All the talk in recent weeks and months about the lack of gender equality in society, from pay through to sexual harassment, reminded me of a statistic I was told about 10 or so years ago by one of my brilliant business book authors Avivah Wittenberg-Cox @A_WittenbergCox. (I wish I could remember the source she cited but I can’t – you’ll have to take my word for it!) It was the result of a poll that surveyed men and women on what they considered to be the greatest achievement of the twentieth century. The answers spoke volumes. For men, the greatest achievement was space exploration and putting a man on the moon. For women it was the ‘birth’ of the contraceptive pill. It’s just one statistic, one survey, but it made me think if we amplify that, what does it tell us about the choices that are made in all aspects of our lives? What does society place most value on? What and who do we choose to celebrate? Where do we choose to spend our money and for what purpose?
Sarah Corney’s recent guest blog cited the journalist Polly Toynbee’s assertion that gender equality and liberation for women “means digging up the roots of human culture”. On the 100th anniversary of (some) women’s right to vote in the UK, I was delighted to hear a discussion between two academics on BBC Radio 4’s the Today programme – who happened to be women – Alison Wolf, Professor of Public Sector Management at Kings College, London (amongst other things) and economist (amongst other things) Ann Pettifor. During the interview, which debated whether feminism is too interested in the top 1% (which is an important topic for another day) they touched on how feminism stays away from the subject of the economy. Acknowledging that the economics profession is male dominated, they suggested that this has a significant impact on the economic choices that we, as a society, make. Women, they posited, would typically prioritise and invest in the public sector, in our health and welfare system, in education. If our economic narrative is male, what stories do we choose to tell, which (to mix my metaphors) ‘green shoots’ do we choose to nurture?
It’s interesting to note that, following the global financial meltdown in 2008 (from which we are still suffering) many students of economics started to question the prevailing economic orthodoxy; what they were experiencing and witnessing at first hand was not what they were being taught. As Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England wrote in the Foreword to the book that came out of this movement, Econocracy, it was not only the neoclassical model of the economy that was ‘found to be lame’, but that policy makers placed too much reliance on narrow technical models, to our peril.
Of course, what gives me, and others, optimism, is that students across the world challenged and are challenging this prevailing orthodoxy. As Vince Cable, currently leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK and former Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, says in his review of the book, “It makes the case for pluralistic economics to address such questions as financial instability and climate change.”
We need a plurality of thinking, of views, if we are to change the over arching (male) narratives inherent in our key societal structures: not just in economics, but also in the legal and criminal justice system, in education, in health care as well as in business and the world of work. Of course, diversity of thinking is not just a gender issue, but it’s a good place to start.
So, in a world of finite resources, and facing the world’s grand challenges, where would you focus your efforts, what would you address? When people look back on the 21st century and speak of our greatest achievement, what will they answer? Will it be the 21st century’s equivalent of the Pill or the Moon?