When I was studying for an MSc at a British university known for its excellence in economics, I was lucky enough to be able to take a module in feminist economics. It was the first year such a course had been made available anywhere in Britain — and it had not come without a fight. The relevant department, we were told, had some reservations about the course being called “economics”. Although the course covered economics, its analysis was seen as too political. Ultimately, the row was resolved by the addition of “and policy” to the end of the course title.
Such pettiness would come as no surprise, I’m sure, to Linda Scott, author of The Double X Economy: The Epic Potential of Empowering Women. Like Virginia Woolf before her, Scott identifies female economic empowerment as the key to liberation. So while there are no shortage of villains in her analysis (NGOs, well-meaning leftwing academics, finance ministers, who all come in for a well-deserved drubbing), she reserves particular scorn for economists, who are singled out as the biggest obstacle to unleashing what Scott dubs the “double X economy”.
This shadow economy is unique to females, says the author, an Oxford University scholar, and all around the world it is marked by “a distinctive pattern of economic inequality”: male control of capital and family assets, which, together with corrupt officials being more likely to target women, make it much harder for female-owned businesses to succeed. Then there’s women’s disproportionate share of the world’s unpaid care work and the prevalence of sexual assault in the workplace (and the home), through which the economic subjugation of women is policed.
Together, these mechanisms all add up to an opportunity cost. The cost is a direct result of our systematic exclusion of women from the formal economy; the opportunity comes from what would follow if we were to pay attention to the data. “The unlikely truth,” writes Scott, is that “equal economic treatment for women would put a stop to some of the world’s costliest evils, while building prosperity for everyone”.
So why aren’t we doing it? Part of the problem, naturally, is down to the gender data gap: the way we measure the economy is hopelessly flawed when it comes to counting women’s contribution, and without those figures it is naturally harder to make an economic case for pro-female policies. And, yes, it grates to read yet another book enumerating the huge cost to the global economy of allowing violations such as domestic violence to continue unchecked ($4.4tn annually), but the truth is that appeals to justice haven’t worked. Maybe appeals to economic self-interest will.
The coronavirus outbreak has made Scott’s message more urgent than ever
Except they don’t. Even when we have the data, writes Scott, it is being systematically ignored. Economists are plagued by “resolute blindness”; supranational organisations such as the G20 “refuse to learn how the exclusion of women hurts their economies or how including women in their national budgeting could bring the growth they so desperately seek”. And Scott does not prevaricate on why this is, blaming prejudice and bigotry. Plainly put, when the data challenges our cherished stereotypes, we prefer to stick with the stereotypes.
But we pay a high price to maintain women’s economic subordination, and the coronavirus outbreak has made Scott’s message more urgent than ever. As the world has gone into lockdown, domestic violence rates have shot up everywhere. Women have been hit by a double whammy of a dramatic increase in unpaid work and a decrease in paid work. If we are to avoid a catastrophic backslide in progress for women (which, as Scott reminds us, would be hugely detrimental to the global economy), governments will have to plan their recoveries specifically around shoring up the double X economy. Instead, the UK administration quietly dropped the requirement for companies to publish data on their gender pay gap this year.
Ironically, the 2018 introduction of gender pay gap reporting is perhaps the only time the British government comes in for praise in Scott’s book. On the whole, she is damning, repeatedly returning to the UK’s counterproductive insistence on equal, rather than fair, treatment. Scott also lays bare the infuriating tendency by governments and justice systems to treat women as a random collection of individuals, not a coherent group with common interests. In 2011, for instance, Walmart won a class action suit that had been brought by its female employees, not because the US supreme court decided there had been no sex discrimination, but because it concluded that women did not constitute a class. Well, if there’s no such thing as a female class, it’s a hell of a coincidence they all share so many of the same experiences. Meanwhile, the gender pay gap coincidentally continues to cost the global economy $160tn every year.
Scott isn’t above showing us her anger and frustration, usually in the form of bracingly barbed asides, which aren’t aimed exclusively at the usual suspects. In a section on attempts to introduce gender-based analysis to the World Trade Organization she lambasts “ostensibly progressive” civil society organisations, who “oppose any measure to help women until a whole raft of world problems are solved first – or until the world order is burned down and replaced with something else”. Isn’t half the global population enough, Scott asks.
But she isn’t all rage. Above all, Scott is practical and pragmatic. She has little time for hand-wringers of any variety, preferring to focus on briskly Getting Things Done. Fittingly, this is how she closes: with a step-by-step plan of tangible and precise goals we should – and most importantly, could – achieve. Which is what makes The Double X Economy a breath of fresh, if infuriating, air. In a world where so many of us stick safely to criticising the status quo, it’s heartening to read someone willing to offer viable solutions. The question is, will any of us listen?
Caroline Criado Perez’s latest book is Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (Chatto & Windus)
• The Double X Economy: The Epic Potential of Empowering Women by Linda Scott is published by Faber (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15