In certain areas, we are moving backwards rather than forwards. Those that campaign for women’s rights are all too often at continual risk of abuse, physical harm and arrest. Furthermore, rather than recognising the need for women to be empowered, many commentators have simply assumed the problem away. We are frequently given the impression that prostitutes are freely choosing to work in the sex industry, or that women in sweat-shops are better off there than in alternative lines of work. The sad truth is that many simply do not have the choice that we like to assume they have. Their options are limited by a patriarchal society – one that results in exploitation and abuse by limiting women’s choices and, as a result, backing them into a corner. When you choose under such circumstances, you are not truly free.

Until women are equally as empowered as men, the models and analyses economists so frequently use will be limited in their scope to bring about prosperity. Rather than simply assuming agency, economists need to do much more to address the lack of it. You cannot be a true believer in free markets and capitalism and at the same time turn a blind eye to women’s (lack of) freedom. Whether male or female, if you are an economist or a believer in capitalism you should also be a feminist – and be proud to trumpet the fact.

Dr Victoria Bateman is an Economic Historian and Fellow in Economics, Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, and Fellow of the Legatum Institute, London.