Women’s work invisible in global economics

By Elizabeth Willmott Harrop

23 April 2010

Content for NothingFormer New Zealand MP Marilyn Waring wrote a ground breaking book in 1988 “Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth”. In it she ruthlessly questions the fundamental assumptions behind world economics and specifically the United Nations System of National Accounts, which determines public policy at a national level.

These principles of global accounting completely disregard the value of women, and the unpaid work of child rearing, maintaining homes and building communities through for example voluntary work. However, the Innocenti declaration 1990 recognises the economic implications of mothering when it says “Breastfeeding … provides social and economic benefits to the family and the nation”. Meanwhile article 14 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women 1979 talks of “the significant roles which rural women play in the economic survival of their families, including their work in the non-monetized sectors of the economy”.

While there are men also making these unpaid contributions, statistics reveal this to be an overwhelmingly female issue. And when women are also “economically productive” they still take on the lion’s share of home-making duties in cultures all over the world, from fetching and carrying water to preparing meals.

So if a mother grows her own vegetables and makes nutritious meals for her children, this goes unnoticed and unrecognised. However if she buys McDonald’s every day this will positively affect GDP with the implication that the population enjoys a better standard of living and health.

Waring says similar principles are applied to Mother Nature, giving the example of how a natural unspoiled landscape is given no credit in a country’s accounting. However if there is a chemical spillage or if that landscape is mined, suddenly jobs are created, money changes hands and the bottom line is positively affected. Irony indeed.

Waring includes a quote from US Senator Daniel Moynihan who said “If American society recognised home-making and child rearing as productive work to be included in the national economic accounts the receipt of welfare might not imply dependency”.

Waring’s argument is summarised neatly by the following quote:

“Growing and processing food, nurturing, educating, and running a household – all part of the complex process of reproduction – are unacknowledged as part of the production system. A woman who supplies such labour is not seen by economists as performing work of value. Yet the satisfaction of basic needs to sustain human society is fundamental to any economic system. By this failure to acknowledge the primacy of reproduction, the male face of economics is fatally flawed”.

Over 20 years after Waring bought these issues to the fore, has anything really changed for women and the way their role in society is perceived?

* * *

Liberty & Humanity

Women’s Rights Articles: