As part of the Feminist Futures Programme launch, we have asked five leading economists four broad questions regarding the most pressing issues relating to work and gender today. Below you can find the second question, their responses and their bios. The first is here. These interviews were led by Autonomy research affiliate Danielle Guizzo.
How do you see the issue of gender interacting with other factors (such as race, class, location, ability, sexuality, age and immigration status) that could potentially intensify the impacts of the pandemic upon certain people? What steps can be taken to minimize these impacts, and what tools can feminist economics lend to these efforts?
Adopting a gendered and intersectional perspective is utterly essential for any analysis of the crisis or public policy proposals.
The ILO classified activity sectors according to the level of impact of the current crisis in the short term: low, medium-low, medium, medium-high or high. According to this classification, ECLAC estimated the high-risk sectors to account for about 56.9% of female employment and 40.6% of male employment in Latin America. In the Caribbean, 54.3% of female employment and 38.7% of male employment is in high-risk sectors.
In Uruguay, according to my own estimations (Espino y De los Santos, 2020), recent migrants (i.e. those who arrived in the last five years) are mostly employed in sectors especially vulnerable to the current crisis: approximately 50% of migrant men and women work in sectors with high potential impact and 20% in sectors with medium-high potential impact. In a similar vein, the impact on women of Afro or indigenous descent is likely to be higher than for the rest of the employed population. While the percentage of employed persons in sectors highly impacted by the crisis is between 36-38% among men (without distinction of race) and women of white descent, that figure reaches 42% of afro or indigenous women.
Alma Espino is an economist, researcher (1985-2013) and Director (2007-2009) of the Institute of Economics in the Faculty of Economic Sciences and Administration (FESA), at the University of the Republic (UDELAR) in Uruguay. From 2011 to 2017 she was responsible for “Gender and Economics”, an optional course for undergraduate students at FESA, UDELAR. She is currently a Free Professor at the Institute of Economics FESA, UDELAR, where her main fields of research are the labor market and gender.
Since 1997 she has been the coordinator of the “Development and Gender Area” at the Interdisciplinary Center for Development Studies, Uruguay (CIEDUR), and from 2003 she has been a professor in the Regional Training Program on Gender and Public Policies (PRIGEPP-FLACSO). In 2006 she joined the Latin American Working Group on Gender, Macroeconomics and International Economics.
She is currently a member of the Board of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE), the UN-Women Civil Society Advisory Group for Latin America and the Caribbean, and the National System of Researchers, Uruguay. Espino has worked as a consultant for government agencies and ministries in the country and the region and international organizations (World Bank, UNRISD, UN Women, IDB, ECLAC, UNDP, ILO, and others). She is the author and/or co-author of several articles in peer-reviewed journals, working papers and participates in the writing of several book chapters.
Many of these factors play out against two backgrounds. On the one hand, there is the context of work – both inside and outside the household. But there is also a further ‘reproductive’ question of differential mortality rates during the Covid crisis. Both of are of extreme relevance.
So on the one hand, we have seen that processes of racialization seem crucial in explaining different mortality rates – the effects of this have been particularly obvious in both the US and the UK. According to the British Medical Association and others, the BAME population in the UK has been three times more likely than their white counterparts to die from Covid. Different rates of sickness and death had originally been explained in terms of comorbidities – ie. the higher presence in such populations of poverty, obesity, diabetes etc.
However, even the British Medical Association has now begun to suggest that these comorbidities cannot completely explain the differential fatality rates in populations. There are further compound effects that we need to account for, including social determinants that lead to contagion and death. Here work, and particularly our ability to shield or work from home has to be considered as part of the picture, especially for racialized groups and women; but we should not overlook how – especially when it comes to Covid mortality – the overall picture is predominantly one of male death.
Furthermore, the impact of Covid has also been acute for those within so-called ‘essential’ services, who may be socially and politically celebrated, but remain poorly paid in general. Even within this realm of essential work, we should not forget that there are further strata, ranging from those in more formal contracts, with union support, to those in much more precarious situations, where BAME and black populations are over-represented. On the one hand, these workers are seen as essential, but on the other, as entirely expendable.
So in summary, race and other factors matter enormously when it comes to Covid – particularly who is overrepresented in ‘essential’ (but also seemingly ‘expendable’) work. What can we do to minimise these impacts? For me, it has become increasingly obvious that actions that place care and social reproduction centre stage are far more likely to address inequalities generated by the Covid crisis. So on the one hand, this might mean policies like a shorter working week or food provision schemes, as well as an expansion and uplift in unemployment benefits. However, we need to begin to de-link public provision and financial support from work ‘in itself’, joining policies like an unconditional basic income with strengthened basic infrastructure and service provision. These can help to separate access to support from formal employment, while also beginning to remunerate the increase in unpaid reproductive labour generated by the pandemic.
Alessandra holds degrees in Economics from La Sapienza, Rome, and in Development Studies from SOAS, where she completed a PhD on the ‘making’ of cheap labour in the Indian garment industry, with an emphasis on the labour regime characterising the industry and its global and localised patterns of labour control. She writes and teaches on issues related to inequality and trade; global commodity chains and production networks; labour informality, informalisation and labour regimes; global labour standards, CSR and Modern Slavery; feminisms in development; gender and globalization; approaches to social reproduction and reproductive labour; and India’s political economy.
Alessandra has actively engaged with international organizations and NGOs such as the ILO, ActionAid, Labour Behind the Label, War on Want, SEWA-India and Anti-Slavery International on issues related to gender and work, global labour standards, anti-sweatshop campaigning and tackling modern slavery. She is currently Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at SOAS, where she is also a member of the Centre for Gender Studies.
Julie A. Nelson
The statistics show Black and Latina women have suffered more unemployment than white women in the United States. What I have found particularly disheartening are the stories about the lack of attention given to the needs of some of the lowest paid essential workers in the country. Nursing home attendants and home health aides tend to be low-paid and are often also from minority and/or immigrant groups. Yet, especially early in the pandemic, they were often required to work (in intimate contact with clients!) with little or no PPE, no sick leave, no hazard pay, dependent on public transportation, etc. The meat processing industry, which employs many women and immigrants on its production lines, actually got some special exemptions from safety procedures from the Trump administration, in spite of serious Covid outbreaks and deaths. There was little feminists could do to influence policy at the federal level while a misogynist administration was in power, though feminists activists continued lobbying at the state and local levels of government and working for changes within the private and non-profit sectors. I hope there will be more progress with the new administration – there are already some signs of that.
Julie A. Nelson is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her research interests include feminist economics, economic methodology, ecological economics, and ethics and economics. She is the author of many articles in journals ranging from Econometrica to Hypatia: Journal of Feminist Philosophy; author of a number of books including Economics for Humans (2nd ed. 2018) and Gender and Risk-Taking: Economics, Evidence, and Why the Answer Matters (2017); and co-editor (with Marianne Ferber) of Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics (1993) and Feminist Economics Today (2003). She is editor of the Business Ethics and Economics section of the Journal of Business Ethics, a former Associate Editor of Feminist Economics, and was the 2019 President of the Association for Social Economics.
Abena D. Oduro
Gender interacts with race, class, location etc. creating heterogeneity among women and girls on one hand and men and boys on the other. These interactions result in gendered impacts that cannot easily be captured by classifying the population into two groups – women and men. For example, one response to the pandemic in Ghana was to shut down schools and provide distance learning solutions. Being able to access the solution offered by government depended on having access to electricity, a smart home or tablet and a television. Rural girls in low-income households were disadvantaged by this solution unlike urban girls in high-income household who were more likely to have what was required to access the solution. A careful interrogation of the impacts of possible policy measures by gender, class and location for example, would have resulted in a set of policy measures that would not have exacerbated already existing inequalities. Gender-responsive budgeting is one tool that feminist economics can lend to these efforts.
Abena D. Oduro is Associate Professor of Economics in the Department of Economics, University of Ghana and co-Director of the Merian Institute for Advanced Studies in Africa (MIASA) at the University of Ghana. Her current research interests are in the areas of unpaid care work, intra-household distribution of labour and inequality and climate change. She has publications in journals such as Feminist Economics, The Journal of Development Studies and Development Policy Review. She is co-author of a chapter on gender and assets in The Routledge Handbook of Feminist Economics (forthcoming).
To say that race, class, location, ability, age, and immigration status matter simply recognizes that we are situated differently with respect to this crisis and therefore the effects are likely to differ. With regard to class, those in the middle and top of the wealth and income distribution tend to be employed in jobs that are relatively more secure, and are amenable to teleworking – professional jobs such as lawyers, professors, doctors, and computer programming.
The lowest wage workers face the dilemma of a) having been hard hit due to their concentration in public-facing service sector jobs that have faced job losses, such as retail, sales and accommodation, for example, or of b) being “essential workers” (home health aides, custodians, and so on) required to continue working – both because of the essential character of the labour they perform, and also because they are so heavily reliant on current income (lacking accumulated savings and wealth).
The racially-differentiated effects of the Covid pandemic have been well documented. People of “subordinated” racial groups (that is, groups lower in a country’s racial hierarchy) are more likely to be low wage workers. They are also more likely to have underlying health conditions that make the effects of Covid much worse and more deadly than those in the dominant racial group. Further, because of low incomes and residential segregation, racially subordinated groups, like Blacks and Latinx folks in the US, live in more crowded living conditions and communities, with often much worse access to high quality health care facilities, including hospitals.
Immigrants face similar conditions to racially subordinated groups. Added to their poor living conditions, home-schooling is more challenging for immigrant children, with the lowest income families often lacking access to computers and Wi-Fi. In Europe, immigrants have been somewhat cushioned from job losses because European governments have prioritized support to businesses to keep workers on the payroll. In the US, immigrants have seen higher unemployment rates than native-born Americans.
Prior to obtaining her Ph.D. from American University in 1994, Stephanie worked as an economist in Haiti during the pre- and post-Baby Doc era for USAID. That experience shaped her interest in developing countries and issues of inequality. Since then, Stephanie’s research has explored the relationship between intergroup inequality by class, race, and gender, on the one hand, and economic growth and development, on the other. She has also studied the impact of globalization on inequality, the implications of the financial crisis of 2008, gender effects of religiosity, and racial and gender impacts of contractionary monetary policy. More generally, Stephanie has focused on the economics of stratification—that is, the economic institutions that lead to and perpetuate economic inequality. In the policy arena, she has contributed to research on macroeconomic policy tools for financing and promoting gender equality.
At the local level, several years ago, Stephanie began working as a faculty advisor to Uncommon Alliance, a group comprised of members of the community of color and the area police departments. This group formed after community members raised concerns about racial profiling by law enforcement. Since that time, with her co-author, Nancy Brooks, she has conducted numerous studies of Vermont’s traffic stop data to identify and understand racial disparities in Vermont policing, and some of those studies are listed below.
In addition to her appointment in the Economics Department, Stephanie is a Research Associate of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst and a Fellow of the Gund Institute for the Environment. Her work has appeared in Cambridge Journal of Economics, Development and Change, Structural Change and Economic Dynamics, and World Development, among others. She is co-editor of two books, Critical and Feminist Perspectives on Financial and Economic Crises (2015), and Inequality, Development, and Growth. Co-editor. (2011). She has been fortunate to be able to work as advisor or consultant to numerous international organizations including the World Bank, United Nations Development Programme, the Asian Development Bank, UNDP, US AID, and UN Women.