Female economics still waiting to be counted

By Dr Julie Smith

Women make a much greater contribution to the economy than many think.

As mammals, they make milk.

The recently released book Counting on Marilyn Waring: New Advances in Feminist Economics celebrates the pioneering work of a New Zealand politician and Reserve Bank board member, farmer and activist.

Professor Marilyn Waring's scathing 1988 critique of how GDP was measured triggered a wide-ranging United Nations rethink of what counts as economic activity, and it became the foundation of feminist economics.

Maria Berg Reinertsen, a journalist from Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet, said: "While Thomas Piketty's bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century barely tests the discipline's boundaries in its focus on the rich, Counting on Marilyn Waring challenges most limits of what economists should care about."

The focus of the Morgenbladet commentary was how the blinkered view of what counts as productive activity still distorts public policy, so that those providing valuable but unpaid care for the aged or infants may be belittled as unproductive "leaners" while those engaged in paid, or "market" activities are routinely depicted in national statistics in ways that makes them productive "lifters".

Such terms from the Australian political vernacular, terms inspired by Ayn Rand's "producers" and "moochers", have their parallel, for example, in Denmark, where public debate cites "creators" and "spenders".

Marilyn Waring's mission has been to make women's unpaid work visible to policymakers.

The economy, properly defined, would include the unpaid production of households, which create and recreate humanity, in a sustainable relationship with the natural environment.

In Counting on Marilyn Waring, feminist economists also challenge the pathologically selfish and rational "economic man" as the basis for economic analysis, arguing for "homo-socius", rather than "homo-economics" as the starting point for 'the economics of humans'.

In such analyses, public expenditures such as on care of children may be counted as investments, rather than unaffordable public expenses or costs.

Some progress has been made.

But women are still waiting for their work to count in economic statistics.

In 2009, economic Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen reiterated that a shift towards market production may overstate increases in wellbeing because a loss of unpaid production may not be counted, while policies that encourage market over non-market production distort the economy.

With all goods including home produced goods supposedly now included in GDP, Stiglitz and Sen pointed to a serious omission from GDP - the value of breast milk.