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Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? Women and work post-crash

The value of women’s unpaid and undervalued work is slowly beginning to be appreciated: the time is right for a re-examination of who gets paid, how much, and for what

The idea of the Economic Man forms the cornerstone of orthodox economic thought, Katrine Marcal, a Swedish journalist, argues in her newly translated book - Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? The bulk of women’s work: caring, cleaning, child-rearing is excluded from the idea of the economic man, who acts out of rational self interest, and must then be incentivised to work through monetary remuneration. Marcal argues that when looking at how Adam Smith’s dinner arrived at the table: through the baker, the butcher, the farmer, all of whom carried out their work due to rational self interest, economic theory overlooks the final stage - his mother, who lived with the unmarried philosopher for his entire life, cooked his dinner, and did so because of love, and familial ties.

But this could be changing, with big implications for women. Late last year, the UK’s Office for National Statistics announced unpaid care and housework would be included in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) calculations, classed as “unpaid GDP”. Essentially, if the task carried out unpaid could have been carried out by a worker, be it cleaning, childcare or elderly care, it will be given a value. This is no small move: the estimated value of unpaid GDP (still predominantly the burden of women) £440.2billion. Cleaning and laundry alone was worth £97.2billion in 2012, the equivalent of 5.9 per cent of GDP. Unpaid childcare was worth £343billion when calculated in 2010, which represents approximately three times the contribution of the entire financial services industry in the UK.

Depending on your position in the economy, the relation between your motivation in work and how much you’re paid differs wildly. A recent undercover investigation revealed British MPs Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind on camera negotiating cash for access to senior politicians, with journalists posing as senior executives of a fake Chinese firm. In response to the scandal, other politicians clamoured to defend the eye watering sums many command in second jobs and nebulous consultancy roles, arguing that an MP’s flat rate of pay, excluding expenses for travel, accommodation and living costs, is £67,000 a year. To attract the best, the public were told, the salary needed to rise.

At the opposite end of the scale, the story is different. Across Europe and the United States, wages have stagnated for the poorest post-crash. The austerity project filters down to the pay checks of the ordinary citizen, but somehow the highest paid have plead extenuating circumstances and lobbied for higher pay. The average FTSE100 chief executive is now paid 130 times the salary of their average employee. To keep these people working, they need to be paid exorbitant sums. Meanwhile, the UK government have increased the rate of sanctions on unemployed people’s subsistence benefits. For the poorest, the stick remains, while the rich hoard carrots.

For once, women have been relatively cushioned from part of the blow, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies: because women are more likely to work in public sector jobs, and wages have been more protected through unionisation, than they would be in the private sector.

But part of the reason women’s pay has dropped at a lower rate is because women were paid less to start with: income tax receipts returned to the UK Treasury have been lower than expected, this year, which impacts on growth. This weathering only applies to women in employment however - for unemployed women, especially single mothers and disabled women, the story is very different. And as Marcal points out, the “invisible labour” that remains largely the women’s realm, is absent from free market economic thought.

“The truth is, we are all dependent and therefore society’s task cannot be to separate those who nourish from those who consume”.

“Housework is cyclical in nature. Therefore, women’s work wasn’t an economic activity. What she did was just a logical extension of her fair, loving nature. She would always carry out this work, so it didn’t need quantifying.” This attitude carries across into paid work. When teachers and nurses pay is squeezed, their hours lengthened, it’s assumed that the work they carry out, with it’s direct impact on young or vulnerable lives, will be carried out regardless: there’s too much at stake for a nurse not to administer care, or for a teacher to deliver a lacklustre class or spend less time marking and lesson planning.

Employees in male-dominated roles on the other hand, are compensated for their greed. Ministers and MPs clamoured in the wake of the Straw/Rifkind scandal for more pay to attract “the brightest and best”. Whereas when care home abuse scandals are revealed, the answer seems to be more surveillance: installing CCTV in rooms, rather than asking why skilled carers for the most vulnerable are paid so little. “Economics should help us rise against fear and greed. It should not exploit these feelings,” Marcal argues. The reaction to the cash for access scandal from MPs, that the answer to greed is to institutionally satisfy the money grabbers rather than discipline them for unethical and corrupt behaviour makes little sense in this respect.

“There is nothing in a woman’s biology that makes her better suited to unpaid housework. Or wearing herself out in a vastly unpaid job in the public sector,” Marcal points out. But biological essentialism is helpful for free market economics - if you can argue women are naturally suited and predisposed to the jobs that are paid less, or even nothing at all, you can do without examining why the value we have placed on these roles is so low. If women spend time caring anyway, why pay them as though it’s a professional, learned skill? The structures that mean the economy systematically places a lower value on female-dominated jobs and roles can therefore continue unexamined. Historical oppression of women is seen as a case of evolutionary biology, rather than a systemic worldwide injustice. That women globally were increasingly participating in the workforce, until the global recession, then took the hit, shows that progress in economic equality is still at the behest of historic structural oppression, snapping at the heels of women’s emancipation whenever times get tough.

But actually, none of this is inevitable. During the Greek snap election in January, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras announced that if elected, Syriza would reinstate 595 cleaners, all women, who had been fired by Antonis Samaras’s coalition government. Syriza would achieve this by instead laying off some of the countless financial advisers crowding the Greek parliament’s corridors. The move, which came to pass, was dismissed as “gesture politics” by some on the right. But all politics concerns gestures, and laying out ideological battlelines. And Syriza’s promise made clear that they viewed the women, symbolic of the fact middle-aged Greek women have been particularly hard hit by punishing austerity measures, as more important than the financialisation of the country.

This argument isn’t new, but it’s rare to see it formalised even in so small a way in state politics. Selma James’s Wages for Housework campaign sought to draw attention to how domestic labour, and the affective labour routinely the domain of women’s work is systematically undervalued and excluded from dominant arguments on economic compensation for labour. A report in the US in 2013 by the National Domestic Workers Alliance showed that 95 percent of domestic workers were women, 51 percent were women of colour, 36% were undocumented immigrants, and the vast majority didn’t have health insurance or sick pay. Unpaid care [https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/kate-donald/unpaid-care-missing-women’s-rights-issue] continues to exacerbate and entrench women’s poverty, but a slow sea change in attitudes seems to be emerging post-crash. With the Office for National Statistics accepting that a large part of the country’s productivity is down to women’s unpaid work, and that unpaid work which forms the bedrock of society is a natural resource in itself, the theoretical argument that only cold, rational self interest can keep an economy going looks increasingly precarious.

With a broken and unequal economic system, focussed on wealth transfer from the rich to the poor, the time is right for a reexamination of who gets paid, and for what. Slowly, the value of women’s unpaid and undervalued work is beginning to be appreciated: and once valued correctly, the opportunity to argue for fairer remuneration has to be snatched.

About the author

Dawn Foster is a London-based journalist, writing predominantly on social affairs, politics, economics and women's rights. She is a regular contributor to the Guardian, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, New Humanist and openDemocracy. She regularly appears as a political commentator on BBC's Newsnight and Sky News. Follow her on Twitter: @DawnHFoster


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