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This is an essay of the writing workshop Gender and the Economy - Perspektives of Feminist Economics, published on 24 July 2017.
Gender equality seems to be the buzzword at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the biggest international money lender: With conferences from “Gender and Macroeconomics” or “Fiscal Policies and Gender Equality,” discussions on gender diversity by the board of executives in addition to a growing body of research concerning gender relations, it seems that gender equality is on everyone’s mind But what does the IMF’s focus on gender equality really mean from a critical feminist perspective? What are its main objectives? What does it seek to change and to maintain? What concept or idea of women does it follow and what are the underlying theoretical foundations?
There are many questions to be raised when it comes to the IMF and gender. This essay will try to understand what gender equality itself means to the IMF and how dedicated the international financial institution is to pursue it. Speaking of gender equality, the IMF mainly addresses two problems: the gender pay gap, that is, the difference in salary between men and women and the loss in potential economic growth as a result of women’s inactivity in paid labour. A possible and widely discussed remedy is the concept of gender budgeting, which assesses fiscal policy based on its contribution to gender equality. Due to the IMF’s focus on gender budgeting, this essay will mainly examine its gender budgeting recommendations as an example of its general inclination towards gender issues and its conception of gender equality. It does not attempt to analyse the ways in which these recommendations are applied to specific cases.
Austerity policies on the national level are implemented by international organisations such as the IMF when national economies experience economic recessions and massive household debts. Economic adjustment programmes by the IMF, agreed upon with recipient countries usually have two main objectives: stabilizing a country's economy and simultaneously reducing its public debt. These objectives are mostly achieved by improving competitiveness, strengthening fiscal consolidation and by reducing social welfare spending of the recipient country. Drastic cuts in public spending such as social services and pensions, as well as salary cuts and downsizing in the public sector are frequently implemented economic policies. Additionally, a remarkable tax increase may occur, as well as large-scale privatization plans of state-owned institutions and a deregulation of the labour market.
Research shows that these classical adjustment programmes and austerity policies in general are likely to hit women stronger than men. For instance, Saadatmand Yassaman and Toma (2008) and Rose (1995), suggest that such arrangements by the IMF negatively affect women’s health levels, their employment situation as well as their educational opportunities. Several feminist economists, such as Rubery (2014), even argue that austerity measures and recessions in general have a greater negative impact on women than on men, due to structural conditions, perceptions and expectations on women within a society. To give an example, women are more likely to take on unpaid work such as caring for a family member, household work, etc. Consequently, women are more likely to be affected if government grants for this kind of labour decrease due to restrictive fiscal policy. With this relationship in mind, gender specific budgets, as presented in the following have been developed.
The concept of gender budgeting was first implemented in Australia in the 1980s, requiring ministries and other government institutions to analyse their budgets with special attention to the impact on women. The concept has since been implemented in over 60 countries although its realisation as well as its impact has varied considerably between different institutions. The virtues and vices of gender budgeting have been widely discussed (see for example Diane Elson 2011), but cannot be explained further at this point due to limited space.
Let us rather focus on our actual object of analysis: Within the research department of the IMF, the concept of gender budgeting began to play a role more than 10 years ago. ”Gender budgeting“ is recommended as a fiscal policy and is taken as an administrative approach to promote gender equality and the advancement of opportunities for girls and women. Within the IMF, it is argued that gender budgeting improves budgeting principles and practices in general, provided they are properly designed. The original argument for gender budgeting goes back to the concept of externalities (Stotsky 2006). It had been noticed that different decisions men and women take in their daily lives, on a microeconomic level (e.g. on labour participation during recession), impact the macroeconomic level, too. As a result, women's decisions lead to unintended externalities if political decision-making processes are gender-blind.
Due to this observation, voices inside the IMF have started to call for an analysis of fiscal policy instruments with regard to gender relations. Nowadays it is common sense for the IMF that reducing the disadvantaged status of women will be beneficial to society as a whole. Closing the gender wage gap as well as the labour market participation gap – or as the IMF's Managing Director Christine Lagarde called it in one of her articles: the "Room for more Women Working" (IMF 2016a) – both seem to be crucial steps towards gender equality. If gender gaps are successfully closed, society will benefit from a higher rate of economic growth – as recently stated again in the article "Morocco: Reducing Gender Inequality Can Boost Growth" (IMF 2017) – and greater economic stability. In addition, the activation of women in the labour market could bring great relief to western economies facing the problem of an aging population and a shrinking workforce. Governments are asked to reevaluate their budgets, trying to work towards the benefits just named.
The IMF promotes gender equality on different levels, some of them named in the first paragraph. The IMF particularly addresses the crucial contribution women can make to economic activities and growth when economies are currently below their potential (Stotsky 2006). However, the way in which the IMF implements gender budgeting in its macroeconomic policy recommendations is to be critically reviewed, since it hardly shows any convincing aspects of a gender-inclusive response to economic crises. Hence, three fundamental points of criticism can be identified:
Instrumentalisation of women
Instead of focussing on fundamentally improving working conditions and social infrastructure, the IMF rather tries to make just a few adjustments to the prevailing economic system in order to make it function for female workers. Women are solely perceived as a medium to increase the labour supply and an economy’s overall performance – women have to “fill in the gaps”. It seems that the policy makers try to find answers to questions such as “In what way can gender equality benefit the economy?” instead of “How can society and the economy equally benefit women compared to men?”. However, without clearly acknowledging that the economic system is built upon unpaid care and reproductive work of women, the IMF’s programmes and recommendations continue to promote structural inequalities between men and women. Moreover, the paradigm of economic growth also reinforces the Eurocentric concept of ‘development’ (Stotsky 2016): women and their roles in the economic society need to ‘readapt’ instead of the way society perceives them.
Policy recommendations only scratch the surface of a structural problem
Secondly, the gender budgeting approach of the international lending institution does not systematically address the societal matter of patriarchal hierarchy and power relations that cause the currently established structural gender inequalities and exploitation of women in the economy. In particular, the underlying argument of the IMF’s gender equality approach seems to be narrow-minded: Closing the gender gap serves as a substantial way to deal with gender relations within the economic system. Unfortunately, the mere vanishing of the gender wage gap will only resolve a small part of the entirety of problems concerning gender inequality. The IMF’s effort to handle gender relations does not perceive the way in which women and girls of different social classes are affected by fiscal policy; nor does it acknowledge how deeply gender inequality is integrated into society's culture, mindset and actions. Policy recommendations should rather concentrate on redistributive economic policies, such as progressive income taxation or strengthening the bargaining power of women. Another focus should lie on expanding social infrastructure that incentivises an equitable household division of labour, reproductive and care work. Merely adapting women to the work force without changing structural conditions will not necessarily lead to equal bargaining power and equal division of reproductive work at home.
Feminism and its contribution to the neoliberal ethos
Thirdly, from a theoretical perspective, the feminist and political scientist Nancy Fraser (*1947) argues that neoliberalism has found an ally within the so-called second wave feminism (see for instance Fraser 2013). She argues that second wave feminism promoted the entrenchment of neoliberal individualism as the dominant economic paradigm, instead of challenging the theoretical foundations on which capitalism is founded. The shift from solidarity to a more individualistic,more liberal feminism, turns out handy to fueling market participation. For example, liberal feminism recommends women to focus on their career in order to be in equal positions as men, which eventually leads to greater economic growth. Moreover, the original critique on family wage, based on the male breadwinner model, resulted in a dual-earnership model with many women working in low-paid service or the manufacturing sector. Thus, neoliberalism utilises feminism to spread its agenda and to gain legitimacy, which was not the critique’s original intention. Fraser suggests that feminism should restate itself, for example by valorising unpaid activities instead of wage work only.
Applying Fraser's perspective to our cause, we see that the discourse on diversity, empowerment of women and the fight against discrimination, (among others) promoted by the IMF, has set a benchmark for emancipation, valuing the ascent of a single "talented" women (as well as members of minorities or the LGTBIQ*-community). Instead of narrowing the differences, the IMF establishes a ”winner-takes-all hierarchy”, allowing for some representatives of the respective group to be at the top, while still repressing the vast majority of it. Ultimately this is a liberal and individualistic conception of progress and does not involve the reformation of existing structures.
To sum up, despite the IMF’s increasing attention to gender inequality, its gender budgeting efforts still allow institutionalized, established unequal gender relations to persist. Especially in times of economic recession and crisis, it is crucial to systematically address gender issues in order to entrench appropriate, sustainable and egalitarian economic policies that overcome patriarchal structures and processes.
An appropriate strategy including economic policies that serve the needs and rights of all women and girls has still not been integrated into the IMF’s recommendations and international economic programmes. The initiative of the IMF rather reinforces the current status quo and the underlying orthodox economic paradigm. Hence, instead of questioning the theoretical foundations on which its own agenda is founded, the IMF merely adjusts its policy framework and instrumentalises women and girls as well as feminism itself. Considering the multitude of ways the IMF publicly promotes gender equality (e.g. call for papers, conferences, various websites, hashtag #imfgender,..), one might get the impression that instead of pursuing real change, the IMF rather tries to legitimise itself as the central international lending institution by publicly ‘fighting’ for gender equality. It seems that the International Monetary Fund does no more than ‘gender washing’. Empowerment and overcoming patriarchy is not about recommending policy tools such as gender budgeting. Economic policy and the economy itself should not only confront the structural inequalities and its exploitative role of women; the focus should finally be shifted beyond the role of a woman in the economy in order to respect human rights, regardless of income, class, race, ethnicity, and religion.
This essay has looked critically at the strategic concept of gender equality by the IMF, focusing mainly on gender budgeting. Although the authors conclude that the IMF’s strategy is narrowly focused, we have to keep in mind that the IMF is an international player with many individuals working for it. It is difficult to distinguish between individuals within the IMF trying to work towards gender equality and the institutions' course as a whole. We do not want to discredit the efforts accomplished by researchers and policy makers within the IMF’s departments who have been trying to initiate change. Still, we insist that current policy recommendations by the IMF are not enough by far. Therefore, we continue to demand further changes are made towards gender equality.
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Fraser, Nancy (2013). Fortunes of feminism: from state-managed capitalism to neoliberal crisis. Brooklyn, New York: Verso Books.
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