Politics & Society

The best books on Gender Inequality

recommended by Linda Scott

The Double X Economy: The Epic Potential of Empowering Women by Linda Scott

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The Double X Economy: The Epic Potential of Empowering Women
by Linda Scott

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Women produce about 40% of global GDP and more than half of the world's food. But their economic and social contribution has too often gone unrecorded—subsumed into 'household earnings' or otherwise disregarded. Here, the Oxford academic and author of The Double X Economy Linda Scott selects five of the best books on gender inequality, and reveals how the empowerment of women might just be the route to world peace.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

The Double X Economy: The Epic Potential of Empowering Women by Linda Scott

out now

The Double X Economy: The Epic Potential of Empowering Women
by Linda Scott

Read

I asked you to select five of the best books on gender inequality. You’re well placed to do this, having written and researched extensively on the subject. You have an acclaimed recent book, The Double X Economy, and a blog of the same name. While compiling this reading list, what sort of books have you elected to highlight? 

Firstly, I have obviously selected books that have influenced me a lot. But also books that speak more to issues of economics and data. In part, because I feel that the women’s movement and feminist theory have not focused on either of those topics much, in the sense of having been much more philosophical and anecdotal. Both of those things are important, but I think a lot of people are not aware of the extraordinary amount of data that we have on women’s subordination, and the scary picture it paints of the world. So I felt it would be a good thing for me to highlight books that I thought might not be as well known to the average reader, but are very important.

Let’s get straight to it. First up you have recommended a book by the economist Vicky Pryce. It’s called Women Versus Capitalism: Why We Can’t Have it All in a Free Market Economy. Could you talk us through the core argument?

Pryce is showing how, even by the logic of capitalism, there’s a problem. She argues that the subordination of women causes, and is caused by, market failure. And that, therefore, it should be unacceptable from an economist’s point of view—even if you are a traditional, Neoclassical economist—because the consequences of excluding women from the economy, the way that world society has, has pretty dire consequences for society. That’s one of my own messages too. I think people just don’t realise that it’s something that hurts all of us every day.

I wanted to begin with this book because many people, I think, push back against the idea that women should be more intentionally included in equalising the economy, because they buy into the philosophy that markets are sacred, they regulate themselves, that sort of thing. But this is not a situation that should be left to that kind of naïve economic thinking.

I was struck by a line in a review of this book, which stated: “Indeed, many still do not believe women face particular disadvantages.” Is that really true?

Oh yes. A lot of people don’t believe it. A lot of people are not aware of what the macro data show, or even what studies have shown. This is another reason why I want to talk about data specifically, as people based their opinions largely on personal experience, and everybody will have a different experience when it comes to gender. Some of us see gender inequality and don’t like it, and some of us don’t see anything, and some of us see it but would rather men and women stayed on unequal footing.

“A lot of people are not aware of the extraordinary amount of data that we have on women’s subordination”

If you are a person of the level of education and literacy that would read Pryce’s book, the women around you are likely to be in pretty good shape in as much as they will likely be well educated, have jobs, and seemingly have opportunities. So you might say, ‘oh, well that’s not a problem.’ Certainly, from a world culture perspective, very very educated Western women are an outlier. They are not even close to the global norm. So it’s good to have macro data so you can start to talk about the big picture.

People used to say that women were just being emotional when they said they were not being treated fairly. Now we can point to the data, which show they are not being treated fairly. It’s the people who react to that negatively who are just being emotional.

I think this allows me to segue into my next book choice.

Right. This is Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Of the five books you’ve chosen on gender inequality, this might be the best known.

One reason that people have often formed not-particularly-accurate ideas about women’s situation in the world is because, in fact, there hasn’t been much data, and when the data has been collected, it has been collected with bias. And when it’s reported, it’s reported with bias, or the women’s part of the data hasn’t been reported at all.

Can you give an example?

One example that I give in my book is that we have not had a good picture of women’s role in the economy until very recently, because the smallest unit of measurement of economic data collected was the household. So that means that any economic activity that women have generated was subsumed under the wealth of the head of the household—who was usually male. So you couldn’t detangle the women’s contribution at all, right? Many, many women also work unpaid. Not just as mothers, but as farm workers, for example.

So as a consequence, people assume women are a trivial influence, and they appear invisible on paper?, but in truth they are a very powerful influence on the world economy. They produce about 40% of global GDP.

That’s much higher than I would have expected.

They produce more than half the world’s food. But people haven’t realised because the data have not been there, or have been reported in such a way—such as by household—that biased the results.

Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women book is very accessible. It’s not wonky.

It made quite a splash on publication, I think because the examples she flags up of how women have been habitually discounted in studies, policies and modelling—how concrete, numerous and wide-ranging they are—were quite overwhelming. Car crashes are much more likely to injure and kill women than men, for example, because crash test dummies are built to mimic the ‘average man’. Medical studies are far less likely to use female participants—partly because of fears that their hormone cycle might interfere with results. In each case, I can sort of understand the original logic, but when presented with it all as a whole you are confronted with quite inarguable evidence of the suppression of female data.

Right. And the implications are pretty serious. In the case of medicine, there was one awful situation where a sedative was released to market without testing on women, and nobody figured that out until, like, five women died. And these are fields like medicine, economics, which you really think of as being objective. It’s a sweeping bias, from a research point of view, to exclude half the population. That’s really inexcusable.

Shall we talk about Sex and World Peace next? It’s by Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett. It relates behaviour towards women in the home—cultural issues, I guess—with how countries as a whole behave at an international, political level. Is that right? 

Yes. Again, data are important to this argument. Valerie Hudson and her team can show you right up front that the presence of conflict maps quite consistently onto the extreme subordination of women. In other words, those societies where women have the fewest rights are also the ones that have the most war, the most hunger… they are more likely to be fragile states, more likely to be run by autocrats. The worst governed and most belligerent forces in the world are states where they subordinate women to an extreme degree.

That’s something you couldn’t have said with any certainty even 15 years ago, because you simply did not have the numbers to show it. So that’s a very big deal. That’s mostly because of the effort to collect more and more international datasets on everything. You can make the analysis because we have a big dataset on conflict and another on gender, right?

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The other thing is that they can, as you say, articulate it out into particular cultural practices. Now it’s very important to understand at this point that different cultures don’t have different gender practices. The practice of gender subordination is pretty uniform across the world, it’s not an idiosyncratic thing. So you can look at a fairly extensive collection of countries and identify, for example, the countries that have an honour system with regard to gender—where a man’s honour is dependent on the chastity of the women in his household, for instance. This is actually very common still in the world today, and has been practically uniform in world history. So the question then becomes: how does one go about fostering the change that not only equalises women, not only because it equalises women, but because you’re going to have less conflict. For a whole chain of reasons.

It’s a deeply, deeply researched book, drawing from research across many fields. Because that’s the other thing that’s really important. It’s not just one field where these conclusions are emerging, it’s pretty much across every field that has considered the question: what about women? Unfortunately economics is the last to the game. Or maybe business is even further behind. But it’s been researched for decades in other fields, and that’s what Valerie Hudson and her team outline.

Should we understand this link in terms of causality or correlation? Is it that belligerence in the household trains the individual to become a belligerent leader, and therefore a country to become a belligerent world power? Or is it that if a country is in a bad state, the first thing that goes is women’s rights?

There’s certainly a case to be made for that second point. But consensus does seem to be emerging that it’s the way that a country treats its women that causes the rest of it; it’s a continuous feedback loop, in that the more women are mistreated, the more of a cascade of bad stuff leads on from that—systematic rapes, hunger, excessive fertility… which in turn feeds back into the culture both genetically and in terms of population and resources, which in turn keeps the cycle going.

One of the things that keeps it happening is that if somebody is seen to trespass against a person—or country—the first thing that happens is that person lashes back, violently. There’s no attempt to discuss it, to settle it peacefully. Just immediate violence. That obviously keeps some of the cycle going. And that reflects both the temperament of the men on the ground and the collective temperament of the country.

That’s very unsettling. Can me move onto our next gender inequality book? This is Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. That term ‘neurosexism’ refers to the study of sex differences in psychology—quite a lot has been made of those in the past.

Cordelia Fine is a really well established and respected neuroscience ethicist. Since this 2010 book there have been other books that have developed similar arguments, but I like to go back to this one because it is very clearly and accessibly argued and documented. She has had such a big impact, so this is kind of the original source to go to.

What she’s showing here is that brain research over a hundred years or more has tried to establish that women are inferior, that their brains are inferior. But it has been unsuccessful in every instance. In all the testing that’s ever been done, there’s basically been no difference. Supposedly women’s brains are not good at mathematics, right? But this idea that women have, like, biologically inferior brains for maths comes from a study that’s 30 years old that never really panned out; it said that babies in utero with flushed? With testosterone and boys were changed forever and girls weren’t. But now we have a radically different understanding of the brain, and how much it develops after birth. It’s all learning. The reason we do see patterns of similarities between girls, and between boys, is due to the impact of the education system, gender practices, the malleability of the brain.

“Brain research over a hundred years or more has tried to establish that women are inferior, but it has been unsuccessful in every instance”

In general, we find that brains are more like livers or kidneys or hearts than testicles or ovaries. They are a kind of gender neutral organ. And we have a huge amount of performance data that shows that it cannot possibly be true that men and women have different cognitive abilities when it comes to mathematis or anything else. In some populations, women outperform men on mathematical performance. There’s a huge amount of variation within each population. In fact, your postal code—or your zip code—is known to predict your performance on a mathematical test more than your gender. So she does a really good job of showing that this particular myth is just a myth.

Your final gender inequality book recommendation is Nancy Folbre’s Greed, Lust and Gender: A History of Economic Ideas.

It’s a work of economic history—it looks at everybody from Ricardo, Mathus, Marx, all those ‘brand’ economists, and how they have approached the question of women in the economy. We see that the idea of what was ‘right’ for women to be doing in the economy developed over time. What you see is you go from, I think, a fairly sincere desire to figure out how women and resources and population work together to produce wealth or poverty in a national. But later you get into the kind of neoclassical period of the 1950s, they dismiss women who work in the home as quote-unquote ‘unproductive’; I’ve seen some of the studies where they would categorise unpaid work, such as in the home, as ‘leisure’, as if it required no effort. It’s a very readable book, and you see the progression of thinking that leads up to the present moment.

Yes, maybe this is a good place for me to ask about your own work in this field.

So I came to this topic after having written a book about the rise of the fashion and beauty economy, called Fresh Lipstick. I did quite a bit of primary research for that, which meant I read a lot­—11 decades of women’s magazines. I saw that some things about the modern economy actually enabled women, facilitated the rise of the feminist movement, and that the two were linked.

What I felt I saw was that there were things that happened in 19th century America that provided economic liberty for women, so that if we tried to replicate them in the world today might alleviate poverty and so on. So I started from that basis. I had a crazy idea. The Economics and Social Science Research Board in the United Kingdom awarded me one of my first grants, and they laughed at me when I presented the idea because it was so out there. But I started doing research, in mostly rural, remote areas of very poor countries, trying to figure out how to enable women economically and what the impact would be.

At that point we were coming to realise that the impact of economically enabling women is very positive, particularly for children—they get better food, more education, it’s just a really good thing to do. So as that was becoming more known, what I was doing suddenly went from complete madness to being right at the centre of international economic interest. I had lots and lots of projects, and the chance to go all over the world studying this topic.

I came to understand that I was seeing the same phenomenon everywhere I went, even though conventional wisdom of the time held that it should be different everywhere. It was not. I think everyone who has done work in this area over the last two decades has come to this conclusion; there’s just not enough variability to pretend it’s culturally individual.

I was very aware of how women had been economically constrained in the past, and that the same restrictions still exist in poorer countries. But you could see the vestiges, the fingerprints of them in developed countries as well. So it’s really a global phenomenon: that women’s subordination has an impact on war and hunger.

I wrote this up as The Double X Economy, making the argument that there’s a full women’s economy—not just labour, but investments, charitable donations, credit standing, everything—that is different to men’s because you’ve had this longstanding, global system of exclusion. Unequal pay exists because of this past total exclusion from the money system—it’s not just because in certain countries, in certain industries, some of the time, women are paid less.

Yes. We’ve made great steps in this country. But as you have stated in the past: “There is no country on the planet, nor any industry that has reached gender equality.” Do you still hold out hope for an end to gender inequality in our lifetimes?

In our lifetime? No. But the evidence is at this point very compelling that we not only need to change the situation, but that we can—it’s pretty clear how we would do it. So it’s strictly a matter of finding the political will, and for people to become aware of just how important it would be for everyone if we dealt with this instead of ignoring it.

But yes, I’m very hopeful. We absolutely can do it, we know it’s good for us, we know why to do it, and we know how to do it.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

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Linda Scott

Linda Scott

Linda Scott is an internationally renowned expert on women's economic development, and Emeritus DP World Professor for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Oxford. She is founder of the Power Shift Forum for Women in the World Economy, which brings together leaders from across sectors; and founder and senior advisor of the Global Business Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment, a consortium of major multinationals working to empower women in developing countries. She was formerly Senior Consulting Fellow at Chatham House, and is a frequent consultant to the World Bank Group on gender economics. Linda Scott’s work has been covered by The Economist, BBC, New York Times, Guardian and Financial Times, and Prospect magazine has twice listed her among their Top 25 global thinkers.

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Linda Scott

Linda Scott

Linda Scott is an internationally renowned expert on women's economic development, and Emeritus DP World Professor for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Oxford. She is founder of the Power Shift Forum for Women in the World Economy, which brings together leaders from across sectors; and founder and senior advisor of the Global Business Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment, a consortium of major multinationals working to empower women in developing countries. She was formerly Senior Consulting Fellow at Chatham House, and is a frequent consultant to the World Bank Group on gender economics. Linda Scott’s work has been covered by The Economist, BBC, New York Times, Guardian and Financial Times, and Prospect magazine has twice listed her among their Top 25 global thinkers.