A recovery plan which works for women also works for the planet


This blog post first appeared on ‘On the Engender,’ the blog of Scotland’s Feminist and Policy Advocacy Organisation. 

Claire Duncanson is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, researcher on a project called The Feminist Roadmap for Sustainable Peace, and a member of GENDER.ED’s steering group.

Engender and Close the Gap’s new paper outlining nine principles for economic recovery provides a valuable roadmap for Scotland to emerge from COVID-19 in ways that address the pandemic’s alarming gendered impacts. However, as important as its ideas are, it fails to make a critical connection, one at the heart of our country’s future. While the paper’s nine principles are offered as a path to a fairer, more just, more equal and inclusive Scotland, they can and must also be understood as providing a strong foundation for addressing and arresting the climate and biodiversity crises. This is an increasingly urgent task given Scotland’s recent rise in carbon emissions and its damaged and depleted ecosystems, but mention of this potential benefit of their approach is surprisingly absent from the paper.

In what ways do the principles for inclusive economic recovery also serve as a foundation for addressing our climate and biodiversity crises? I’ll highlight three. First, the central plank of Engender and Close the Gap’s nine principles is significant investment in the care economy: in health, childcare and social care services. The benefits of this for a more just and inclusive economy are clear: despite being essential to sustaining societies, paid care work, carried out disproportionately by women, has long been undervalued and under-compensated. Where state services are insufficient, women disproportionately take on the unpaid labour burden. Rewarding those carrying out essential care work with higher pay and better conditions, and ensuring that there is accessible and quality provision of care for all, is thus indeed crucial for gender equality.

As well as furthering gender equality, building a strong care infrastructure contributes to addressing the climate crisis because caring jobs are low carbon jobs: caring for children, seniors and those living with disabilities rarely extracts anything from the land and need not create vast amounts of new waste or pollution. As Naomi Klein argues, in order to prevent catastrophic climate change, we need to replace the ‘gig and dig’ economy, where the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants are seen as resources to use up and then discard, with one that is structured around ‘care and repair.’ Engender and Close the Gap’s emphasis on care gets us half way there.

Second, Engender and Close the Gap’s principles also include a recommendation to replace Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with measures that capture increases in the wellbeing of the people of Scotland. In particular, they argue that existing economic indicators and systems of accounting provide ‘at best a partial, and at worse a misleading, perspective on the productivity and wellbeing of Scotland’s women,’ pointing out that despite the ways women’s unpaid work props up the economy, GDP does not measure what happens within the household.

But, as well as misrepresenting and marginalising women’s labour, GDP also provides a misleading perspective on the environmental costs of our economic system. As it is essentially a sum of all the goods and paid services produced, it (mis)counts as productive all those activities that are dealing with pollution, such as cleaning up after an oil spill, or indeed directly polluting, such as the production and sale of the petrol consumed by vehicles stuck in traffic, and the plastic contaminating the ocean.

Changing the measure will not on its own change the world, but indicators matter. As economist Joseph Stiglitz argues: ‘If we measure the wrong thing, we will do the wrong thing.’ Discarding GDP opens the door to using economic indicators that accurately account for the social and environmental harms and benefits of any activity. Thus it would not only promote gender equality, but would also enable Scotland to orient its economy towards healing the damage we have done to the planet.

Third, Engender and Close the Gap’s paper addresses not only the need to redistribute resources to women and other marginalised groups, but also the need to tackle the ideas about gender that act as a barrier to changing our economic system. By arguing that within households men and women should be enabled to do a 50/50 share of paid work and unpaid work, they engage with powerful gender norms that cast men as natural breadwinners and women as natural carers, cleaners and cooks. As the breadwinner role is the one that is more highly rewarded, materially and culturally, this gendered binary underpins gender inequality.

Getting men to undertake 50% of unpaid care work in the home is a challenge. Even during the COVID-19 lockdown, when men are home more than ever before, evidence from the UK and across the world suggests this has not happened, despite the many ways it would enhance gender equality. We can only explain these entrenched divisions of labour by understanding the power of gender norms. Gender norms are not iron laws, however, and the way change happens is through everyday practice: each time men carry out unpaid caring work in the home, each time this work is valued by them and the people around them, a contribution is made to deconstructing the gendered binary of male breadwinner and female caregiver. Engender and Close the Gap’s proposal that men do 50% of the unpaid work is thus a really important aspect of their principles.

Deconstructing ideas about what is appropriate for men and women is not only important for constructing an inclusive economy, however; it is also essential for addressing and arresting climate change. Our environmental crises are not just caused by carbon emissions, but by ideas about appropriately masculine behaviour. ‘Controlling the environment, using it for survival and/or profit, and being resilient in the face of “Mother Nature’s wrath” are well-nigh compulsory traits of normative “true” manhood in Western cultures,’ write Sherilyn Macgregor and Nicole Seymour. Cara Dagget, drawing on the historic role of fossil fuel systems in buttressing white patriarchal rule in the US, shows how fossil fuels don’t just contribute to making profit, but to making identities, petro-masculinities, which are so firmly held they threaten the chances of post-carbon energy politics. Engender and Close the Gap’s attention to deconstructing ideas about gender is thus important not just because it is a crucial ingredient of an inclusive economy in Scotland, it is also an essential element of a more harmonious relationship with nature.

In sum, Engender and Close the Gap’s paper could be much bolder in its claims. It not only offers a path to a fairer, more just, more equal and inclusive Scotland, it simultaneously provides a strong foundation for addressing and arresting the climate and biodiversity crises. This reflects the message of a research project I’m involved in to build a Feminist Roadmap for Sustainable Peace, where we’ve found that the principles for inclusive economic recovery after war are the same foundations required for addressing the climate and biodiversity crises. If the Engender and Close the Gap paper made the compatibility of feminist and green approaches explicit, it would strengthen the arguments of both, and aid campaigns for Scotland to build back better after COVID-19. And, with the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group for Economic Recovery’s prescriptions proving so uninspiring (also see herehere and here), these voices need all the strength that can be mustered.