The GDP is sexist

Not just “women’s work.”
Not just “women’s work.”
Image: AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.
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I remember the pavement more than anything. Faded gray concrete with shoots of grass jutting up between the cracks.

On good days, I’d look for wide stalks to put between my thumbs to elicit a squawky whistle. On bad days, I’d stare at the grass to try and distract myself from the kids surrounding me in a circle.

It was nothing terribly unique: I was the typical Playground Fat Kid, easy prey for bored bullies looking to express dominance between bell rings. My persecutors had a range of tortures in their arsenal, including the usual mélange of wedgies and other forms of physical abuse. But their true virtuosity came in their application of The Silent Treatment, where they’d surround me yet pretend I wasn’t there. Goading me to lash out physically, my only recourse to their taunts was to remain silent and look down at the pavement. This way I could ignore their contorted grimaces and gleeful smirks.

But the grass displaced the rage for only so long. I always broke. While wedgies were painful and embarrassing, The Silent Treatment inflicted a deeper violence. It said, “We see you, but you may as well not be there.” It said, “You don’t count.” It said, “You are worthless.”

In other words, it made me feel how many women must feel every day of their lives.

Self worth and monetary worth

Worth has traditionally been regarded as a measure of financial value—and more often than not, women are perceived as having less of it.

From an economic standpoint, most conversations about women and equality have to do with issues of the glass ceiling and wages. This is because modern society is still male-biased in all our institutions, including the dismal science of economics. Society has repeatedly made the choice to reinforce the biased philosophy of how women should be valued, and this is why the larger societal issue to tackle is not about overall wages, but overall worth.

The world’s main measuring stick when it comes to wealth and worth is gross domestic product. The GDP a statistical metric used as a single number to gauge a country’s growth or perceived prosperity. As Jennifer Blanke of the World Economic Forum defines it, “Mathematically it is the sum of consumption, investment, and government spending (plus exports, minus imports).” When GDP goes up, it is incorrectly assumed that everyone is generally happy and economic benefits are equally distributed. But this “trickle down” mindset has been challenged by major economists like Joseph Stiglitz, who notes how inequality in distribution of benefits and other GDP-driven factors debunk the myth of holistic society prosperity.

When the GDP was developed in the early 20th century, caregiving and raising children were considered women’s work, not worthy of inclusion in the metrics comprising the score. As Riane Eisler, president of the Center for Partnership Studies and author of The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics, notes, “Studies show that if caregiving work were included, it would constitute between 30% and 50% of the reported GDP.”

This “household” or “nonmarket” product—which beyond caregiving activities includes cooking, gardening, and housework according to a 2012 report—is not only economically significant but, if measured, could improve women’s lives (or the men who do equivalent tasks). Were the GDP to be updated in 2018 to recognize that women globally provide these essential undervalued services, metrics would likely change to better incorporate the fundamental activities that underpin traditional economic measures. As the report states in its findings, “Home production reduces measured income in equality.”

But society has chosen not to update this outdated metric. And as a result, the GDP is sexist. Plain and simple. It’s time to upgrade the system to galvanize “household production”—and the women who provide the majority of it—as something worthy of measure.

Creating a value structure that values women

“The GDP is sexist because it adopts a framework of value creation and productivity that is traditionally anchored on individualistic, male-dominated activities,” says Lorenzo Fioramonti, professor of political economy at the University of Pretoria and author of The World After GDP. “It relegates all activities that have to do with care, nurturing, and community support—[which are] traditionally performed by women—to the margins of economic value creation.”

People may appreciate the fact that women (or men) are caregivers, but they don’t value those activities at the same level as the other economic factors measured in the GDP. One can understand empirically that caregiving and raising children is important, but in terms of economic measures, awareness alone won’t evolve issues of women’s rights. Until society creates and utilizes indicators that recognize and factor caregiving into universally recognized metrics, it will never be equal.

“One effect of GDP is that it justifies government policies that allocate little or no funding to support the essential work of caregiving,” Eisler says. “This is a major factor in the disproportionate poverty of women worldwide, as it is women who still primarily perform this work for free in households, with no retirement or pensions.” Eisler expands on these ideas in her TEDx talk “Building a caring economy,” where she proposes the concept of “caring economics”: a system that provides fundamental equality for the nonmarket services that are largely performed by women.

Caregiving also takes a physical and emotional toll on the people who provide it for others. According to a study cited in “Women and Caregiving: Facts and Figures from the Family Caregiver Alliance National Center on Caregiving”:

  • 25% of female caregivers rated their own health as fair or poor (compared to 17% of non-caregivers)
  • 54% had one or more chronic health conditions (vs. 41%)
  • 51% exhibited depressive symptoms (vs. 38%)
  • 16% were twice as likely in the past year not to get needed medical care (vs. 8%)
  • 25% had difficulty getting medical care (vs. 16%)

In effect, this means not only that women are not rewarded equally for nonmarket work but are penalized for it.

“GDP is hurting both men and women because it sends a message that who you are as a person is not as important as how much money you make or stuff you have,” says Laura Musikanski, founder of The Happiness Alliance, a non-profit whose mission is to improve the well-being of society by increasing understanding and appreciation of the factors that lead to life satisfaction, resilience, and sustainability. Can you imagine a world in which you were esteemed as highly for caring for your children or aging parent as if you were a top earner?”

Beyond the GDP

As an alternative to the GDP, Eisler and the Center for Partnership Studies have created the Social Wealth Economic Indicators (SWEIs). This system utilizes a number of national metrics to measure a nation’s human capacity development, as shown by data such as child poverty rates, and a nation’s care investment, as shown by public spending on family benefits and funding for childcare and education.

“By measuring both inputs (investments) and outputs (where a society stands),” Eisler says, “SWEIs further show that outputs (human capacity development) are heavily dependent on inputs (care investment). For example, there is a connection between the fact that the United States has the highest child poverty rates of any major developed nation and that it invests the least in early childhood education and support for childcare in families.”

There are other GDP alternatives that also value “worth” over traditional economic metrics. The Genuine Progress Indicator provides formulas to measure the work of parents taking care of kids at home, and indicators like the Gross National Happiness index also prioritize multiple factors beyond economic or financial statistics in an effort to increase overall citizen well-being.

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The fact that the primary metric of global value doesn’t properly account for women is demeaning and ludicrous. The GDP is effectively the bully in the schoolyard. It says to women, “We see you, but you may as well not be there.” It says, “You don’t count.” It says, “You are worthless.”

Unless all of us—men and women together—work to supplant the sexist underpinnings of GDP, we delay the true fiscal equality of women that must be demanded today. Those who don’t act may not be the bully landing the blow, but they’re still complicit via their silence. When you don’t start calling for change, you are part of the problem.

Caregiving and “nonmarket” skills are not worthless by any measure. We must break the circle of bullies and help value women for all that they’re worth.