A Feminist Analysis of Neoliberalism and Austerity Policies in the UK

By Pearson, Ruth | Soundings, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

A Feminist Analysis of Neoliberalism and Austerity Policies in the UK


Pearson, Ruth, Soundings


There is considerable debate on the defining features of neoliberal thought and practice. However, there does appear to be a consensus on the fact that it emphasises minimum state intervention and the extension of market relations into all aspects of economic activity. The resulting withdrawal of the state from responsibility for the economic security of its citizens clearly has an impact on social security and public services; and it also has the effect of transferring risk from the collective to the individual. And, given the ways in which markets and economic relations are gendered, it is women who are bearing the brunt of these policies.

UK governments since 2010 have translated the notion of reducing state intervention not only as deregulation, but also as the elimination of the notional annual budget deficit, and a reduction of the accumulated debt-to-GDP ratio. This is their justification for the draconian austerity measures they have introduced. However, the government's enthusiasm for pursuing these targets by cutting public expenditure rather than increasing tax and other government revenues reveals the neoliberal ideology behind these policies.

This article demonstrates that the ways in which these fiscal targets have been designed and implemented have disproportionately affected women, particularly low-income and BAME women. It also makes the case for investment in the social infrastructure as an engine of sustainable economic growth, and argues against a focus solely on investment in physical infrastructure and the creation of paid employment.

Gendered structures of the economy

Feminist economics goes beyond chronicling the impact on women of policies that privilege markets and money over people, important though that is. It also, crucially, provides an understanding of the economy as a gendered structure. It shows that decisions about economic policies - the determination of where investment is increased and where it is withdrawn, which services will flourish and which will be run down, whose living standards will be protected or boosted and whose reduced - are not gender neutral, even though they may make no explicit reference to gender.

Feminist economics also provides a basis for an alternative economic strategy, which insists on the incorporation of reproductive and care work into economic analysis and economic policies - a feminist Plan F1

Against the prevailing orthodoxy of economic policy as a gender neutral terrain, the Women's Budget Group, in addition to its analysis of specific policies and regulations, has systematically developed an alternative framework for understanding the economy: this challenges the privileging of the financial economy that is inherent in the neoliberal framework, but is also critical of the productive economy of the neo-Keynesians, which emphasises investment in the physical infrastructure and the output of manufacturing and allied sectors. Instead, as feminist economists we consider that the reproductive economy - that is, those human activities which are necessary to sustain the biological, daily and generational reproduction of people - must be a central priority for an economic strategy that is committed to equality and economic justice for all. And this, in turn, means that the social infrastructure - which includes the human labour, creativity, care and compassion which is the basis of an equitable society - should be a central concern of economic policy.2

Austerity measures - expenditure and taxation

As austerity has been rolled out in the UK since 2010, it has been clear that Conservative and Conservative-led governments have had other priorities. In spite of their legal obligation to consider the gender impact of public policy (the 'equality duty'), these administrations have ignored the reality of the way the economy functions in real time and space, introducing measures which pay no attention to the gendered division of labour, especially in terms of the unpaid work involved in household reproduction. …

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