Three policy assumptions that disadvantage women: Policies designed to help do more harm than we realise

By Professor Robyn Eversole, Deputy Director, Centre for Social Impact, Faculty of Business and Law, Swinburne University of Technology and Director, RegionxLink and Kath Deakin, PhD Candidate, Centre for Social Impact, Faculty of Business and Law, Swinburne University of Technology.

16 Oct 2020

Originally published 30th September 2020, reposted with permission from Kath Deakin.

Outdated assumptions about women’s economic role are still guiding policy around women’s economic empowerment.

As a result, policies intended to empower women actually limit their choices in many cases.

Drawing on our experience appraising women’s economic inclusion initiatives across urban and regional communities, we identify and challenge here three common policy assumptions that contribute to the problem, and propose a practical counter policy.

 A ‘Tackle Box’ of existing policy

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

In contrast to the above adage, women have often been left out of economic development efforts altogether. To support women’s economic empowerment, a “Tackle Box” of policy approaches exist. These include:

But of all these approaches, which will have the biggest impact? Which are the most cost effective? And which will get the most traction with stakeholders? Before we ask any of these important questions, we must ask what assumptions about gender and economic roles each policy may be taking for granted.

Let’s cast our virtual fishing nets, and see what assumptions we catch.

1. Women and men fish differently (they don’t)

Many well-meaning programs often assume a “gender lens” is about supporting women to do women-friendly economic activities. By making assumptions about what kinds of economic activity women and men choose to undertake, this approach reinforces binary gender stereotypes.

An example is the theory that women are an untapped source of better economic leadership or make better business owners due to some inherent “feminine difference”, such as being less risk-averse, less competitive and more collaborative. Feminist economists such as Julie Nelson have done important work debunking this theory. Research shows as much variance within gender categories as between them.

Seeing care as a collective responsibility begins to reveal the real value of women’s work. This goes beyond a more equal distribution of labour in the home and takes into account the broader socio-economic implications

We also see gender assumptions about women’s economic role in microcredit programs, which often assume that women owned businesses will necessarily be “micro” in scale and feminine in focus: money for jam (literally). In this way, what was intended to empower ends up limiting economic choice.

A counter-approach is to recognise that a “gender lens” is a way of seeing of understanding how social roles influence economic inputs, such as time and access to resources.

2. Women have lots of time to fish (many don’t)

Increasing the rate of women’s participation in paid work is a policy approach that aims to enhance women’s economic equality.

Research on the gendered division of household labour shows that women still fulfill the majority of unpaid care duties within the family. But increased participation in paid work doesn’t always correlate with decreased unpaid work for many women.

This approach assumes that more paid work means progress. Yet unpaid caregiving is fundamental to economic activity and stability.

Public policy should connect the dots between outdated assumptions that perpetuate women’s economic inequality: inflexible paid work, lack of women’s control over their own reproductive choices and inequity in the redistribution of income

Feminist economist Emily Thomson notes that women’s lower rates of formal market participation are often assumed to be a supply side issue. In other words, there simply isn’t enough human capital to fit into the current labour model. She argues that this supply side perspective misses the point — women are often already overburdened at home. An example of this we often see is women in rural areas with limited and unaffordable child care and thin labour markets, which leads to reduced employment opportunities.

The counter norm is to consider focuses on the demand side of the economy. A policy starting point is valuing caring as a foundation for other economic activity. Seeing care as a collective responsibility begins to reveal the real value of women’s work. This goes beyond a more equal distribution of labour in the home and takes into account the broader socio-economic implications. As feminist economist Marilyn Power points out, care should also be a responsibility of employers who already profit from women’s unpaid care, which subsidises the real costs of paid labour in our economy.

3. Women need to adapt to the ecosystem (actually it is the other way round)

Women’s economic empowerment policy often focuses on women without attention to the environments in which they work. If we view women’s economic empowerment within the broader social ecosystem we can check for assumptions and biases in the larger operating environment.

For example, policymakers can often see starting a business as a straightforward, linear process. However, sometimes it can take longer for women to be ready to start a business if they are juggling the complexities of a start-up with caring responsibilities.

Public policy should connect the dots between outdated assumptions that perpetuate women’s economic inequality: inflexible paid work, lack of women’s control over their own reproductive choices and inequity in the redistribution of income. We see this culminate in the punitive rates of poverty and housing insecurity experienced by older women in Australia, for example. This is particularly problematic if these women separate from a partner after having taken time out of paid work to care for children.

We need policy that puts in place protective measures, so that in years to come, those who have cared for others are cared for too.

Takeaways

Good public policy starts with those in power reflecting on their assumptions:

If we are serious about women’s economic empowerment then those entrusted with reimagining public policy must regularly check their own assumptions. Reflect, reframe and redistribute. If not, then policy intended to empower women only ends up furthering their economic inequality. — Robyn Eversole and Kath Deakin

Bio

Professor Robyn Eversole is a Deputy Director for Centre for Social Impact, Faculty of Business and Law, Swinburne University of Technology and Director, RegionxLink. Kath Deakin is a PhD Candidate, Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology currently researching Australian bank workplace gender equity.

The original article was posted on September 30th 2020 by Apolitcal.co.