Capitalism & Patriarchy: The Cost of Being a Woman
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Written By: Simren Sekhon
Illustrations by: Sneha Grace
This series will uncover important discussions around the intersections of capitalism and patriarchy, in relation to the Ideas Division’s theme each month. The aim herein is to nuance and highlight the cost women around the world have to bear for the very fact of their gender. As discourses toward female empowerment have emerged globally, the weight of capitalism’s impact in creating material and financial costs to womanhood are often undermined. This series hopes to start necessary conversations to empower change.
In October, WU rang in the ‘Fall of the Patriarchy’ – and along with it, the launch of this series. The fundamental aim in this first article is to introduce the concepts of capitalism and patriarchy; by using an intersectional lens throughout, we zoom in on the material impacts they have had on women globally.
We will start by looking at inequality in what is assumed to be the most ‘capitalist’ of structures – organisations, institutions and corporations of employment. We will then discuss the continued impact of colonialism – the primary instrument through which capitalism’s reach has been enabled to this day. Within the context of climate change, the means through which capitalist structures have perpetuated disadvantage for women in the Global South (traditionally referred to as the ‘developing world’) are uncovered.
The aim of this discussion is to shine light on an important conversation, and to advocate for a feminism that brings about real change - for everyone, everywhere.
Simply put, patriarchy refers to male domination across systems, contexts and geographies. In other words, this tends to mean the exclusion of female voices and so has perpetuated means of female oppression and objectification. Herein, male domination cannot be reduced to individual acts of discrimination; patriarchy must be understood as a coherent, overarching system that affects all aspects of life. In addition to economic forms of oppression capitalist structures are likely to perpetuate, patriarchy is often evident in stereotypes, language, familial structures etc. The form in which such oppression takes place is dependent on your place and conditions of existence – urban or rural, North or South, class, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and gender etc. Critically, there is no singular female experience or identity – gendered oppression is not predefined but is diverse and socially constructed.
Capitalism, in essence, is an economic system in which private individuals and/or businesses own capital; herein, the production of goods and services is based on market supply and demand. The ‘purest’ form of capitalism is often referred to as a ‘free market’ or ‘laissez-faire’ capitalism. While most countries practice a capitalist system that includes government regulation, the philosophy that individual efforts and work correlates to economic gain remains prevalent. In this system, the ideal is based on an assumption of individual freedom – a freedom to pursue one’s goals, work hard and earn financially.
Inequality, therefore, is naturalised and works on the basis that being poor simply means you’re not working hard enough. In doing so, alongside patriarchy, a capitalist system works to offer women a convoluted means of hope to attain personal and economic empowerment. One that is perpetually unequal. If we utilise the lens of employed women, the gender wage gap is a glaring example of this inequality. The global gender wage gap, across all types of work and industries, stagnates between 20 and 30%. Know this: there is no country where average wages are equal amongst genders.
Within such, the gap tends to vary according to education level and type of work. In France, the gap goes up to 39% in some sectors. In Singapore, according to the Ministry of Manpower, women earn 6% less than men for similar work. Women of colour are at particular detriment: in the United States, Hispanic women earn barely more than 50% of what a white man earns while white women earn 80% of the latter’s salaries. Women are then placed in great precarity, more susceptible to building up unsustainable debt. This is particularly true for women who are employed part-time: the most prominent means of female employment. Not only is this sector of the labour market one of the most deregulated fields but offers an “unpredictable flexibility” that exacerbates existing instability.
Studies carried out by the International Labour Organisation evidences this reality abundantly. The following two charts not only depicts the current average wage gap, but also shows how this reality varies in countries around the world, at different income levels.
Furthermore, women who work continue to face numerous instances of exploitation and discrimination on the grounds of their gender, intersecting with other facets of their identity. Women are also severely underrepresented across corporate leadership and in a number of high-skilled spheres. For example, only 22% of professionals in the field of Artificial Intelligence are women. Meanwhile, as of May 2019, only 6.6% of women were CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
Understanding how the global economy currently functions also requires us to comprehend how it was structured during its expansion. To put it explicitly, European nations were able to expand capitalism largely through colonialism and slave trade. These events are not isolated in time but rather, have had dramatic and long-lasting effects on the Global South and minority communities in the Global North.
As noted by postcolonial feminists, women in the Global South are often the worst paid and even so, tend to do the most dangerous and precarious work. The feminist fight with patriarchal and capitalist structures is not singular for all women: the reality is that privileged women in privileged contexts are able to live in ways that are dependent on women in the Global South doing this type of work. This is resultant from the fact that the global economy was built on imperialist exploitation, within which patriarchal systems of oppression were rampant.
Take the example of the global food and agricultural industry. Statistically, rural women represent a quarter of the global population and approximately 43% of the agricultural labour force: producing food that feeds the privileged in the Global North far more than it does their own. Agriculture remains the biggest employer of women’s time but “seems to fall off the radar in analyses of the changing forms of work and capital”.
According to Oxfam, “rural women still bear the brunt of poverty and hunger”. Women play a crucial role in the industry and yet face consistent discrimination – many are not even allowed to own land, don’t have secure access to credit and across the board, retain low decision-making power. Before the imperialist advent of capitalism, there is evidence to show that in different parts of the world, mechanisms were in place to ensure women had access to land and resources to ascertain economic independence. Colonial mechanisms, in Africa for example, often meant that British and French rulers systematically favoured men in both land allocation and mechanisation of agriculture. The demise of women’s rights and earnings has then had severe consequences.
Reports show that women are more likely to be food-insecure than men in every region of the world. The impact of such is acutely intertwined with climate change. Taking a look at the environmentally and economically fragile region of Kush Himalayas portrays these drastic realities for women. Research on the feminisation of agriculture management reveals that in some mountainous regions in India, women undertake 4.6 to 5.7 times the agricultural work men do. In this work, women are often made responsible for procuring natural resources by, for example, collecting water and fuel. Poor infrastructure in the region has also led to water scarcity. This means that both women and girls then have to spend more time in this labour to help their families financially, driving girls out of school. Furthermore, when water quality worsens, women and girls are also the first to be exposed to waterborne diseases. The Nepalese sub-region of this area has an estimated 12,000-20,000 women and children forcibly pushed into labour. This instability of individual livelihoods is worsened by climate instability: extreme events like droughts and floods not only peril the industry in which they scrape to make a living, but also place them at greater risk of trafficking and gender-based violence. In this way, food and food politics has and continues to act as “weapons to reproduce, spread and intensify systems of exploitation and, in particular, a capitalist and patriarchal system of value”.
To be clear, patriarchy is a system that existed before the origins of capitalism. This is to say that the oppression of women preceded capitalism; however, as will continue to be evident, capitalism in the way it exists today reinforces patriarchal norms. As Marie-Eve Surprenant (2015) argues: “It is not about men abusing power, but about power abuse set up as a system”.
Next month, this series will ‘celebrate’ Housewives Day on the 3rd of November by highlighting the means through which domestic work has been feminised and undermined in financial, societal and psychological weight and importance. Accordingly, it will come to light how important it is to create socioeconomic structures in which women have the choice to be homemakers or not, recognising that such a choice in itself places one in a position of economic privilege. It will become increasingly clear how female subjugation likely acts as a pillar to uphold capitalist structures.
The intention of this series is not to preach but rather to evidence and together, learn about the systems in which we exist and operate within. I am not ignorant nor oblivious that capitalism, despite rampant global population growth, has statistically reduced the proportion of poverty-stricken peoples in the world. Growth is great – but those still underserved and silenced cannot be ignored. Together, I hope we can learn and act for the betterment of all.