Last week I had the honor of speaking at Oxford’s PowerShift Conference on Women in the World Economy. Rarely have I been in one room with so many accomplished women and rarely have I come away from any event feeling so inspired. Part of the feeling came from the many leaders who are reshaping women’s role in global business, but even more of it came from a sense that history is getting a much-needed rewrite.

#1: Women’s economic marginalization goes way, way back

PowerShift opened with remarks from Professor Linda Scott challenging existing theories on the origin of women’s marginalization. Theories to date focus on women’s isolation from writing or private property as inventions which kept women from control over assets- and power.

However, asked Professor Scott, if this is the case, why does women’s marginalization predate literacy, and why is it so universal? Indeed, she pointed out, literacy did not develop to document history or religion; rather, it developed to facilitate trade. Therefore, women’s marginalization could be said to be more directly tied with exclusion from the earliest days of commerce. (Professor Scott’s blog series delving further into the topic is a fascinating read.)

The rest of the conference left no doubt that economics has always been explicitly gendered: one participant shared that the Pythagoreans considered even numbers to be female and odd to be male because, “odd numbers could not be penetrated by the number two.” Of course.

#2: Economics as we know it is a recent invention

“I studied economic history. I can give you the dates for when they invented this shit.”

Quite possibly the best quote of the entire conference came from Joy Anderson of the Criterion Institute, whose tongue-in-cheek comment actually summarized economic theory quite neatly.

In tracing the development of economics as a social science we learned that what is counted, or more to the point, not counted, in the calculation of economic worth (e.g. in national GDP) has only been established within the last 150 years or so. Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in the midst of the industrial revolution his vision of the economy is that of a machine. John Steward Mill worked to promote economics as a pure science. This approach has devalued women’s activities, particularly caring activities by effectively labeling them “non-economic”. Women’s marginalization may be millennia old, but it’s formalization in economic theory is relatively recent.

#3: We’re starting to debunk the myths

Finally, an insightful presentation by Professor Julie Nelson broke dissected some of the common myths that continue to limit women’s ability to participate in and benefit from the economy. One telling example she cited was that of men and women’s differing approach to risk taking. The “fact” that men tend to take riskier decisions than women has been used to explain everything from men’s relative over-representation at the head of fast-growth businesses to the recent financial crisis. (“What if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters?” the question goes.) There’s just one problem: as Professor Nelson found through a macro-study of research, the actual difference between men and women’s appetite for risk is so small as to be insignificant. Much, much more research like this is needed.

Conclusion: Power is Shifting

Analysis of just how persistently and systematically women have been isolated from the economy could have led to a sense of pessimism; in fact, just the opposite occurred. Revising history opens up many more options on how we write the future. One of the most frequently repeated phrases of the conference was “paradigm shift”. There was a sense that the status quo is rapidly dissolving, and whatever the future of the economy brings, women will be at the center of it.

Join the campaign!

Financial inclusion is a key element of women’s economic empowerment; however, as of 1 June 2014 it has been removed from the wording of the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals. PowerShift launched a petition to the UN to get the wording back in- sign the online petition here.

Like this? Check out “Empowerment beyond the buzzword: Unintended consequences of empowering women” and “What your BOP strategy is missing: A gender lens”.

 

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