- Gül Unal
Here’s to a future where there will be no need to remind the public and policymakers to guarantee women’s rights but only a need to celebrate past victories toward gender equality.
Alas, such a future remains a distant prospect; and against a wider backdrop of persistent austerity and rising economic inequality the challenge of gender equality is getting harder still. Globally, labor’s share of total income has declined steadily in recent decades, while the share going to capital has risen (Figure 1) ; decent work has become increasingly hard to come by for many and job insecurity has become the norm in today’s global capitalism, a trend epitomized by the “gig economy.”
The Role of Labor in International Women’s Day
What does International Women’s Day have to do with the current decline in these wider trends? The day was first celebrated in 1909 by the Socialist Party of America,in honor of the 1908 garment workers’strike in New YorkCity,where some 15,000 women protested dreadful working conditions. In 1911, the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, also in New York, killed 146 young mostly immigrant women garment workers on a Saturday (a non-working day for most of us today).
The fire victims, who were unable to escape because the factory’s owner had locked the building’s doors to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks, became a tragic symbol of capitalism’s excesses, as well as a rallying cry for reform. Today, despite progress, the majority of the world’s adult workers, men and women, still lack decent jobs, and too many children still work in hazardous jobs and conditions to support their families, rather than play and attend school. What is more, as argued in 2017 Trade and Development Report, the intensified competition for “good” jobs resulted in gendered job rationing and the increasing exclusion of women from better work opportunities even as women’s employment participation increases and that of men declines.
Little wonder, then, that the issues discussed at the Third Session of the Multi-year Expert Group Meeting (EGM), on behalf of the Secretary General of UNCTAD, focused on the intersection of labor and gender. The EGM, “How labour and macroeconomic policies can contribute towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals,” was organized by the Division on Globalization and Development Strategies and featured international experts on macroeconomics and employment issues.
The EGM, an “intellectual feast,” examined the role of macroeconomic and labor policies in light of the complexities of interdependence and the pursuit of effective international policy coordination. The role of both income distribution—especially wage, employment, and social protection—and fiscal policy for ensuring healthy growth of aggregate demand and investment were discussed, too. The EGM’s panel on gender and employment was particularly timely, offering abundant food for thought, as speakers shared policy experiences from their respective countries.
The Virtual Institute was able to catch up with three such speakers, distinguished economics professors from Greece, Turkey, and England:
What does gender have to do with macroeconomics?
Hear Prof. Maria Karamessini of Greece
Hear Prof. Ipek Ilkkaracan of Turkey
Hear Prof. Jill Rubery of England
Were women and men affected differently by the economic crisis in Greece? Why and how did Greece, which has experienced one of the worst economic crises in its modern history, implement a social policy that targeted women and children under strict budgetary austerity?
Hear Prof. Karamessini
Prof. Karamessini also shared with us how the Greek government, through the scaling up of a small European Social Funds-funded program, nevertheless made a positive difference for 127,000 children and their families.
Can other governments in times of crisis use their limited “policy space” to spend on beneficial social policies, even when caught between a rock and a hard place(i.e., large and increasing budget deficits and pressure from international financial institutions to follow conventional rules of fiscal austerity)? When Greece attempted to meet the demands of the so-called “troika” (the European Commission, European Central Bank, and IMF), the outcome was disastrous, as the past 10 years have shown. Yet despite widespread, policy-induced, suffering and strict austerity in that country, Greece’s government still managed to use some of its policy space effectively to implement progressive social policy.
How did Greece do it?
Hear Prof. Karamessini
It should come as no surprise to economists of all persuasions that it is common practice to shelve gender issues when promoting employment, particularly under conditions of austerity. But, says Prof. Rubery, such mistaken practice is the outcome of deep-rooted misconceptions on the part of policymakers
Prof. Rubery also discussed the effects of austerity programs on women—and why more states don’t choose pro-female social
policies to promote employment.
Indeed, there are many reasons to think that government spending on social policies that promote women’s participation in labor markets may be one of the most efficient uses of taxpayer funds. At the EGM, Prof. Ilkkaracan told member states that, contrary to conventional wisdom, policymakers should opt for spending money on the “care economy”, to boost employment and reduce poverty, rather than on, say, construction projects.
Prof. Ilkkaracan’s research on Turkey suggests that, compared with construction—a sector often considered ideal for generating stimulus-related employment—the care sector has a higher potential to create jobs, reduce poverty, and narrow gender gaps
Would spending money on the care sector be an effective way out of the next global economic downturn (which, many analysts believe, will strike sooner rather than later)? As new congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez generates headlines for promoting a “Green New Deal” in the U.S., Prof. Ilkkaracan proposed a “Purple New Deal” at the EGM, with one of the deal’s four pillars centered on public investment in care services for all.
The Virtual Institute greatly enjoyed talking with these three scholars, who are doing pathbreaking work on gender and macroeconomic issues, and we hope that you enjoyed the interviews, too.
Want more? Watch all three EGM sessions in their entirety here: