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©1996, Katharine Fletcher. Please contact the author for permission to reproduce this text in any form, electronic or otherwise. This text was first published in her “Environment Forum” column; The Equity, March 6, 1996.

Sex, Lies & Global Economics: International Women’s Week

Celebrate International Women’s Week by renting a copy of a thought-provoking 1995 National Film Board of Canada video. It is called: Who’s Counting: Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies & Global Economics.

Who is Marilyn Waring? She’s a rural New Zealand woman who decided, in 1975 at the age of 22, to run for office in Parliament. She campaigned successfully from one farm to another and, perhaps to her surprise but no-one else’s, she was elected. Her irreverent, common-sense approach to demystifying the political process as well as global economics led her to be re-elected twice.

Gloria Steinem, well-known feminist says: “Meeting Marilyn Waring on film will forever change your perceptions of justice, economics, and the worth of your own work. Watch this film.”

Why should you care what Marilyn Waring has to say? Because as David Suzuki says, she “penetrates to the heart of the global, ecological and social crisis that afflicts the world”.

Waring demystifies our global system of economics. For any of you who have wondered just what the gross domestic product truly is —and how it is measured —this tape not only informs you, but also gives you insight into exactly what it is not.

Waring explains that the GDP was a system of accounting created by the British for the World War II war effort, to quantify the monetary value of work. As Steinem explains: “There was thought only of winning [the war], not of accounting for the human or ecological costs of war ” (p. 233, Steinem, Moving Beyond Words). Unfortunately, this system became the foundation of the United Nations System of National Accounts: the way work throughout the world is evaluated. It has become the measure against which the United Nations assesses whether developing countries are admitted into its midst, and how such countries are assessed in terms of readiness for funding by the World Bank.

How does this affect us? Because it forms the basis of how global economics functions, GDP affects each and every one of us, especially women.

It will be of no surprise to feminists —or to anyone who seriously questions how society values work —that housework, still typically performed by women, is given zero monetary value. Struggle as we might with this debilitating fact, women still do most of the work around the home. And society still places no monetary value on this work.

One significant effect is the loss of self-worth to women. In developed countries such as ours, society still teaches women that we are only worthwhile if we have a profession. Supposedly, the more degrees we have after our names, the greater our “status” and credibility is. You can comprehend where that places the stay-at-home-mother, for example. Even though she has the most critical job on the planet, that of raising our future members of society, her economic worth is zero. With today’s economic uncertainties, families need the income that women can earn. Thus, women leave the non-paying, low/no-status motherhood and housekeeping professions, choosing income-generating jobs instead.

Waring suggests that women (or men, for that matter) should “sabotage” their census forms when filling in the section describing their work. She advises against using any title that uses the words “home” or “house” in it, rather charmingly suggesting that we “be creative”.

Another disturbing facet of the GDP and global economics is illuminated when Waring reveals that in international accounting, there’s no such thing as a debit column. Her stunning example is the oil spill created by the Exxon Valdez. What most environmentalists consider to be an environmental disaster of enormous proportions is actually deemed to contribute to the economy using the GDP measurement system!

How can this be? The spill was a positive contributor to the GDP in terms of job creation and spending! The tanker was replaced and the cleanup became an economic boon to disaster-response industries. Unfortunately, the GDP was not designed to measure losses to society such as environmental degradation, species and habitat loss.

Thought-provoking? You bet. Waring also discusses how environmental groups (just like women) are at a distinct disadvantage because, using GDP as the scale, there is no realistic way of quantifying the economic benefits of natural habitats to society. I’ve often written about this in terms of how to quantify intrinsic worth of a habitat, for example. We feel the effects of this here in the Pontiac: How can the Friends of the Pontiac’s Rivers define the worth of the Black River, for example?

Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer and journalist living near Quyon [Québec, Canada]. Her Internet address is: chesley@netcom.ca. Katharine is the author of Historical Walks: The Gatineau Park Story (1988, Chesley House Publications) and Capital Walks: Walking Tours of Ottawa (1993, McClelland & Stewart). She has written a weekly column on the environment for The Equity, of Shawville, Quebec, Canada, for 6 ½ years, and is frequently published in magazines such as Harrowsmith Country Life, This Country Canada, and Earthkeeper. She is a member of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada and The Writers Union of Canada.

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