Sasha Rasmussen: Money on my mind

As a student of the humanities, I don’t like to talk about money. I find it an ugly subject, as though it is somehow vulgar to admit our real, material needs. The old anthem goes, ‘hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.’ Yet bodies do starve, perhaps more quickly and more grotesquely than hearts. Usually, I am content to deal with roses: with theoretical and philosophical notions of empowerment, subjective identity, societal discourse, and normative expectations. But now, increasingly, I find that we must also talk about bread. We must talk about economics if we are to speak realistically and practically about barriers to gender equality. Virginia Woolf made the poignant claim in 1929 that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.’ Almost a century later, this observation is true of more than just writing. Money represents so much more than comfort. It represents time, it represents freedom, and it represents the power of self-determination.

And yet meeting the costs of being female is a heavy burden, and one that is compounded by the many barriers to women’s economic empowerment and independence. Women are more likely to work part-time or take on fewer hours than their male colleagues, and are more likely to work in the public sector rather than the lucrative corporate world. Studies have shown that female university graduates are earning $8000-$10,000 less annually than their male counterparts with the same qualifications. Although the concept of ‘equal pay for equal work’ is enshrined in the legislation of many countries, this is far trickier in practice, when the question of what constitutes ‘equal work’ is asked – does this refer to identical professional roles, or also to work of ‘equal value’? Who should determine the value of work? Professions dominated by women – such as teaching, cleaning, early childhood and aged care – are lower-paid than professions dominated by men. Furthermore, many women shoulder the bulk of undervalued, unpaid work within their own households. Across every economic marker, every conceivable measurement, women are economically disadvantaged comparative to men.

This is particularly damaging when we consider the respective consequences of poverty and financial security on women’s lives more holistically. Economic empowerment is linked to women’s capacity to seek out education for themselves and their children, both boys and girls. Financial stability also equates to better health outcomes for women, and by extension, for their whole families. Women who are also breadwinners for their households have reported increased respect from their husbands, a vital step in the long work of changing cultural ideals of womanhood. Women who have the skills and opportunities to make their own money are less likely to be reliant on an abusive partner to support themselves and their children. A woman’s financial situation shapes many other facets of her life, and the economic empowerment of women therefore has an astounding ripple effect. Getting cold, hard cash into the hands of women who have earned it is a critical step in addressing questions of gender inequality across society.

Change does not come cheap. It costs money to conduct research, to provide goods and services, to train medical professionals, to implement initiatives and new programmes. Yesterday morning, Melinda Gates announced the Gates’ Foundation’s contribution of $80 million towards gathering essential data around women’s health, economic participation, and social position. As she rightly said, ‘we cannot close the gender gap until we have closed the data gap’. And there are so many equally deserving causes to tackle: sanitation projects, micro-enterprises run by women in need of capital, health campaigns to combat everything from maternal diabetes to tuberculosis to cervical cancer. A myriad of worthy causes, and while throwing money at the problem does not qualify as a solution, funding is a necessary prerequisite for so much essential work.

But there is also something about all this economics which makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Economics is becoming so central to the conversation that it has come to dominate the framing and the terms of discussion. Even when we say, ‘Women deliver…’, what we so often mean is that they deliver tangible, quantifiable economic outcomes. This conference is saturated with the rhetoric of economics, phrases like “find out how they are investing in women and how it is paying off!” Undoubtedly, it does pay off. Empowering and educating women to pursue full economic participation is critical in the fight against poverty; allowing women to determine the number, spacing and timing of their children would permit them to pursue study and gainful employment if they so choose. The full inclusion of women in the labour force would add trillions (literal trillions) to the global economy.

But it saddens me that we have to make this case on economic grounds, that women should be valuable for their economic potential rather than for themselves. We must face the disquieting fact that for gender equality to register on the global radar, the books have to balance, that economic outcomes take priority over social outcomes. I do not believe that this is true within the context of this conference – the people I have met here have stunned me with their sincerity and their passion, their drive to improve the lives of women and girls. However, we find ourselves in the position where we are obliged to sell these ideas to government ministries and private sector giants on the basis of potential profit.

I am currently in a plenary entitled ‘Investing in Girls and Women: Everybody Wins’. One of the panellists has just summed up this argument very succinctly: speaking of businesses, he said, “they are not only giving us a better world, they are giving themselves a better profit.” He’s not wrong, but I wish the first half of the sentence was enough. At a conference overwhelmingly dominated by female delegates, it is striking to see a panel on the stage made up of six men and one woman. Perhaps this is telling, perhaps this is because men are still the important economic actors: men have money, men invest; women are poor, women are invested in, passive voice.

The poverty of women remains an enormous problem, and something which must be urgently addressed. Yes, funding partnerships, grants, government budgeting and the ‘mobilisation of domestic resources’ all play an important part in this. But I remain cautious of letting economics dictate the conversation, or our direction for the future.


All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

Posted on May 19, 2016 and filed under Women Deliver 2016.