Angels in the Architecture: System Changers Meeting in London

This window was atop the doors in the room where the "system changers" met at ICAEW's home in London.

I attended an interesting all day session in London yesterday with a group who had been invited because they are changing market systems for social and environmental benefit. There were people there who worked on improving fishing systems and those who worked on organic farming, for instance.  I was there, I inferred, because I am working on change in the gender system. We met at the astonishingly beautiful Gilded Age building occupied by ICAEW, the association of chartered accountants.

The day was convened by Criterion Institute, particularly by its founder, Joy Anderson, whose passion for positive change is strong and authentic enough to sense from across a room.  And, for me, one of the most emotional moments was when she presented the concept of “gender lens investing” as a case study for the room to consider.  I could sympathize with the emotion in her voice as she told the tale of trying to conceptualize what it would mean to invest with a “gender lens” and the frustration she experienced in trying to communicate the idea to others.

From the first sight caught of this building, there are female allegorical figures in the architecture.

Importantly, convincing people with money or managers of big portfolios to invest with gender in mind is not the problem.  There is plenty of money ready to move in that direction.  The challenge is inventing a way to articulate between gender effects and financial instruments in a way that goes beyond what Joy calls “a screen.”

What Joy means by “a screen” is a simple selection criterion, such as the number of women on the corporation’s board, that would make it “ok” or not to invest. (Coincidentally, yesterday 21 out of 27 national parliaments gave the EU the go-ahead to set quotas for women on corporate boards.  The dissenters–whom EU Observer is deliciously calling “the malcontents”–include the Czech Republic, Denmark, Poland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the UK.  The UK is claiming–without evidence–that the reason it is not cooperating is that “most women” don’t support the measure.  I am thinking that having a screen people could use to “vote with their feet” on this issue by moving their investments wouldn’t be a bad thing right at this moment.)

We met under this dome. Note the supports are embellished with female figures standing for values like Truth, Justice, and Prudence.

Joy talked about the issue of not having enough investments that could be valued in this way, as well as the need to break beyond the notion that gender investment = microfinance. She also spoke about being able to bring everything from cookstove programs in India to women on corporate boards under a single explanatory umbrella.  But there is currently no mental practice for doing that now, never mind a concrete set of criteria or a list of investments or instruments.

I had talked to Joy about this for two hours the day before and will be talking further to her colleague, Suzanne Biegel of ClearlySo, in the coming weeks, to try and come up with a game plan for how this thinking might be accomplished.  Strange as it may sound, we are in agreement that the basic problem is that women’s economic empowerment remains “untheorized.”

I will candidly say that I am struggling with it. But I found the discussions, as well as some of the news coming over the transom in the past 24 hours, stimulating for these thoughts.  So, for instance, one “assignment” the group was given was to think about whether the system they worked on was local, functional, or sectoral.  Now, “sectoral” means “peculiar to an industry or sector” of the economy.  Clearly, the gender issue cuts across all sectors.  And, equally clearly, gender is not a local phenomenon (oldstyle thinking notwithstanding).  But I honestly had not thought about gender as a functional system.  “Functional” would mean something that facilitated overall economic functioning, so like the banking  or transportation system.

I began to mull it over. Of course, I am not meaning to suggest that by imagining gender as a functional system, I am saying it is a good thing, but more that I was considering how gender facilitates the functioning of the economy as it is.

Right away, of course, we can say that the gender system reproduces the labor force.  By confining women to the reproductive realm, the production of new workers is ensured and, to the extent we include provisioning/consumption (also typically a gender function), the quality of human capital is also maximized.

But that is nothing that hasn’t already been said a thousand times.  I next began thinking of the way that gender has functioned to funnel money, debts, contracts, and the like through the patrilineal property system.  I admit I was very influenced in my thinking by the fact that my Women’s Economy class has just read Gerda Lerner’s brilliant classic, The Creation of Patriarchy.

An ICAEW Friend said he thought this figure represented Economia, who is a central part of all the organization's new visual branding.

Lerner documents, in compelling depth, that the rise of institutions and technologies from writing to the nation-state to the Judeo-Christian religion to codified law was marked by a distinctive treatment of women.  Indeed, this distinctive attitude toward women is discernible in the earliest written law, Hammurabi’s Code, and it is clear that the practices those laws were trying to regulate had been in place for many hundreds of years already.  The same attitudes and laws were later replicated and intensified by the Middle Assyrian Laws, the Hittite Laws, and the Hebrew laws of the Bible.  (Importantly, today’s Sharia laws have the same origin and provisions.)

Lerner’s overall point was that women had been excluded from education, especially learning to read and write, from the beginning, which in turn had left them out of history, damaged their ability to conceptualize and understand their own position as a group.  She also emphasizes that the exclusion of women from spirituality occured in concert with this history.

I would add that the same exclusion from education would have erected a barrier between women and the law, as well as women and economic record-keeping. And that the same damaged ability to conceptualize–because of exclusion from education broadly and literacy in particular–would have made it hard to imagine, for instance, a gendered view of economics.

So, back to the functioning of the economy.  From this very early beginning (writing first begins in Mesopotamia around 3500 BC), women were treated primarily as a form of property.  Their ownership and disposition was clearly of major concern–Hammurabi’s Code has 282 laws, of which fully 25% deal with the status of women–and seems to be linked to the military conquests that inevitably brought back women as its “spoils.” (This finding further underscores the argument Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden make in