A book abstract of “The Sex Factor: How Women Made the West Rich” by Victoria Bateman

Finding the relationship between globalization and gender has been an important task for international organizations, economists and policymakers for some years now. Not only are they seeking to understand how gender inequality affects global economic trends but also why, when talking about the winners and losers of globalization, women are often overrepresented in the second group. This, however, has to do with a much bigger problem. One that Victoria Bateman tries to uncover in her latest book “The Sex Factor: How Women Made the West Rich.”

“In almost every are of study, economics overlooks sex, gender and women’s freedom”

For Bateman, overcoming this blindness for sex and gender is the first step towards a better understanding of global economic issues. She suggests that economists’ neglect of these topics has come at the cost of truly understanding and solving the problems of our economy. Specifically, the author argues that acknowledging the role of women’s freedom to pursue economic prosperity, including their bodily autonomy, is central to answering big questions like: Why are some countries rich and so many still poor? What are the costs and benefits of free markets? Why has inequality increased? And hence, why women do not profit from globalization as much as men.

“By leaving human reality in the cold, economists have not only over-simplified the world but have limited their ability to understand it”

For Bateman economics has a sex problem. One that is rooted in the main assumptions of the field. Individuals are represented as rational, self-interested, and calculating beings. The author explains that the problem with these assumptions is their neglect of the body, the family and society. She argues that they have shaped our perception of economic prosperity, inequality, and even freedom into one where women’s concerns are underrepresented and given a secondary role.

“Women’s freedom is too often seen as a by-product of growth, rather than as an underlying driver”

Acknowledging the role of women’s freedom for the economic prosperity of the West is the second step. This requires, however, rethinking how economists and historians approach the past. Bateman argues that when studying the history of economic prosperity in a longer-term global perspective, understanding why Europe was home to an industrial revolution that led to sustained economic growth, becomes rather difficult. She points out that economists and historians often rely on markets, institutions, science and wages to explain the economic growth of the West. Nonetheless, these factors existed in other regions of the world too, which did not experienced the economic transformation that took place in Western countries. According to the author, women’s freedom is the missing link that explains why the West grew rich and was able to enjoy sustained growth. Although women’s freedom was far from perfect in Europe, relative to the rest of the world, it gave the West an advantage difficult to beat.

“Women’s freedom creates growth”

Showing historical evidence of family structure and market creation previously and during the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, the author highlights how women’s freedom fundamentally changed population dynamics, wages, human capital, investment and even the capabilities of the state – changes  that unequivocally brought sustained growth to the West. Her analysis is based on the fact that even though economic development is often measured as the ability of the average person to afford goods and services, it has to do with much more than only money. Economic development is a process in which people have the ability to take charge over their lives. Economic development depends on the freedom of both men and women.

“Whilst women help growth, growth doesn’t always return the favor”

Nonetheless, Bateman stresses that although women largely helped paving the way for the Industrial Revolution, and hence, the consequent economic growth of the West, the economic and social changes that resulted from this period pushed many women out of the workplace and instituted the male breadwinner model. A model that was reinforced by strong trade union movements that supported the interests of men, and an interventionist state that restricted women’s right and freedoms.

“Gender equality should never be taken for granted”

Bateman adds that we tend to assume that for most of human history women were an oppressed group and hope that gender inequality has been finally eradicated. She argues that we often ignore when and why gender inequality started, and, most importantly, that there have been periods of higher and lower inequality. In Bateman’s opinion studying the relationship of the historical evolution of technology and the development of the state with female labor and women’s freedom, might help understand why gender equality is not a naturally improving trend towards full equality.

Economics needs a gender perspective

Bateman advocates for a field of economics that recognizes body, family, culture, and other non-market issues that have been often ignored by mainstream economists. She concludes that if we want a more prosperous economy, and one where prosperity is sustainable and equitable, economists need to acknowledge the transformative power of women’s freedom. Therefore, to answer our question: yes, globalization needs a gender perspective!

The Sex Factor: How Women Made the West Rich. Victoria Bateman. Polity Press. 2019.

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