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SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Victoria Bateman, fellow in economics, Gonville and Caius College

Victoria Bateman is a fellow in economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and author of the forthcoming book The Sex Factor - how women made the West rich. She will be speaking in the panel discussion Bridging the gender divide on 24th October 6-7.30pm.


Question: Can you explain the premise of your forthcoming book The Sex Factor - how women made the West rich?

Victoria Bateman: The popular story of how the West grew rich is largely one of male scientists, inventors and industrialists, with female liberation presented as a mere by-product. Women are seen as passive beneficiaries of economic growth - as the people who should be forever thankful to their male ancestors for creating the riches that enabled women’s rights to flourish. In giving advice to today’s poorer countries, we imagine that the economy comes first and then women’s rights follow. In this book I argue that we need to look at things the other way around. It’s time to see women as active creators not passive beneficiaries. Looking to the history of the now rich economies, we see that women’s freedom comes first, not last. It is the elephant in the room when it comes to explaining how a small country like Britain moved from being a backwater to global economic leader. Whilst women’s freedom was by no means perfect, it was superior to much of the rest of the world, giving the West an advantage that was difficult to beat. I argue that it boosted wages, skills, saving, entrepreneurial spirit and helped to produce a democratic and capable state. If the West wants to stay ahead, that’s worth remembering today - particularly at a time when we risk moving backwards not forwards in terms of women’s rights.


Q: How did your book come into being?

VB: I’m an economist, but I’m also a feminist. I'm passionate about women’s freedom, and believe that the association of women’s bodies with sin (something I challenge by using my own body in art and protest) is at the root of many implicit and explicit restrictions on women - restrictions which feed through to hurt the economy. I wanted to write a book that brought together these two sides of my life - one that showed the relevance of sex and gender to all of the big questions economists face. At a time when our economy faces numerous challenges (stagnant wages, lacklustre productivity growth and rising inequality), problems with which economists are struggling to get to grips, I thought it would be useful to offer a different way of thinking about the economy.


Q: The title is provocative - could the same also be said of class or race?

VB: In the same way that I argue economists have ignored sex, one can also argue that they have neglected class and race (or at least the mainstream). And, of course, all three interact. As I discuss in my book, whilst domestic and caring labour has long been seen as “female”, there is also a long history of white women passing on "their" duties to women of colour. We therefore cannot think about gender separately to race - or class.


Q: Is this your first non-academic book? 

VB: That’s correct, though I do spend a lot of time writing and talking about economics and feminism in the media. My previous book (first published in 2012) examined the relationship between markets and economic growth, using lots of historical data and statistical tools. It came to the conclusion that markets are not enough for economic prosperity, and so I’ve spent the last few years thinking deeply about “what else” is required, becoming increasingly convinced of the importance of women’s freedom.


Q: Why have you written it now?

VB: At a time when women’s rights and freedoms are under attack in large parts of the world, the role of women's freedom in creating successful economies needs to be recognised. Until greater economic significance is placed on gender equality as a cause - not only consequence - of economic success, it won't be given the importance it deserves and gender inequalities will go unaddressed. That includes unequal access to markets and resources, birth control restrictions and the unequal distribution of care. If policymakers in poor countries want to identify the obstacles in the way of growth (and if richer countries want to move forward rather than backwards) they need to look within their own homes. What we think of as personal is also political. And that includes our own bodies. Women's bodies are one of the big battlegrounds we face today. Women cannot be free if they do not have control over their own bodies.

There's something else I'm increasingly concerned about and that also led me to write this book: it's what I see as the hypocrisy and elitism within certain strands of feminism, something which is creating inequalities between women, and, in particular, between those who monetise their brains and those who monetise their bodies. Women's freedom requires us to be tolerant of other women making choices that differ from our own, and yet large numbers of feminists object to women who make money from their bodies. This intolerance is something I've come across from other women when using my own body to make a point, and so it's something about which I feel very strongly.


Q: Do you think Economics has a diversity problem as a discipline?

VB: Absolutely - and despite the fact that economics sees itself as gender neutral. There has only ever been one female Nobel Prize winner in economics, and in the UK only around 28% of economics students are female, indicating that even in the longer term we are unlikely to achieve equal representation within the discipline. Economics has a sex problem, though it’s one that is not only a result of the lack of women in the discipline; it’s also a result of the way economists look at the world around them (one based on “male” experiences of the world), and the taboo surrounding even talking about sex and women’s bodies.

Robert Solow, who won a Nobel Prize winner for his work on the causes of economic prosperity, allegedly said that “everything reminds me of sex, but I keep it out of the paper’’. This is precisely why economics is failing - both as a discipline and in terms of addressing current real world problems. What economics needs is the Sex Factor.


Q: Are you an optimist about progress on issues like the gender pay gap and what do you think are the main causes of it?

VB: Over the last 50 years, we’ve made significant progress in terms of reducing the gender pay gap, which has fallen from around 50% to just under 20% today. But we cannot assume that the trend will continue. In my book, I find that gender inequality has risen as well as fallen throughout the course of history. Two stumbling blocks face us today. The first is that equality in the labour market cannot be achieved until we have equality in the home. However, equality in the home will not be achieved until we have equality in the labour market, meaning that the remaining gender gap is difficult to budge.

The second stumbling block is that whilst women have made significant progress in terms of their ability to use their brain as they wish, the same cannot be said of their body. Today, birth control is underfunded, leaving millions of the world’s poorest women without access to the vital supplies they need. The UN Family Planning Agency, for example, faces a $700 million funding gap. Even in the West, women’s freedoms - including their access to birth control - are under threat. So too is their ability to dress as they wish (whether to fully cover or to wear revealing clothes), as is their freedom to monetise their bodies in the same way that they can monetise their brains. We must not be complacent that women’s freedoms will forever increase - or that women always know what’s best for other women. Within feminism itself we find groups who attack the livelihoods of voluntary sex workers, along with women like myself who use their naked body to make a point.

The mantra of female modesty appears to be taking hold, much as it did in Victorian times, something which I see as very dangerous and divisive. I am a great believer that women should be free to make their own choices - whether or not other women (or men) like the choices they make. The emphasis of policy should be on opening up options for women - not closing them down, as is the case at present, such as by making access to birth control more difficult, banning clothes that are either too covering or too revealing, or criminalising the buying of sex.


Q: Will things only change if more men undertake caring roles [whether for children or parents/relatives] and is the only way to achieve that through placing more economic value on caring?

VB: Globally, and according to the International Labour Organization, women carry out three-quarters of care, equivalent to two billion people working full-time for nothing. At present, women in the UK spend twice as many hours as men on caring and household responsibilities. Elderly care is becoming a growing problem as the population ages, with restrictions on immigration exacerbating the problem, along with cuts to public services. We face a crisis of care, one that cannot be divorced from the economic challenges we face right now. The economy cannot thrive - and certainly cannot reproduce itself - without care; and yet care is seen as an inconvenience. And in large part because it’s seen as “women’s work” it is undervalued. That means that where it is paid for, it is badly remunerated, adding to the gender wage gap. We need to take care much more seriously and decide as a society how we should tackle both its under-provision and its highly gendered nature. One thing’s for sure, the present system isn’t working. Either men need to do more (on average) for their own families, we each have to save more for our own future care such that we can pay for it privately or public funding has to increase. At the moment we stand in limbo.