Who cares? A convergence of feminist economics and degrowth

Level: leicht
Jannis Eicker, Katharina Keil | Exploring Economics, 2017
Who cares? A convergence of feminist economics and degrowth

Perspektiven: Feministische Ökonomik, Ökologische Ökonomik
Thema: Arbeit & Care, (Post-)Wachstum
Format: Text
Link: http://exploring-economics.org

Who cares?

Towards a convergence of feminist economics and degrowth in the (re)valuation of unpaid care work

Authors: Jannis Eicker and Katharina Keil

Review: Anna Saave-Harnack

This is an essay of the writing workshop Gender and the Economy - Perspektives of Feminist Economics



‘The housework practically does itself, my husband says.’1 This line may be taken from a 1977 Schlager, but still reflects the essential characteristics of work carried out in the domestic sphere: it is mostly done by women for the benefit of the family or the wider community and is largely unvalued as well as unnoticed (Bauhardt 2014, 61-62). This understanding can also be observed in mainstream economics where the valuation of this type of work is virtually identical to the one of the 1970s husband’s: it is not accounted for (D’Alisa, Deriu and Demaria 2015, 63). The belief that emancipation can be realized by women’s2 integration into the capitalist system of wage labour is strong throughout the different political camps. Thereby, the inclusion of currently unpaid work into the general economy via commodification, i.e. converting care work into a tradeable good, might look like an appealing proposal (Podann 2013, 563-564). Sure enough, this proposal avoids addressing the problem of ‘noticing’ the housework, i.e. valuation in non-monetary terms. Moreover, a commodification of this type of unpaid work brings about both social and ecological downsides (D’Alisa and Cattaneo 2013, 72). To find a solution to the problem that accounts for ecological and social necessities, this essay suggests to bring together two aspects of economic thought which so far have developed largely separately: degrowth and feminist economics (Demaria et al. 2013, 205-205). In this strive, the concept of care work and its role in feminist economics will be introduced and the downsides of the commodification of care work will be discussed. Subsequently, contributions to the discussion on the (re)valuation of care work will be taken into account. These contributions come from proponents of ‘degrowth’, an approach within ecological economics which fundamentally questions the growth paradigm inherent to most economic theory. Taking up the example of Paech’s (2010) proposal of a 20-hour work week in a degrowth society, it will be argued that a combination of both feminist and degrowth proposals would allow to achieve a socially and ecologically equitable valuation of care work.

Commodified care work and its discontents

Research on care work is one of the cornerstones of feminist economic thought. Care, as defined by D’Alisa, Deriu and Demaria (2015, 63), “is the daily action performed by human beings for their welfare and for the welfare of their community.” In the tradition of feminist economics, this essay considers only those types of care work in the domestic sphere that are often unpaid, for example housekeeping or childcare activities. Therefore, the term ‘care work’ is used synonymously to ‘unpaid care work’ throughout the essay. For this essay, two characteristics of care work are pivotal. Firstly, it is work that by its very nature does not lend itself to valuation in terms of productivity and efficiency inherent to a capitalist economy. For example, taking care of children is not something to be done ever faster as it is not only concerned with the satisfaction of biological needs but also the general development of the child. Secondly, it is work largely realised by women. Gender inequalities are highly visible with regards to the distribution of this work amongst men and women, wherefore structural inequalities between the sexes are perpetuated. (D’Alisa, Deriu and Demaria 2015, 63-66) It is thus of little surprise that proposals to combat these inequalities gained salience. Often, however, proposed solutions suggest to integrate care work into the functioning of a capitalist economy. The shifting of care work from the domestic sphere into the market sphere is considered as the pathway to greater gender equality (Podann 2013, 563-564). Yet, commodification yields both social and ecological downsides. Sectors of commodified care work are precisely those where wages are low and precarity is high. As care workers are often women, they tend to be overly affected by those social downsides of current commodification (Kalleberg 2009, 11). In effect, care work continues to be realized by women who instead of working in the domestic sphere are now often exposed to the negative effects of market forces at work, as women are more likely to work in low-paid, precarious jobs (Deutsche Welle 2017). From an ecological perspective, an increase in the commodification of care work implies a higher use of energy in order to perform the same tasks that were previously realized within the household for a number of reasons, for example, industrial production of food is more energy intensive than domestic production. Additionally, an increase in household income induced by women’s labor market participation is directly linked to growth in energy consumption. The authors of a 2012 case study in Catalonia, Spain, trace this effect back to ‘convenience consumption’ which occurs to minimize the burden of the unpaid work in the household that must be realized additionally to paid work. The suggestion, therefore, is to shift some services from the marketplace back to the household as this would help to reduce energy consumption in the region (D’Alisa and Cattaneo 2013, 78). The effect observed in the Catalonian case is exemplary for the ecological disadvantages associated with the commodification of care work. Therefore, we argue in the line of D’Alisa and Cattaneo (2012) that the commodification of care work in its current form has social and ecological disadvantages that let us doubt the usefulness of this sort of valuation. At the same time, however, from a feminist perspective, this should not result in a ‘re-domestification’ of women. In this light, the authors consider it promising to assess proposals that go beyond the commodification of care work within the current capitalist economy.

A very brief introduction to degrowth

One alternative to current capitalist thinking is offered by degrowth scholars (Bauhardt 2014, 62). The main starting point of degrowth is challenging the hegemonic idea of development, i.e. economic growth. More specifically, it “challenges the hegemony of growth and calls for a democratically led redistributive downscaling of production and consumption in industrialised countries as a means to achieve environmental sustainability, social justice and well-being” (Demaria et al. 2013, 209). As this definition shows, degrowth draws upon a variety of sources, such as ecological and bioeconomics, post-development theory, anti-utilitarianist philosophy, happiness economics, democratic and justice movements. Therefore, it also accommodates very different goals, ranging from abolishing capitalism to building new social patterns within or despite it (ibid., 194).

Albeit proposing radical transformation in society, degrowth approaches to economic thinking often do not explicitly account for gender issues and questions of gender equality (Bauhardt 2014, 64). Yet, the profound structural changes of advocates of degrowth have the potential to reconcile the approach with central demands of feminist economics. Indeed, the revaluation of traditionally female occupations can be one consequence of a restructuring of the productive system along the lines of degrowth theory (see Dengler and Strunk forthcoming for an elaborate analysis of possible convergences). However, as potential does not automatically translate to reality, this essay argues in line with Bauhardt (2014, 66) that it is necessary to explicitly account for claims of feminist economics in the degrowth agenda. One example for a possible convergence, non-commodified care work in the context of the 20-hour work week proposal, will be elaborated upon below.

An alternative approach to work

Within the degrowth debate, there are many different approaches to the issue of work. The ecological strands generally demand giving ecosystems a “value in themselves” (Demaria et al. 2013, 196) and therefore call for reducing human pressure on them. This can be seen as an argument to avoid those kinds of human activities harmful to nature. From a more social perspective, the anti-utilitarian camp of degrowth argues that economic activities should be reframed, bringing social relations to the centre (ibid., 197). Accordingly, work should not be valued on the basis of its economic profitability, but rather its impacts on social relations. And happiness economics claims that working part-time instead of full-time increases personal well-being (Selukova 2016, 134). In sum, degrowth criticizes the often technological and polluting character of work, while acknowledging the high social value of care work, whether paid or unpaid (Kallis, Demaria and D’Alisa 2016, 33).

One concrete degrowth proposal on work comes from Niko Paech, a German ecological economist. According to his theory, economic growth does not only endanger the ecology, but also opposes happiness (2010, 7). He explains this by referring to the paradox that while the number of items we own individually increases, the time we can devote to each of these actually decreases. Furthermore, many of these items are goods that lose their value increasingly quickly. Therefore, we have got to work more and more in order to obtain the same value from our growing number of possessions. This means that less time can be spent on other preconditions for a good life, such as social relations and health. To overcome growth, Paech (2010, 10) proposes to balance self and external supply through “a reduction and redistribution of the average wage labour”; for instance, to 20 hours per person per week. This requires sufficiency regarding the amount of goods, but creates time for subsistence and (non-monetary) cooperation and would thus de-commodify some aspects of daily life. The more one is able to produce by oneself or collectively, the less one has got to work for a wage. Furthermore, Paech’s proposal would ease the pressure on the ecology as it would cut production in half (Paech 2012, 61-63).

However, Paech’s proposal says nothing about the distribution of work among genders and about which sectors would remain commodified. In the strive for greater gender equality, it is desirable that care work is distributed equitably between the sexes. Thus, Ferrant, Pesando and Nowacka (2014, 1) consider it necessary to close the gender care gap – the term used to denote the phenomenon that women carry out two to ten times more unpaid care work than men on the global level. If one does not pay attention, such relations may also continue in a degrowth society.

(De)growing towards gender equality

A central question regarding Paech’s proposal is the way in which the time spent on wage labour is reduced. The overall reduction in working hours could be translated into a reduction of daily working hours (to 4 hours per day in a 5-day workweek if weekly work should amount to 20 hours) or into the introduction of an additional day off. The total number of hours worked would remain the same. Yet, if the goals of feminist economics are to be accounted for in a degrowth society, both solutions differ substantially. Unpaid care work in the household is often a daily rather than a weekly task. Therefore, persons performing unpaid care work additionally to their paid labour, famously known as the second shift for women, would profit more from a reduction in daily working-hours than from an extra day off. Moreover, the general nature of this reduction in working hours would facilitate increased sharing of caring tasks between the sexes (Dengler and Strunk 2017, 25-26). In our opinion, this redistribution of care work from women to men is a necessary step towards more gender equity. This aspect exemplifies the necessity to incorporate the insights from feminist economics into degrowth proposals to set up the productive scheme of a degrowth society in a way that facilitates the creation of gender equality in the realm of unpaid care work. The conversion of both schools can help to create the structures in which a gender equal division of care work is realised. This is the great potential of converging both schools of thought. What this convergence cannot do is change power structures in households, the gender norms inherent to our society and the many stereotypes surrounding our understanding of men and women. However, it is precisely overcoming these societal entrenchments that a 2014 OECD report found to be central for the aim of achieving gender equality in unpaid care work (Ferrant, Pesando and Nowacka 2014, 2). This is where, once again, the private becomes political. Tackling these issues exceeds the scope of this essay but it is important to acknowledge the limitations of structural changes in the line of the proposal discussed here. Ultimately, a gender equitable society cannot be created by legislators, economists and policy makers alone. The task is up to each and every one of us.


This essay discussed the valuation of up until now unpaid care work in economic theory from the perspective of feminist economics. It briefly lined out the socio-ecological downsides of simple commodification of care work. Subsequently, degrowth proposals as alternative to neoclassical economic thinking and alternative approaches to the organisation of paid work were introduced Departing from the insight that “the care economy is vitally important for the post-growth society, but its gendered nature is not recognized” (Bauhardt 2014, 63), it was shown how Paech’s (2010) proposal of the 20-hour work week can path the way for a both socially and ecologically equitable distribution of care work if claims of feminist economics are incorporated. Of course, the argument made in this essay was limited to a very specific proposal and can only serve as a starting point for the discussion on possible convergences between feminist economics and degrowth. Further research into the matter is needed to arrive at a more comprehensive assessment of the potentials and limitations inherent to a conceptual combination of both approaches. Yet, the essay serves as a starting point for rethinking the societal valuation of unpaid work so that the assessment of the 1970’s husband assuming that housework practically does itself becomes the line of a more than 40 year old song instead of the everyday reality of women.


1Line from the song Das bisschen Haushalt by Johanna von Koczian 1977, translation KK.

2The term ‘women’ is used throughout the essay for humans socially identified as female. The authors are aware that the gender spectrum is wider than the binary between men and women and do acknowledge the limitations of the term, yet we choose to stick to it for reasons of linguistic simplicity. Moreover, although this essay stays largely within the gender binary in its argumentation, the authors see potential in thinking care beyond the gender binaries. For example, queering house work may help to overcome the traditional male/female divide in the domestic sphere.



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