The Invisible Hand of the Economy… Domestic Work From a Feminist Point of View

By Alice Kfouri

Some people wonder about the relationship of feminism to the economy? What is the feminist political economy approach and its role? What does unpaid domestic work mean?


Talking about gender relations on a political and economic issue may not be urgent for some, or it may be out of place.


Rather, the issue of women is an issue of social justice, a justice that cannot be achieved without political and economic change.


Gender justice has an impact on trade exchange, on the policies of inequality in the distribution of wealth and profit, and on the division of social strata, and the relations between male and female workers on the one hand, and employers on the other.


We simply cannot understand economics unless we understand the important role of women and gender relations in our societies.

What is feminist economics?

Many believe that feminism is focused exclusively on women and girls, and its goal is to enhance their superiority over men.


But in fact, feminism is a philosophy that represents a new and more realistic reality for social policies, and the rights of male and female workers. In addition to the distribution of work within families, and the right of everyone to access economic resources.


We look around at the countries that have suffered from conflicts and wars in our region, and we cannot help but notice how some of them, such as Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, Sudan and Egypt, are suffering under austerity policies.


Governments in those countries resorted to lifting subsidies on bread and fuel. It raised the prices of some goods and services, in an attempt to improve its deficit budgets.


These economic policies, which aim to improve the external economic picture, by caring for and embellishing numbers, do not care about people’s living conditions.


In the Middle East, which has the highest levels of inequality in the world, the richest 10% of the population control 64% of total income.


And 37 billionaires own the same amount of wealth as the poorer half of the world’s population, according to a report by ESCWA.


Any economy that is not built on the principle of solidarity and equality will exacerbate crises. It will be one of the reasons for wars to break out, or being drawn into violence.


From here, feminist economics comes with a critical study of the science of economics and economic systems, focusing on comprehensive economic analyses, and the importance of ties and emotion in explaining these phenomena.


To go into detail, feminist economics aims to account for the unpaid part of labor, i.e. caring work, caring for children and the elderly, and doing housework.


It analyzes patriarchy and capitalism as interrelated forms of domination over women and their bodies, the distribution of their property and the definition of their role in society.


In addition, much feminist economics research focuses on topics that have been neglected in this field.


Economic theories that can be improved by understanding the interactions of the sexes, and reducing discrimination, injustice, racism and ethnicism.


In contrast to the current economic model, which studies the relationship between work, production and trade, and the distribution of national income and wealth from a blind viewpoint between the sexes, feminist economics is based on 3 basic principles concerned with creating more sustainable and inclusive societies involving all members of society in the process of growth.


First, socio-economic justice and environmental justice, where the focus is on respecting diversity and rejecting all forms of discrimination based on race, color, origin or religion.


Secondly, feminist economics is concerned with endorsing and acknowledging domestic work – the invisible hand on which the economy is based – and redistributing it fairly among families.


And by families, we mean both married and unmarried partners, whether they are heterosexual or LGBTQ.


Third, feminist economics encourages a reduction in working hours for all, in order to share the tasks of care work.


Feminists strive for the welfare of all. Well-being that goes beyond labor market indicators and national accounts, and is based on measuring the quality of people’s living conditions.


The economy forgets about women

Some economists scoff and consider that “if a person marries a domestic worker who does housework for a wage, this leads to a decrease in the gross domestic product. When the worker becomes his wife, she continues to do the same work, but without pay.”


The Gross Domestic Product does not include unpaid housework, taking care of children and the elderly, preparing food and other responsibilities that fall on women’s shoulders. While they all form the basis of the economic structure.


French writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir described women as “the opposite sex”. They come “after the man who comes first, being the most important.”


The woman is defined as the “marginalized other,” despite being his foundation for being who he is.


In the economy, he remains in control, as his work is paid and calculated. As for women’s work, most of it is underpaid or unpaid.


And Swedish journalist Katrin Marsal wrote a book entitled “Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?” Smith, “a British economist, and one of the founding fathers of capitalist thought and classical economics, who did not consider the importance of the role of women in the economy, and considered that the welder, baker and other male and female workers serve their own interest through the wage they get paid for the work they do, ignoring the role of his mother, who prepared the meal for him without charge.”



Despite the importance of domestic work, which cannot be replaced with technological development, due to the high levels of emotional intelligence and human interaction it requires, these informal or unannounced jobs are not included in the national economy.


It also often limits women’s opportunities to develop, both personally and professionally.


Worldwide, without exception, 75% of unpaid care work is done by women, i.e. they devote 3.2 times more than men allocate for such work. It is estimated at ten thousand billion dollars, or 13% of the total domestic production in the world, according to a study conducted by the consulting firm McKinsey.


While it remains economically uncalculated, and unpaid, for those who do it.


In our Arab world, for example, women do unpaid care work 4.7 times more than men. This is the highest percentage in the world, according to the United Nations Women’s Agency.


Therefore, if we look at GDP only as a measure of the economy or economic growth, we are missing out on a large sector of the economy and economic activities.


And as the Covid pandemic has shown, our economy, not counting paid and unpaid work, cannot sustain itself.


In fact, domestic work constitutes the backbone of the capitalist system, as it was not possible for men to do paid work, unless they had someone to care about cooking food and ironing clothes, and taking care of them when they fell ill, for example.


The voices of care workers remain unheard, often due to a patriarchal ideology rooted in family and religious laws that promotes women’s duties to their families and considers or labels them as unfit women or mothers unless they fulfill these duties.


In addition, the capitalist system’s promotion of the idea that the power imbalance between women and men is resolved by involving women in the paid labor market, without referring to the importance of sharing household burdens, confirms once again that the current economic model is mainly based on unpaid work.


Challenges of women’s involvement in the paid labor market

Turning our attention to paid work, the International Labor Organization notes that women are still less active than men in the labor market in most parts of the world.


In the Arab world, women’s participation in paid work is still very low.


In Lebanon, 26% of women work for wages, and only 15% in both Iraq and Jordan.


As for Syria and Yemen, where wars and conflicts have targeted vulnerable people in particular, such as children, women, the elderly, and people with disabilities, these rates range between 25 and 35%, lower than the international level, if we take the per capita GDP, According to the World Bank.


In addition, women’s work is the first to be affected in a crisis. Figures from the International Labor Organization indicate a decrease in women’s employment between 2019 and 2020 by 4.1%, and men by 1.8%, due to Covid-19 and its impact on the economy.


The challenges and obstacles facing women are not limited to finding job opportunities, but also to suffering from inequality and discrimination in wages, and to occupying so-called important and administrative positions under the prevailing economic model based on hierarchy.


Women often hold lower paying jobs and spend fewer hours in the formal labor market.


These are all the results of factors related to the stereotype of their role, which requires them to work at home and take care of family members.


Lebanon is among the countries with the highest overall gender gaps in the world. It ranked 145 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2020.


Women also pay a maternity tax, so some companies resort to not hiring women of “marriageable age” or who are pregnant.


Most of the time working mothers and pregnant women are ignored for promotions because they are seen as unreliable. Their commitment or competence is questioned, which would not have happened if they were single.


We have not yet mentioned mothers who leave their jobs out of necessity in order to take care of and raise their children.


This economic toll on women is the result of the absence of social policies and public spending on welfare.


Here, gender inequality must be linked to the lack of socio-economic equity, and the enjoyment of influence, wealth, and imaginary wages by a few.


Speaking of these large disparities, some propose a progressive tax on profits and salaries as an ideal solution, and there is no doubt that it is at the heart of fundamental reforms in the long path to achieving economic and social justice, but it solves the symptoms of the problem and not the depth of its causes.


While the state has a fundamental role in enacting social policies and public spending on welfare, as is the case in Sweden and Norway.


But, its absence is an opportunity to search for an alternative made by those affected themselves – a participatory alternative that is the result of people’s solidarity with each other to recognize problems and collectively think of solutions.


There are still few initiatives in this field, but we mention The Solidarity Directory or “Daleel Tadamon”, which works to establish a fair and democratic economic alternative, based on the involvement of everyone in decision-making.


Through one of its projects, The Solidarity Directory works with affected and marginalized groups and women, with the aim of empowering them economically, and expanding their circle of options and opportunities in a sustainable labor market.


In a statement to “Sharika Walaken,” program director Maya Maddah said, “Women’s involvement in establishing solidarity economic projects is a step towards their liberation from societal restrictions, and a means for their financial independence, and to make their voices heard and support them in obtaining their rights.”


Market feminism versus intersectionality

Any topic dealing with women’s rights and inequality must incorporate intersectional analysis.


In the political economy of patriarchal regimes, we are accustomed to sticking to the dual class and economic interests.


In reality, economic interests relate to sex, gender, race and nationality.


These factors, in addition to a long history of systemic violence and discrimination, play a fundamental role in determining our social, political, economic perspective, and political struggles.


It is unacceptable to consider all women as one homogeneous group, as each one of them has her own experiences, problems and privileges.


Low-income women, for example, are affected much more than women that have a higher income. Migrant workers work in very harsh working conditions and under the sponsorship system, as is the case in Lebanon, where they are left under the complete control of their employers and exposed to all kinds of exploitation, racism, and mistreatment.


It is no secret to us women that competition is one of the means through which men extend their dominance.


Preserving them is also a prerequisite for them to be able to maintain the current social system, which provides them with a large share of positions and decisions.


This competition constitutes a mechanism to justify and legitimize the unequal distribution of opportunities, positions and resources in society.


This is not just limited to men, but many “liberal feminist” groups also tend to gain influence in this competitive struggle, using the existing structure of the system to gain influence.


As a result, meritocracy is the most efficient and equitable way of assigning people to their place in hierarchical organizations.


These women participate in the illusion of meritocracy and the defense of privilege. Although meritocracy brought some real gains, it was only for a very small class of women.


The vast majority of them were unable to break the glass ceiling, which is defined as “an invisible barrier within the hierarchy that impedes the ascent of women and minorities to the higher ranks of the career ladder, regardless of their qualifications and achievements.”

The beginning of the use of the term dates back to 1978, when Marilyn Ludden launched it in a panel discussion on “Women’s Aspirations.”


“Market feminism” or “managerial feminism”, no matter what you call it, the discourse is the same: hard work, entrepreneurship and empowerment of individual capabilities as means to improve the status of women, ignoring the structural and historical causes of inequality and the gender division of labor.


It can be noted recently that women’s empowerment programs have become common, but very few of them start from the ground on the basis of participation and cooperation.


We used to consider small loans the most appropriate way to “empower” women in poor rural areas, but in reality they glorify the free economy, and limit policies that end poverty and redistribute wealth and resources fairly.


The solution remains for feminists to join progressive and liberating social and political movements, to unify efforts at the intellectual and practical levels, to bring about a radical change in our current situation.


Written by: Alice Kfoury


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