A step towards a well-being-centred approach in economic sciences
For years economic research has cultivated the idea of a rational consumer making decisions based on self-interest and desire to gain as much as possible for himself. However, non-mainstream ideas that have been coming to the fore more and more in recent years, often undermine this assumption and emphasise the non-rationality and distinctiveness of an individual. One of these non-mainstream branches is feminist economics, whose main focus is the well-being of individuals rather than an economic advantage.
Well-being as well as ‘caring,’ another important notion in the field, are growth factors and development generators. Feminist economics also tackles issues that concern primarily women, such as the valuation of unpaid work or the gender pay gap. One of the most significant ideas of feminist economists is advocating for a different understanding of countries’ prosperity. Instead of measuring it with categories such as GDP or competitive advantage, often detached from the actual quality of life of the citizens, prosperity should be measured with ‘well-being,’ a resultant of access to healthcare and education, social infrastructure, clean environment, stable labour market, and others.
Feminist economics also rejects the idea of a rational consumer making a reasonable decision according to his stable, unchanging preferences. It emphasises the individuality of a customer, whose choices and behaviours are prone to change as they enter new stages of life or because of other factors. Also external ones, such as social norms or status. As individuals differ, feminist economics critiques a common approach in economic sciences of considering households as an economic unit to analyse people. Because as a whole, a household may be heterogeneous, each of its members should be considered as an individual. That assumption reflects the obvious - people differ when it comes to ideas, habits, and behaviours.
Care: a growth generator
The act of caring is a backbone of feminist economics, being the generator of growth and well-being of an individual and in the result-whole societies. Care economy can be defined as all activities involved in meeting the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of care. Care related activities, performed mainly by women, are often underpaid, unregulated, and underestimated. It has been proven that people who are cared for feel happier and are more creative, which has a positive impact on their productivity and therefore their work. This results in a better quality of human capital, a purely economic notion. Therefore caring, with its various good impact on an individual, can be perceived as a factor supplying the market with a high-quality workforce.
On top of that, care should not be treated as a commodity like any other good described by mainstream economics. There are multiple reasons. First, social norms influence the supply and demand for care. For example, in western societies, children tend to rely on their parents and benefit from parental care longer than in developing countries. Secondly, care work is long-term and usually implies some kind of emotional connection between the care-taker and care-giver. Therefore, according to feminist economists, care should not be described in the economic model just as any other good.
Unpaid work counts
Taking unpaid work into account, women work more hours both, in developed and developing countries. According to the latest report ‘Time to care’ by Oxfam, the monetary value of unpaid work globally performed by women is at least $10.8 trillion annually – three times the size of the world's tech industry. Feminist economists argue that the traditional economic analysis ignores the value and input of unpaid work, undermining the economic empowerment of women, especially in developing countries. However, unpaid work does not end at home.
Researchers have created the term ‘emotional labour,’ which means regulating or managing emotional expressions with others as part of one’s professional work role. In practice, these are activities such as keeping the office tidy, supporting co-workers, and so on. Studies show that for those activities, women are more likely to be responsible. However, they are not being paid for, nor it is foreseen in their working agreements. These kinds of activities take away the time that could be devoted to high-value work that can help women move into leadership roles, therefore it deepens job segregation and thus the gender pay gap. According to American scientists Mary Guy and Meredith Newman, women are not remunerated for ‘emotional labour’ because of the sexist notion that this work is their duty by the fact of being a woman.
More environmentally-orientated macroeconomics policies are also asked by feminist economists. Climate changes affect primarily women, most significantly the ones in vulnerable populations. According to the United Nations data, 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. And with displacement, there comes risks-women and girls living in camps for the displaced, in temporary homes, are exposed to violence and harassment from strangers. Furthermore, in the majority of societies, women are the primary carers for the whole domestic system, responsible for meeting the nutritional needs of their household. In the face of natural disasters, often the result of climate changes, the burden of providing food and water to their households makes women and girls the most vulnerable. In the Oxfam report on the impact of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico in 2017, researchers came to the conclusion that ‘Women were usually the ones who spent hours wringing sodden towels by hand and hanging them to dry, carrying containers of water into the kitchen, bathing children in buckets, or washing floors with rainwater collected in cans.’ On top of that, girls are often the ones to drop out of school to ensure the revival of their household in the face of natural disasters and climate changes.
However, just like any scientific domain, feminist economics receives criticism. According to some, such idyllic thinking of treating each individual as a separate person is, in fact, troublesome, even impossible to apply in empirical work. Economics needs some kind of aggregation and simplification to establish new ideas. Non-mainstream or heterodox economics, which feminist economics is a part of, is also castigated for missing a unified, core theory. Therefore, it may fail to contribute to economics in a significant way. Another concern is that heterodox economists care more about pushing their own paradigm than about promoting true plurality in economic sciences. There is also a danger that non-mainstream economics may lose some of its intensity in the face of economic discourse. As the academic community favours neoclassical economics, heterodox economists may have to be forced to adjust to communicate their concepts and ideas.
Although a relatively new field, feminist economics has been developing rapidly in recent years. Switching the economy’s interest from material advantages to the well-being of an individual, treated not as a decision-making robotic creature but as a flesh-and-blood person, might be truly ground-breaking for economic sciences. In the long term, implementing feminist economists’ ideas and concepts may be a key to happy societies, benefiting from inclusive, gender, and environmentally friendly social policies.