Proxy Feminism and Gendernomics: What Price Identity Politics in an Age of Austerity?

by Steph Power

Battles over gender issues in business focus on what women can do for the economy - not on what the economy can or should be doing for women.

First published: 08 January, 2014 | Category: Activism, Corporate power, Economy, Gender equality, Philosophy and Theory

A year after the global banking collapse in 2008, the then French Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, made an off-the-cuff remark that the crisis would have looked very different if Lehman Brothers investment bank had been run by Lehman Sisters. Of course, it was hardly news that only a tiny handful of the world’s economic and business leaders are women and that the glass ceiling remains a real obstacle to their promotion. But Lagarde’s comment highlighted gender inequality in the financial sector at a time of intense criticism of reckless corporate behaviour - a time  which also saw unprecedented public handwringing from economists and politicians who had been caught unawares by the crisis, and who were now struggling to understand how it had happened, let alone to find solutions.

Today, policy-makers are still fumbling in the dark, even as some small sectors of the US and EU economies appear to be lurching towards ‘recovery’ (itself a dubious term as poverty continues to spread post-credit crunch). In 2011 Lagarde shattered a further glass ceiling with her appointment as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, becoming one of the most powerful operators in the economic world. Nonetheless, as many are all-too aware from bitter personal experience, women everywhere continue to bear the brunt of social and financial inequality as the gender gap widens at an alarming rate, together with the gap between rich and poor, and the west and the developing world.

The need for systemic reform remains clear and urgent, but short-termism and blinkered socio-economic thinking continues to hold sway. Nowhere is this more clearly the case than  the ongoing debate about gender inequality in business and employment which Lagarde triggered so apparently casually in 2009. On the one hand, a resurgence of identity politics and ‘new feminism’ is ensuring that many fraught and complex gender issues are being hotly debated. But, on the other hand, in the mainstream, scant attention is being paid to the deeper underlying problems of our financial system which are themselves signified by that very inequality. There is an urgent need to re-frame the terms of the debate to take account of the impossibility of achieving parity within the system as it stands. 

Minding the Gender Gap

Economics has never been as gender-neutral as so many have blithely assumed. Indeed, the new trend towards gender economics or ‘gendernomics’ is itself surely a tacit and long overdue acknowledgement that access to wealth and economic opportunity has historically been almost entirely the preserve of a single gender - not to mention a single race and class. But many people still insist on debating Lagarde’s point in shallow terms, arguing about whether greater numbers of women at the helm might change corporate behaviour whilst choosing to ignore the oppression and exploitation of women elsewhere in the labour market.

Actually, in existing corporate terms, the issue should no longer be contentious - for there is clear evidence of improved market success for those companies with a greater female presence in the boardroom. To take one of many studies with similar conclusions, a four-year analysis of Fortune 500 companies, published in 2007, found that returns were much higher on equity (53%), sales (42%) and invested capital (66%) for those companies with most women in top management teams compared to those dominated by men.

Lagarde herself continues to insist that encouraging women up the corporate ladder is vital to improving society’s fiscal health, noting in a recent interview with the Wall St Journal that, when the Icelandic economy crashed, ‘the banks, the funds, the government - everything was taken over by women,’ adding, ‘so when it's messy, you get the women in. But when the mess is sorted, keep the women.’ At present, however, notwithstanding the upward trend, still a mere 19% of directors in FTSE 100 companies are women and of those, just 6.1% are executive directors holding core posts within the company.

So, in theory, things would appear to be straightforward: find a way of ensuring more women get to, and stay at, the top. But, leaving aside the daunting challenge that this itself presents, few people have questioned how greater numbers of women in the boardroom might address the many social problems caused by ongoing economic calamity; problems which inevitably hit women and the most vulnerable members of society the hardest. Would it guarantee at last equal pay at all levels of the labour market (the gender pay gap currently stands at around 16%)? How might an influx of women directors tackle the lack of basic employment rights for part-time workers, say, or put a halt to poverty wages within the formal and informal economies (it might prove enlightening to survey the wages paid to their female domestic staff by women in corporate positions of power)? What about zero-hours contracts and access to child care for single mothers or workers across the board? And what about the vital issue of unpaid domestic labour by so-called ‘housewives’ and other women - not to mention the problem of occupational segregation for those in paid work, as many women continue to find higher-earning professions such as IT and engineering beyond their reach?

Of course, underlying all this is the continued erosion of living standards and a loss of income in real terms for all but those growing richer as a direct result of corporate greed, corruption and incompetence. This, combined with draconian government cuts to public services and welfare, affects women disproportionately whether or not they are fortunate enough to be in paid employment. Taking all these factors together, the idea of some kind of sisterhood solidarity emanating top-down from a mythical ‘Lehman Sisters’ would be laughable, were laughter not so inappropriate to the harsh economic reality of many women’s lives.

As head of the IMF, Lagarde commissioned a ‘gender economics’ report on Women, Work and the Economy which was published in September 2013 to much celebrity fanfare. On the surface, the report would appear to be helpful in documenting many glaring iniquities world-wide. The emphasis of the report, however, is on what women can do for the economy rather than on what the economy can do for women; an emphasis apparent in the report’s subtitle: Macroeconomic Gains from Gender Equity. Clearly, as the report argues, denying women fair and equal access to all areas of the labour market is an enormous waste of talent. But again, the inequities built into the system go unaddressed - indeed, it is telling how difficult the economic establishment finds it to acknowledge in plain terms what is, in effect, a widespread denial of socio-economic human rights to over half the world’s population.

Identity Politics and Dualistic Thinking

There is an uncomfortable sense of deja-vu around the whole question of gender inequality in business - not least because a crass kind of dualistic thinking has re-emerged on all sides of the debate that is reminiscent of some flawed aspects of identity politics of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Lagarde’s ‘Lehman Sisters’ comment invited discussion of the role of women in business in terms of inclusion and representation - and it unearthed a lot of tedious gender stereotyping, of men as well as women (men are strong / women are weak, men are reckless / women are careful and so on), in discussions about whether women might have particular skills to bring to the table. But, however ‘controversial’ Lagarde may have been in making a favourable comparison of female behaviour to male, she was advocating nothing more radical or far-reaching than a call for greater numbers of women to hold positions of corporate power. In other words - as with the authors of the report highlighted above - Lagarde was not challenging the thinking behind our male-dominated corporate power structures, merely seeking access to that power for women.

In its current form, the Western capitalist system itself is the problem, not just who runs it or what gender they happen to be. For the system not only came close to destroying itself in financial terms in 2008, in simply the latest and most critical in a number of global postwar financial crises from the OPEC oil crisis of the seventies to Japan’s asset price bubble of 1986 onwards and 1987’s Black Monday, but it has also become increasingly dysfunctional at a cultural level. Whilst lip-service is paid to the supposed mobility of the free-market, in reality, the system is designed in such a way that profit comes at the expense of social equality; for example, workers in developing nations are forced to endure horrendous working conditions and pitiful wages to satisfy insatiable western consumerist demands - which are in turn created and recreated in endless, ever-growing cycles by corporate marketing.

Indeed, the structure and behaviour of corporations and financial markets has long been revealed to run counter to democratic ideals and basic principles of socio-economic justice, which, even in the relatively rich UK, creates social hierarchies every bit as rigid and pernicious as the class system we are told is disappearing through such cosy-sounding propaganda as Tony Blair’s ‘we are all middle-class now’ (from which the current-day myth that ‘we are all in it together’ stems directly). Any debate about gender in business and employment which fails to take account of such fundamental, systemic iniquity is bound to remain piecemeal and skewed in favour of the interests of the most affluent who are, in turn, bound to remain, for the most part, male - wherever they happen to be in the world.

The very urgency of the renewed debate on gender is testimony to the failure of previous feminist campaigns in business - which may well have changed some attitudes towards women for the better, and opened some doors for educated women of the ‘right’ background in the process, but which have been unable to effect systemic reform; not just resulting in the continued exclusion of huge swathes of women and working-class and ethnic minority people of all genders from positions of power, but shoring up the very system of class, race and gender privilege which, in 2008, came close to scuppering our economy entirely .

Identity Branding

Naomi Klein is one commentator who might urge us not to miss the economic wood for the trees yet again. As long ago as 1999, in her hard-hitting de-construction of corporate culture No Logo, Klein argued against the alternative grain when she suggested that an obsession with identity politics prevented activists of the late ‘80s and ‘90s from noticing the ingress of a far greater threat to freedom and equality: identity branding. She contested that activists lost sight of the bigger economic picture as they fought over the inclusion of women, gay people and ethnic minorities - however vital such inclusion was then and remains today. But activists simply did not notice when powerful corporations, already switched on to the youth marketing goldmine of ‘cool’, began actively to appropriate the new focus on ‘diversity’ as a marketing tool (those infamous Benetton ads appearing to challenge racial stereotypes, for example - and continuing today, as Guinness exploits issues around disability in a Christmas advert for tv).

Klein argued that a corporate coup d’etat took place in which companies successfully exploited global markets in new ways by means of cynical appeals to oppressed groups, utilising the very language of social activism - Nike, for example, promoting sports shoes as objects of female and black freedom and status. In Klein’s words: ‘identity politics weren’t fighting the system, or even subverting it. When it came to the vast new industry of corporate branding, they were feeding it.’ Ironically, it only serves to reinforce Klein’s point to note that, on 18 November 2013, BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour hosted a discussion on whether ‘feminism needs re-branding’ in the face of a perceived ‘negative image’ – the very question being as depressing a sign as one could point to of the wholesale swallowing of corporate thinking and terminology.

Interestingly, the new wave of identity politics (in reactionary and progressive forms) began to crest in the early 2010s, both amidst claims of a ‘90s cultural revival and just as brand-worship became ubiquitous on every social level despite rising unemployment, the outstripping of wages by inflation and increasing socio-economic division. Moreover, this coincided with the adoption of punitive austerity programmes by governments everywhere, as public spending was slashed in moves which targeted women and other vulnerable citizens. But, in the UK at least, the government has yet to encounter real - or at least effective - opposition, as the working class and women across the board have effectively been bamboozled and divided by poisonous, scapegoating rhetoric about unemployed ‘scroungers’ and immigrants who are somehow allegedly managing to steal both our jobs and our welfare at the same time. The irony is that working class identity is now being dismantled just as certain forms of identity politics have found renewed favour. In the mainstream media, to be working class has effectively been reduced to a ‘lifestyle choice’ - that is, when it is not being lampooned or paraded as sub-human ‘chav’ - rather than being acknowledged as an expression of proudly legitimate cultural heritage. And everywhere, consumerist ideals prevail.

Yet again, a growing focus on an identity politics motivated to a large degree by middle-class self-interest is playing into the hands of the most powerful economic players, whose activities are continuing regardless. Against an ugly backdrop of a turn to the political right, the UK middle-classes indulge in heated debates about everything from Scandinavian-style boardroom quotas for women to new trends in oxymoronic Tory feminism as the Conservative party desperately tries to stop the haemorrhage of its hard-hit female support base. But the toxic legacies of Thatcherite financial deregulation and profit-worship with which we are still faced - a legacy only enhanced by the corporate wet dream of Blair’s ‘New Labour’ and neo-liberal ‘Third Way’ - serve as an ironic reminder that greater involvement by women at management level hardly guarantees greater long-term economic stability. Nor does it ensure financial justice for those women and men in the west and the developing world who are paying the highest price for an increasingly sociopathic western capitalism which is quickly spreading around the world. Seen from this perspective, speculation about whether women might, for instance, be more or less prone than men to indulge in risky business ventures, is not only based on banal gender stereotype, but would ultimately appear to be beside the point.

The Need for Substantive Reform

As the reality and consequences of economic collapse continue to hit home, substantive, not just symbolic, reform remains urgent. Whilst gender battles in business are undoubtedly crucial, they can equally be used as a convenient red herring to distract from the wider, more fundamental need to effect deep, systemic reform in the way capitalist structures operate - just as, for example, the increased entry of women into the labour market can be used as a means of dividing the working class further as male workers are encouraged to feel threatened by women’s greater independence and fiscal freedom.  

Of course, some form of identity politics need not be incompatible with a deeper focus on economic reform – indeed, the two need to go hand-in-hand. But the point is that much of the current debate continues to focus on short-term sticking plasters such as positive discrimination; a not-so-subtle social-engineering measure which may help to kickstart practical changes in the short term (at least in recalcitrant areas of employment practice, say), but which, in the long-term, merely offers the same kind of narrow dualistic thinking which epitomises the system as it stands - albeit from the ‘opposite’ pole. Such measures will hardly in themselves effect the necessary fundamental change in our financial systems or business culture; indeed, the debate needs to take conscious account of the continued failures and otherwise ad-hoc benefits of such concepts as ‘trickle-down’, with the unwarranted faith in market success eventually to provide social and economic progress for all.

If we truly aspire to notions of democracy and freedom, then ways must be found to establish real principles of equal opportunity and equal access at the heart of our socio-economic system, not merely as desperate add-ons in an attempt to find some kind of panacea to financial and social disaster. Indeed, the very term ‘free market’ is Orwellian doublethink in an economic system which is so lacking in basic principles of democratic freedom and equal rights - even as Boris Johnson has described with breathtaking arrogance what he and his City cronies believe, that dog-eat-dog and unfettered greed are somehow acceptable hallmarks of a so-called advanced economy. If we are to counter this view, and the untold damage it continues to wreak, we need to be willing as a society not just to tackle the behaviour of powerful corporations, individuals and financial institutions - such as the banks - that are currently still attempting to recover the system wholly in their own interests, but to take a good, hard look at our monetary values and to undertake a cultural reassessment of how we define ourselves as women and men within the wider financial landscape. We need urgently to decide what roles we choose to accept as gendered individuals within a financial system that so plainly affects not just our own but the material and cultural well-being of other women, men and children across the globe.

Steph Power is a composer, poet and writer with a particular interest in cultural politics and philosophy, feminism and the arts. She has written for Planet Magazine and Tempo and is a Deputy Editor of Wales Arts Review.

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