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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 Sex and War, another reading assignment from the Women and Economy class.) These codes painstakingly mark out different castes of women, with specific and circumscribed rights, as well their status as an explicit relationship to a man or a group of men.  So, for instance, the difference between a wife and a prostitute is that the former belongs to only one man and the latter belongs to all men.

I have said for some time that I think capturing mental imagery of women as symbols of economics (as in this building's angelic architecture) would be an important aspect of a gendered economics.

The regulation of women’s sexual behavior was clearly economic in intent.  The first issue was to codify the ability to identify the children of the man to whom each “legitimate” woman belonged, specifically so that property could be passed along his bloodlines without error.  This is one reason why these laws always stipulate that the wife owes the man unconditional sexual fidelity, but that the man has no such obligation to the woman.

We can see in these laws also the written manifestation of what was probably a much older practice: the trading of women as tokens of an alliance.  Lerner also documents the trade of women to settle debts, as well as the codification of dowry/bride price transactions, in which they were, in essence, bought and sold among men.  The idea that the asset value of a woman belongs either to her father or her husband begins here also (at least in written form).  Right here we see the beginnings of the notion that a rape can be “compensated” by the rapist marrying the victim.  This horrific idea–still common in many places, including India, today–stems from the notion that the damage of a rape is the reduction in the “asset” value and so restitution needs to be made to its owner, not to the asset itself.

So, we see the gender system functioning to provide a medium of exchange, a store of value, a form of contract, and a means of compensation.  To this day, in most of the world, gender still functions in exactly this way. In order for this system to work, the women have to be denied any status as persons in their own right, as well as any opportunity to understand and question their function.

We see, over the course of Lerner’s detailed history, that the women increasingly could not own their own property or engage in any negotiations or contracts on their own–they could, at most, be a “stand in” for a man. Because most did not read or cipher, it would have been impossible for women to participate in an economy increasingly built on written accounts and agreements.  So, much as exclusion from education kept women out of history, it also would have kept them out of economics.  As we can now see in the equally brilliant history recently written by Nancy Folbre, Greed, Lust, and Gender, the culture of the West continued to confine women exclusively to the realm of reproduction and to deny them financial rights well into the twentieth century–and the Enlightenment thinkers who founded economics simply refused to include women in their theories. So, in some sense, it is no wonder that Joy and I are having trouble thinking through the challenge of gender lens investing.  What we are experiencing is partly the same thought challenge that feminist historians, working in the 1970s to build a women’s history for the first time, had to face.  It’s a tough ask.

Feminist economics has made a great deal of progress on this front, of course.  But their tendency is to critique the existing economic edifice, rather than to move up conceptually to looking at how women are connected to each other, and to men, as an economy.  And then to think about how to work to integrate, empower, and benefit women in the economic realm.  Which is what Joy is trying to think about. And so am I.

During the course of the past 24 hours, three more missives came “over the transom” in the form of emails, Kindle books, and tweets.  One was a reciprocal blog from Tom Schuller, whose Paula Principle has so impressed me.  The other was a UNWomen feed talking about the forthcoming CEDAW report from Pakistan.  The third was Dame Stephanie Shirley’s autobiography, which I was reading on the train to and from London, partly because she will be a keynote speaker at our upcoming women’s economy event in Oxford.

In his blog, Tom is very complimentary and mentions my inaugural speech, which he has kindly watched.  But he remarks that he is concerned whether it is good to be separating the economy along gender lines.  I have heard this kind of remark before and am always amazed by it.  Is it not clear that the economy is already–and has been for thousands of years–segregated by gender?  In most of the world, women still cannot inherit property, can only sign a contract or open a bank account or own land jointly with a man.  Is that not segregating the economy by gender?

And we know the West has grown out of that same tradition, not only because of the scholarly histories by Lerner, Folbre, and others, but because the emergence is recent–still in living memory.  Dame Stephanie Shirley, an economic icon in Britain for having started one of the first software companies in the early 1960s, had to get her husband’s written permission before she could open the bank account to start her company. Staggering.

Then there was the news story–heartbreaking–of the little girl in Pakistan who narrowly escaped being “compensation” to the family of someone her uncle had murdered.  Her cousin did not escape.  That’s because the community still uses an ancient tribal law-making group, faislo or jirga, that practices sang chatti (which means “compensation marriage”), even though both the councils and the practice are now illegal from a statutory perspective.  All over the world, it is these ancient legal/economic practices–which eerily echo Hammurabi–that make it difficult to confirm CEDAW.  (I have remarked to Jim several times that if I wrote a blog about every news story I read where a little girl has been brutalized because of the violation of some economic contract involving her male kin, I would never have time to write about anything else.)

And, of course, the EU controversy over women on corporate boards is just a present-day, “first world” extension of the same set of circumstances.  It comes from a practice of economic exclusion so long, so deep, so naturalized, that people can actually get away with saying they are debating “subsidiarity” of nations, rather than merely shoring up the exclusionary gender system again.  (I am sorry, but I cannot help but wonder who the women are that oppose this measure and what their relationship is to the men who are leading the opposition. Are they today’s form of “stand in”?)

So here is where I ended up in my thinking (just for yesterday, as this is going to take a long time).  The fundamental challenge for operationalizing gender lens investing seems to lie in the fact that gender is not an instance or application of finance, but exactly the opposite: finance is a functional system of gender.  That makes it hard to even see the segregation in the financial system or the multiple economic connections and patterns this over-arching exclusion has wrought all over the world.

Gender is actually prior to finance; financial systems originally functioned to regulate and perpetuate gender relations. The problem, therefore, is not that gender is too “niche” in finance, but that gender is so broad it’s hard to figure out where and how to grab it first.  Gender reaches its fingers down into every aspect of economic life, it touches everything, points everywhere, and leaves its prints behind every time. This thought presents a disconcertingly multifaceted problem to untangle.  But I think the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that direction, whether you look at the strongly patterned practices of economic exclusion all across the planet today or the history of the journey that brought us here.


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