Women have had a good week. Fresh from cheering US President Barack Obama’s nomination of Janet Yellen as the new head of the Federal Reserve (though more because of her wisdom than her gender), I woke up last week on Thursday to a pleasantly discombobulating auditory experience.
The BBC Radio 4 Today program has started my day for more years than I can remember, and on every one of those mornings at least one, and very often both, of the anchors were men. Not that I do not enjoy Evan Davis monstering Danny Alexander or John Humphrys needling the prime minister; but last Thursday’s all-female presenting team was a refreshing sign of the times.
Should her nomination be confirmed by the Senate, as Washington-watchers expect, Yellen will join German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde among a small, but growing sisterhood at the peak of world politics and economics. They may be ultra-bright pioneers, but their presence at the summit is encouraging, nevertheless.
Illustration: Mountain People
Before we declare victory in the gender war, though, we should acknowledge the formidable barriers that still face millions of women worldwide. Just one quirky but important example emerged in a recent academic paper, which — seeing the world through the super-rational eyes of the economist — asked whether the continued existence of cows in India disproves the central tenets of capitalism.
Many rural Indian families keep a cow, using its milk and selling any surplus. Yet the authors, Santosh Anagol et al, use an extraordinarily detailed database, plus more information than you ever needed about bovine husbandry, to show that, far from contributing to the family coffers, these cows almost invariably result in a large loss to their owners compared with the wages they could theoretically earn in the local economy.
“If cows and buffaloes earn such low, even negative, economic returns, why would rural Indian households continue to invest in them?” the economists ask.
They consider several explanations, but one very plausible candidate is that because there are in fact so few opportunities for women to earn a few rupees outside the family homestead, their labor is considered worthless by the household.
“In many locations, the formal labor market for women is essentially non-existent,” the authors say.
If the thousands of hours of backbreaking work put in, mostly by women, in raising, nurturing and milking the cows, does not count — and if there is no alternative outside the home — then the economically questionable decision to press on with cow ownership suddenly appears perfectly rational.
Now this whole area of whether, and how, what women do is valued is a fraught one even in advanced countries, throwing up imponderables such as why traditionally female “caring” jobs such as working in an old peoples’ home tend to command lower wages than, say, fixing a car.
Yet a growing number of countries are keen to benefit from the untapped potential of the female half of their population. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the UN last month that “womenomics” (not an elegant word, but we will not quibble) was one of the keys to his country’s long-hoped-for economic renaissance.
“Creating an environment in which women find it comfortable to work and enhancing opportunities for women to work and to be active in society is no longer a matter of choice for Japan. It is instead a matter of the greatest urgency,” he said.
He is not kidding: With Japan’s working-age population set to decline rapidly over the next 30 years, it must make sense not to assume that half the workforce will be staying at home — and Japan has a lot to do to catch up, even with its Asian neighbors. More than 20 percent of managers are women in Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam; in Japan, it is less than 10 percent.
An IMF report from last year suggested that Japan could boost its GDP by as much as 5 percent over the next two decades by raising the proportion of women who work (the “participation rate”) from 62 percent to 70 percent — the average for the G7 excluding Italy, whose women face their own struggles, not least against the pervasiveness of “bunga bunga” culture.
In developed countries, the solutions are tried and tested. Japan could focus on expanding the availability of parental leave, encouraging flexible working hours and spending more taxpayers’ cash on supporting childcare, for example. Once it has become practical for mothers to work, cultural change should eventually follow, though perhaps with a long time lag.
Back on the farms of rural India — a country in which the female participation rate is just 29 percent, and has actually fallen in recent years — the challenges are more complex. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has suggested one key explanation for low female participation is so-called “occupational segregation.” Women are concentrated in a few industries, including agriculture, handicrafts and basic manufacturing, that, as well as being poorly paid, have created few new jobs in recent years.
Had Indian women been able to take up roles in the same range of industries as their male counterparts, the ILO reckons, twice as many could have found a job between 1994 and 2010. Here, part of the answer must lie in girls’ education; but it must also relate to deep-seated attitudes to women that have surfaced in an extreme way in a series of appalling recent cases of violence, and may take many years of tenacious campaigning to shift.
Yellen, Merkel and Lagarde are inspiring trailblazers; powerful women doing fiendishly difficult jobs in what remain the predominantly male fields of politics and economics.
However, “womenomics” is not just about those who have fought their way to the top, but also those who remain trapped at the bottom.
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