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Market Feminism: From Evidence to Theory

My speech at Vermont was the first time I have argued explicitly for a theory of Market Feminism.

I gave a talk last week at the University of Vermont, the guest of former Governor and Ambassador to Switzerland, Madeleine Kunin.  Kunin is a strong proponent for putting new energy into feminist efforts to improve support for working mothers and to draw women into leadership positions in politics, having published two recent books on these topics, The New Feminist Agenda and Pearls, Politics, and Power.

So it seemed like a good opportunity to test out my arguments for a new feminist theory.  The speech was well received and I had many requests for the slides, as well as the link to a video that the university will post soon.

Market Feminism would be inclusive and evidence-driven, achieving prosperity by using intelligent intervention to close the gender gap.

I am calling my proposed approach “Market Feminism,”  after a call I made nearly 15 years ago for a new paradigm appropriate to the globalizing economy.  In that article, called “Market Feminism:  The Case for a Paradigm Shift,” I posed a question that was “unspeakable” in feminist circles of the time:  “Can the market economy be harnessed on behalf of the movement and, if so, how?”  I began by documenting how the market had been used successfully by both the First and Second Wave and then posited that the future would demand an even more focused market-based approach.

More than a decade later, I feel that the answer to the question whether the market can be harnessed on behalf of the movement is clearly “yes”–and we are already on the road to figuring out how.  Yet the surge of effort behind economically empowering women being undertaken by institutions from the World Bank to the U. S. State Department to major multinationals like Coca-Cola and ExxonMobil, remains, as they say, “untheorized.”

I am trying to make a start.  I contend, first and foremost, that we must begin by working from evidence.  In this regard, I am allying with a new school called “Pragmatist Feminism,” which emphasizes an experimental, evidence- and practice-based approach to empowering women, with theory being formulated in response to results.  (Our Avon paper, “Enterprise and Inequality,” discusses Pragmatist Feminism as a suitable theoretical basis for that study.) However, what I am proposing is distinguished by an explicit focus on using the market, in a 360 degree economic engagement that reaches far beyond issues of employment to include investment, philanthropy, consumption, and entrepreneurship.

Global gender datasets stand to redefine our understanding of the gender challenge.

Market Feminism has become a credible and practical approach in the light of new information provided by the massive nation level datasets, assembled and analyzed by the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, and OECD.  These data demand we rethink the nature of women’s oppression, but they also point to a path where intelligent intervention and innovation could have historic effects.

These datasets show conclusively that gender inequality is a global problem, that no nation has solved it, but also that women’s subordination has a strong and rather predictable pattern of practices.  These data make it implausible to cast women’s subordination is a local cultural issue, as was so often done under postmodern feminism. Instead, women’s oppression has emerged as a sinister, but worldwide phenomenon that goes as far back in history as anyone can see.

Greater gender equality is unequivocally associated with positive social and economic outcomes. The causality seems to run in the direction of greater equality for women giving rise to benefits for all.

The nation-level data show quite clearly that high gender equality is associated with national wealth, health, and stability.  In contrast, nations where women are less equal along the dimensions of education, economic engagement, political participation, and health struggle with gender inequality’s massively negative effects.  A wide range of undesirable phenomena–from infant mortality to depressed economies to heavy disease burdens to levels of violence–track in an appalling way with negative gender relations.  Much effort has gone into testing and tweaking the components that constitute the gender indices, with teams like our sanitary care group working to see how you can, for instance, improve female reproductive freedom and reap higher prosperity and better health outcomes.

Typically, gender indices compile multiple measures into sub-scores in key arenas of health, education, economic participation, and political power. (Click to enlarge any of these slides.)

At first, people questioned whether poor nations simply could not afford the luxury of freeing their women–or whether the causality ran in the other direction, implying it was the very act of freeing women that made the developed nations rich.  It is obviously a complex matter, but the consensus now is that the causality runs in the direction where higher gender equality leads to better economic, social, health, and environmental outcomes. Thus, it is now really quite clear that everyone’s  best interest lies in the ridding the world of this inequality.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t gender bigots still out there. Obviously, there are! But it does mean there is a real basis for building consensus that has never been available before.

Market democracies are better places for women than former communist countries.

Importantly, the data substantially contradict the received wisdom of the Second Wave “critique of capitalism,” in which many feminist theorists blamed women’s subordination on the rise of the modern economy and placed their hopes in a revolution that would result in a socialist utopia.  In the box plot on the right, I have shown the 2010 gender scores for four groups of countries:  from the left, those we used to call the “free world” (essentially, the countries that embraced both democracy and the modern economy early–I call them the “market democracies”); those we used to call the “communist world” (China, Cuba, and the former Soviet nations); sub-Saharan Africa (which I have used here to stand for countries as yet mostly unindustrialized and still largely lacking democratic process); and the “rest of the world” net of the market democracies.