No Free Lunch

Women deserve more

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My wife Pilar celebrates her birthday as I write this, so I thought I’d dedicate this piece to her (and all women) by updating an article I wrote almost exactly 10 years ago.

When our family goes out for dinner, when we hire a woman to do our laundry and iron our clothes, or when my grandchildren’s schoolteachers teach them their lessons in school, these activities have a corresponding economic value that enters into the nation’s reported gross national product (GNP).

When my wife cooks our family dinner, does the laundry and ironing, or spends time teaching the grandchildren, none of her efforts ever gets to be valued and entered in any economic accounts.  Outside our family and household, her true worth to the economy will never be fully appreciated. This is because productive activities done outside the market economy are never captured in the national income accounts that measure the nation’s economic output.

Women contribute to the economy vastly more than what most people recognize and what are recorded in the country’s economic accounts. Partly as a consequence of this, their status in the economy has always been and has continued to be lower than that of men. Fortunately, the evolution of the modern economy has been changing all of this.  Key trends shaping the nature of the economy at the global, national and local levels are impacting the economic role and status of women in both positive and negative ways. These major economic trends include globalization, increased prominence of the so-called knowledge economy, and the increasing focus on small enterprises.

Over time, globalization has been reshaping the relative roles of women and men in economic life. The globalization process has brought about greater worker mobility and widened employment opportunities. Accompanying this is a growing proportion of women workers in nonstandard work such as temporary, casual, multiple, contract and home-based employment. Thus, while globalization is raising the quantity of women’s contribution to economic life through the labor force, the quality of their participation needs serious consideration.

In particular, women dominate labor migration, with domestic workers, nurses and caregivers making up a substantial portion of such labor movement coming from Asia, especially the Philippines.  This has in turn led to changes in the host countries, where the consequent restructuring of household work from unremunerated work by housewives to a more formal economic activity undertaken by foreign domestic workers has increased the labor force participation by women in general. This may be seen as a positive trend from the point of view of the host economy, but comes at the cost of fracturing the families of the women migrant workers, often with tremendous social costs at home.

The second major economic trend is the dominance of information and communication technology (ICT) in the knowledge economy of the 21st century. The modern economy has seen dramatic change in the basis for wealth creation—from the traditional “bricks and mortar” to “clicks and portals.” The more successful firms and individuals in the knowledge-based economy are those who have better access to information and knowledge, no longer those endowed with greater fixed capital including real estate. For women, this could be a positive factor, given the fact that they now dominate tertiary education, as statistics in European and Asian countries show. In the Philippines, 56.1 percent of college and university students are female, and the ratio has been growing (10 years ago, the figure was 53.2 percent). Provided that there is no gender gap in access to ICT, women would thus appear to have the advantage in numbers to cash in on the knowledge economy.

The third economic trend, which has to a large extent been facilitated by the second, is the renewed focus on small enterprises. With rapid developments in ICT, modern societies have seen a widespread resurgence of small, even home-based enterprises. Small firms providing products that range from services to manufactured products are proliferating. This is because e-commerce provides them virtually equal access to markets relative to their much larger counterparts, with savings in overhead costs compensating for their lack of economies of scale. This particular trend has created wider opportunities for integrating formal economic activities with unremunerated domestic work, whether for men or women, but especially for the women. Having to devote time for rearing children and managing the household need no longer deprive women of the opportunity to become entrepreneurs. But the same trend also implies that men are increasingly able to participate more equitably in child rearing and home management, while still engaged in gainful enterprise.

What’s needed is to overcome traditional cultural biases against women taking a more active role in formal economic life, and men taking a more active role in home and family management. A “gender divide” in ICT must also not be allowed to arise or expand. In general, there is need to eliminate the unfair wage differentials between men and women that still persist in many contexts.

My wife runs a community school and associated community welfare initiatives, balancing all these with managing our home, seeing to our family’s welfare, and responding to my sometimes unfair demands as a husband. She earns nothing from all of that. Given what she contributes to our economy and society, I often feel she should be earning a lot more than I do.

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E-mail: cielito.habito@gmail.com

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