Reflections after the 2006 IAFFE Conference on Feminist Economics

Article excerpt

Two ideas in Stage One Economics really took my fancy. The first was the Keynesian notion of pump priming to lift countries out of depressions. The second was the absurdity of GDP going down when "a man [sic] married his housekeeper". At the end of that year, I abandoned English and set on a path for an Economics major, with lofty ideals of playing a small part in bringing about a world that valued unpaid work and took action to combat poverty. Before too long, however, the ascendancy of neo-classical economics was evident in universities and public policy advice, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) provides a forum for feminist analysis within economics. IAFFE's 15th Annual Conference on Feminist Economics took place in the Women's College at the leafy heart of the University of Sydney, 7-9 July 2006. As the first university in Australia to teach a feminist economics course, this was an appropriate, though arguably a too establishment, Oxford look-alike, setting for the three days of feminist economic thought, analysis and debate.

Understanding how socially defined roles and power dynamics create gendered economic outcomes is a key feature of feminist economics. Core territory includes: gendered roles in households and labour markets and the social, political and institutional structures that impact on these; studies of human activities that do not fit with the notion of autonomous, self-interested, "economic man" such as emotional and other-regarding motivations; and caring work.

Many internationally well-known feminist economists presented at the conference, including Nancy Folbre, Julie Nelson, Marianne Ferber and Rhonda Sharp, as well as Prue Hyman from New Zealand. Academics from other disciplines, including Michael Bittman from Australia, and Jane Kelsey and Marilyn Waring from New Zealand, also presented papers or led workshops.

Several papers reported on empirical studies of factors that influence incomes. Topics included household bargaining, women's access to jobs and their pay, the impacts of technology on gender wage differentials, the impacts of caring responsibilities on women's work and incomes, women's access to and control over land, and the impact of trade on developing countries generally and women in particular.

Policy-oriented studies covered the expected topics of childcare, labour rights, pay equity, minimum wage, social protection and services, parental leave and payment, retirement incomes, micro-credit and gender budgeting. There were also suites of papers and panels exploring the impacts of macroeconomic policies, from trade agreements and direct foreign investment, to country policies on tax regimes.

A recurring theme was how engaging in the economy on very unequal footings--for example, where some individual incomes are not enough for a sustainable livelihood, and debts skew the development of many countries--predetermines who will be better off in the end.

Another theme was that "women-friendly" regimes do make a difference to labour force participation and women's incomes. The empirical evidence about what to do is well-established, and in developed countries, at least, not unmanageable for firms or for government budgets. …