Gender, Caring, and Money

The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics By Riane Eisler
San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler Publications, 2007, 318 pp., $24.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Susan F. Feiner and Drucilla K. Barker

Feminists have a long history of objecting to the division of labor that assigns the day-to-day maintenance of families to women, and many have identified this as a primary obstacle to women’s economic equality. There is widespread agreement on this premise, though there are important debates about which policies would be most likely to enhance gender equity. For one school of feminists, including Riane Eisler, analyzing and accurately measuring caring labor is a necessary first step to improving women’s well-being. Eisler’s new book, The Real Wealth of Nations, focuses on the social re-evaluation of care.

According to Eisler, because women have so long been associated with caring labor, markets and cultures devalue that work. This devaluation leads to a reduced supply of socially essential, but underpaid, undercounted, and underappreciated care workers. The failure to reward caring labor sufficiently is a direct result of the failure to realize that care is the foundation of all human endeavors. This has widespread negative consequences for families, businesses, governments, churches, volunteer organizations, and schools. Increasing the prestige of care work would reduce the public and private costs of the current situation, including stress related illnesses, pollution, on-the-job injuries, and behavioral problems related to child-rearing practices.

Because responding to these kinds of problems after the fact costs billions of dollars per year, instituting better policies regarding care work would reduce the costs of production. At the same time, well-cared-for people would be more efficient at work, thus increasing productivity. As workers produce more with less labor, everyone could work fewer hours in better—more caring—jobs. This in turn would lead to additional improvements in health and well-being. Socioeconomic problems such as poverty, crime, inequality, violence, and gender oppression would fade away, because well-cared-for people would not feel impelled to oppress or dominate others. The Real Wealth of Nations elaborates on these ideas to make the performance and valuation of caring labor central to the feminist, progressive agenda.

Eisler is most persuasive when she discusses the ways that increased managerial attention to care in the workplace decreases costs, increases productivity, and raises profits. She demonstrates that care work has many spillover effects, so that improvements in one locale or institution are likely to have salutary effects in others. For example, policies that induce firms and individuals to take better care of the environment would reduce pollution. The reduction in pollution would reduce the prevalence of certain illnesses. Healthier workers would be more efficient, miss fewer days at work, and incur lower health care costs. Eisler repeatedly makes the point that employers unknowingly sell themselves short:

[M]any companies have found that the long-term benefits of caring policies far exceed their cost. Caring policies make for happier, more productive workers, stronger families, and more fulfilling lives. They lead to higher financial profits.

Pepsi, Johnson & Johnson, and Steelcase, she says, are just three of the corporate giants that have realized major savings by creating wellness and fitness programs. The Real Wealth of Nations is full of these kinds of examples of the not-so-hidden costs of “uncaring” as well as of arguments for new industrial regulations, tax policies, subsidies, and workplace practices to create incentives for increasing the “care orientation” of social institutions.

In Eisler’s analysis, care is the fundamental economic activity. “Without caring and care-giving none of us would be here. There would be no households, no workforce, no economy.” Thus, the social invisibility of unpaid caring labor, which reinforces the poor pay and low prestige of care purchased in markets, is irrational. It encourages the enactment of harmful economic and social policies. In her discussion of workplace policies that promote health, reduce alienation, and enhance security, Eisler is part of a long tradition in left scholarship about industrial organization and human relations. But as she moves beyond the discussion of worker empowerment to present a “new way of thinking about economics,” her assumptions about the centrality of care become increasingly untenable.

Eisler’s goal is to construct a theory that will support policies that enhance society’s “caring orientation.” She describes what she calls a “new economic map,” with “the household [as] the core inner sector [her emphasis].” This map also includes unpaid community work, the market economy, the illegal economy, the government economy, and the natural economy. Eisler makes the bold claim that, “[I]n the old economic models, the foundational economic sectors—household, unpaid community, and natural—are omitted, which leads to distorted views and policies.” However, traditional economics hardly ignores these sectors. Textbooks and courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels dealwith environmental questions. Even more relevant is the school of antifeminist literature dubbed “the new home economics,” which looks at women’s work. (For example see Gary Becker, "A Theory of Marriage: Part I," Journal of Political Economy July/August 1973, and "A Theory of Marriage, Part II," Journal of Political Economy March/April 1974. Feminist economists do a fine job of critiquing this approach in Maryann Ferber and Julie A. Nelson, editors, Beyond Economic Man (1993), and Barbara Bergmann, “Becker's Theory of the Family: Preposterous Conclusions,” Feminist Economics (March 1995).

Ironically, Eisler's model of caring brings her dangerously close to pro-market, Chicago School arguments. Many readers are probably familiar with the conservative view that government intervention to reduce racial or sexual discrimination is counterproductive because markets, left to themselves, will squeeze it out. The idea is that companies that refuse to hire qualified women and people of color will be less competitive. The price mechanism combines with the profit motive to induce all firms to evaluate workers without referring to characteristics such as race, gender, ethnicity, age, weight, nationality, or sexual orientation. Would that this were so!

Eisler’s argument is roughly parallel: firms that care for employees will have lower costs than noncaring firms. Thus, caring firms will be more competitive, and others will have to follow suit or risk their market position. However, it is difficult to imagine why the economic forces that have historically created sweatshops, speedups, low wages, forced overtime, sexual harassment, and unsafe conditions are now going to promote caring.

Eisler believes that measuring care work accurately will advance gender equity. She is correct in pointing out that economic measurements such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and the various forecasts upon which most economic policies are based, fail to factor in or account for women’s unpaid labor. To correct this, she urges exerting political pressure to persuade governments to include care work in their economic calculations. For argument’s sake let’s assume that nations change their accounting practices tomorrow. As Eisler points out, many techniques are available for assigning market values to unpaid work, so implementing this would not be unduly difficult. Once in place, this change would, by UN and World Bank estimates, dramatically increase every nation’s GDP.

But feminists should be suspicious of the claim that accounting changes, by themselves, will increase women's equality. If unpaid work in the home became the basis for wages or contributions to pension plans, this would increase the incentive to stay home. Although in principle these incentives are gender neutral, in fact at least 65 percent of women currently working outside the home report having major responsibility for their families. Why would imputed wages or imputed pension payments change either the gender coding or prestige of this work? This certainly has not been the case in Germany where families with children under the age of eighteen receive generous child subsidies. German women have very low labor force participation rates, and there is almost no social provision of child care. In short, these child subsidies make it more difficult for women to break out of the home.

Feminists should not advocate such policies, which strengthen, rather than diminish, the gender division of labor. The responsibility for the socially necessary work done in the home needs to be shared socially, not individually rewarded. As long as women are relegated to low-paying jobs, and because of their home responsibilities forced to work part-time if at all, feminists should fight for equal pay, expanded child care at affordable prices, and expanded public health services.

Of course women’s low pay is a concern. But we are pointing to the contradiction between providing incentives to reinforce the gender division of labor and the premise that women’s assignment to the day-to-day work of family maintenance plays the key role in their subordination.

Eisler’s discussion of the value of caring harks back to images of nurturing women devoted to kith and kin. Her analysis re-creates the kinds of essentialist oppositions that underpinned the Victorian doctrine of men’s and women’s separate spheres. Rather than disrupting these dualisms, The Real Wealth of Nations inverts their valuation. It avoids the question of who will do all those tasks that are part of “caring” but unlikely to be fulfilling: haul the garbage, empty bedpans, change diapers, wash laundry, cook meals, clean toilets. And how would a stronger caring orientation undo deep-seated cultural representations that define some people but not others as entitled to care?

Of course gender equality is a crucial dimension of the struggle for social and economic justice, and achieving it will require progressive policies that meet social needs for good childcare, healthcare, and elder care. But there is a perfectly good alternative to arguments such as Eisler’s: what economists call “merit goods,” or those things a society decides should be available to everyone who needs them (a less academic term could undoubtedly be coined.) Merit goods have the additional characteristic that if they were not provided by the government some people would not or could not acquire them on their own. Childcare, healthcare, and elder care, along with housing, mass transit, potable water, and clear air are all merit goods. The question is why are they in such short supply? Economically disadvantaged people would benefit from the social provision of merit goods, because access would be based on need, not income. And the public provision of merit goods would support gender equality in labor markets, because it would reduce the time individual households need to devote to family maintenance. Under the current gender division of labor, the lioness’s share of this work now falls to women. Thus, providing merit goods to all has the added advantage of moving care work out of the private domain into that of public responsibility. The discourse of caring rarely suggests the public provision of these services, advocating instead for policies that “care for care givers,” such as flex-time and paid leaves. But these labor market adjustments would, once again, reinforce women’s assignment to this work. (For a fine discussion of merit goods and their relation to existing social policy and feminist goals of labor market equality see Barbara Bergmann, “Shaping a Program the Country Needs” [2007])

 When access to such services is guaranteed to all, then their provision will resemble the provision of education and healthcare (the US is the notable exception to universal healthcare among the other G7 nations of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the UK). Moreover, a focus on merit goods avoids associating women with care giving. At the same time, the public provision of merit goods will make it easier to ensure that the workers who produce these goods are well compensated and that their working conditions meet international standards. Further, there is no reason to suppose that the quality of merit goods will fall when the work is performed outside the home/family nexus.

Feminists such as Riane Eisler are correct to point out the historical connections among the gender division of labor, the devaluation of care work, and women’s economic disadvantage. But focusing on care does not advance women’s equality. Instead it strengthens incentives for women to stay home, leaving each generation to rediscover what Betty Friedan called “the problem with no name.” Women who work for pay, especially those in the US, are subject to endless social reprimands for their misguided (i.e., uncaring) behavior. Even the liberal New York Times regularly trots out the canard that mother’s work is harmful to children and the myth that professional woman choose to leave the workplace to become full time homemakers. Feminism needs care like fish need bicycles.

Susan Feiner is professor of economics, and director of the women and gender studies department at the University of Southern Maine. Drucilla Barker is professor of family studies, and director of women's studies at the University of South Carolina.

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