A Woman’s Place is in the Office? Feminism and Capitalism

In this article Lily Parr explores the relationship between capitalism and feminism

“Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive 10 percent of the world’s income and own 1 percent of the means of production.”- Richard H. Robbins [1]

There are many feminist critiques of capitalism. Exponents of this perspective lament that the system is structurally formed under patriarchal values; it places little monetary value on that which has been deemed women’s work [2]. Whilst an estimated two-thirds of work globally is performed by women, less than one-tenth is waged. As Delphy argues, ‘value in our language also means a price. What has no value is that which has no price. That for which one is not required to pay – that for which one is not paid [3]. In industrialised nations the average woman earns only 57 per cent of the average mans wage [4] and are also less likely to enter into positions of responsibility than their male counterparts [5]. In many ways women’s access to the benefits of capitalism are restricted. Instead they provide the majority of caring work, which is demonstrated for instance in the disproportionately higher level of women claiming carers allowance than men, with nine out of ten lone parents being women [6]. Such roles do not fit in neatly with capitalist principals of production and profit. Furthermore, as Jenson et al. note ‘part-time work in particular remains a female ghetto’ [7] with four times as many women in part-time work as men in Britain [8] The role of women in the workforce is clearly unequal to their male counterparts. Capitalism does not appear to have brought any kind of economic egalitarianism to women.

Proponents of capitalism argue that such a system enables the personal drive of individuals to propel their economic progression and contend that anyone can personally benefit from the market, given the right set of conditions. Gender is not understood to be a contributing influence. In theory, the invisible hand of the market can provide phenomenal success, and of course their juxtaposed losses too. Given the aforementioned statistical gender discrepancies however, it can be assumed that this economic system is biased towards men, whether through design or the structure under which it is implemented.

With this in mind, could a more state centric approach be the solution to the gender bias of capitalism? A lack of positive discrimination is demonstrated by American women holding three college degrees for every two earned by men, and yet they hold just 18% of corporate board posts at S&P 100 companies [10]. However, there have certainly been moves in the past few years to rectify such inequalities in businesses in Europe, particularly in boardrooms. For example, Finnish government legislation has necessitated listed companies to have at least one woman on their board [11]. EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding has suggested that unless tougher stances are taken, ‘it would take another 40 years for women to have equal representation on boards throughout Europe’ [12] and has called on European countries to work towards making women 30% board members by 2015, an ambitious task given current figures. Such examples certainly indicate that positive discrimination is the most direct route to levelling the gender imbalance in business. Additionally, a recent study by McKinsey suggests that companies with the highest percentage of women on executive committees outperformed those with male-only committees by 56% in operating results [13]. Once women are actually in positions of power, then, it would seem that they can work within the capitalist model producing very favourable results. However, such measures do not eliminate the structure. So whilst positive discrimination may, in the countries that implement such measures, pave the way for a women’s place in the market, it does not necessarily eliminate the blatant sexism which originally created such unfairness.

Furthermore, the record of current political institutions in capitalist states of providing gender neutral policies is less than promising. One need only examine British statistics for female representation in parliament, or the disproportionate effect of recent budgetary cuts on women’s services to appreciate that the state is far from beyond the entrenched sexism of the market [14]. It can therefore be questioned whether a state implemented economy would be preferential to women’s equality than one driven by the market. At current levels both disproportionately favour men.

This issue must be addressed regardless of whether a person believes capitalism or a more state-led economic system is superior – gender equality is a key issue that urgently needs confronting. Current levels of women in power, of women on boards, or as CEOs need to be judged, criticised and challenged. Neither system has proven to be infallible in providing gender equality. Markets can provide opportunity and regulation can ensure quotas are met, but without a fundamental change in the perception of the ability of women to advance in currently underrepresented spheres, progress will be slow. Regardless of whether capitalism or any other economic system is considered to be superior, the assertion of Gustafsson need be recognised; ‘to me the vision is of equal role sharing between men and women. Men should take half the unpaid caring work and women half the paid work, half the incomes, half the power, half the glory’ [15].

By Lily Parr

Edited by George Richards


Further Reading:

[1] Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), p. 354

[2] Walby (1996), Jenson et al. (2000)

[3] Christine Delphy, ‘The Main Enemy’ Gender Issues 1 (1980) pp. 23-40.

[4] UNICEF, State of the World’s Children, 2007, p. 41, Figure 3.3

[5] http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/index.asp?PageID=1207

[6] http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/index.asp?PageID=321

[7] Jane Jenson, Jacqueline Laufer and Margret Mamnai, The Gendering of Inequalities, Women, Men and Work (Vermont: Ashgate Publications, 2000), p. 7.

[8] http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/index.asp?PageID=1207





[13] http://www.mckinsey.com/locations/paris/home/womenmatter.asp



[15] Siv Gustafsson, ‘Feminist Neo-Classical Economics: some examples’ in Gender and Economics ed. A.

Geske Dijkstra and Janneke Plantegra (London: Routledge, 1997) pp. 36-53.