Echoing the famous feminist mantra ‘one is not born, but rather becomes a woman’ this article argues in a similar vein that ‘one is not born (un)productive, but rather becomes so’, to highlight the socially constructed and highly gendered dimension of this core economic concept of productivity.
The beginning of a new year is the time when many of us make promises to become our better selves. The seasonal bookstore section hints at a common injunction: the aspiration to constantly boost our personal productivity. Whilst most new resolutions have good chances of remaining wishful thinking, the very notion of productivity is not free from controversy.
Beyond its often-misleading focus on the sole individual responsibility, it raises serious questions of sustainability in the face of today’s major societal challenges. From the climate emergency to the health, humanitarian and cost-of-living crises, these shocks, with all their adverse impacts, have simultaneously exposed the fragility of human existence. Moreover, these co-existing crises are highly gendered due to pre-existing systemic inequalities. This highlights the injustices behind our current scale of determining what and who can be considered as ‘productive’.
Whose productivity do we measure?
The ubiquitous concept of ‘productivity’ might appear rather straightforward at first sight. But the closer we look at it, the more complex it becomes. In general terms, it refers to “the rate at which a person, company, or country does useful work”. The OEDC defines it as “the ratio between the volume of output and the volume of input(s) [to measure] how efficiently production inputs, such as labour and capital, are being used in an economy to produce a given level of output”. It can thus serve both as a thermometer of individual performance and of national economic growth based on internationally comparable indicators, such as the gross domestic product (GDP).
Caroline Criado Perez holds that this standard measure has a serious “woman problem”. It is well past the time to ponder the present-day legitimacy of a concept crafted for the foregone needs of a post-WWII era. With the rise of the service economy, assessing the worth it creates outside the industrialised, market-based context, can be a rather tedious task: how do we measure the value of our time spent on writing emails, cleaning up our homes, caring for our elderly relatives or looking after a child? In Perez’ view, we live in a world largely built by and for men, which systematically ignores half the population. As a result, the work traditionally done by women simply does not count.
Amongst its many blind spots, GDP namely suffers a major bias: the exclusion of unpaid household services. Likewise, (poorly-paid) service sectors are still dominated by women who are overrepresented in activities for households (88 per cent), health and social work (78 per cent), education (72 per cent) and other service activities (64 per cent). Many forms of face-to-face services, typically care work, are hardly compatible with the logic of increasing productivity. Moreover, productivity disregards a range of constitutive factors contributing to the real value of such services: trust, attentiveness, responsibility, competence, responsiveness and quality.
Is productivity antifeminist?
The concept is certainly far from neutral. This seemingly universal tool used to measure labour performance ignores the reality of women faced with a set of structural barriers: part-time work, interrupted career paths, sectoral gender segregation, under-/unemployment, stereotypes and discrimination. This preoccupation has constituted a central tenet of early feminist research since the 1970s. A flourishing set of feminist literature has also emerged in recent years to shed light on what is now solid evidence: the hidden costs of productivity and the larger share born by subaltern groups, not only from a gender but also from an age, race or class perspective.
Identifying patriarchy as the very source of women’s unequal position in society, materialist feminists – such as Christine Delphy or Simone de Beauvoir, to cite just a few – framed gender as a social construct whereby society imposes gender roles, forcing women into domestic work. Silvia Federici, in turn, denounced the way modern societies neglect reproductive labour as not only unjust but also unsustainable. This term, coined in contrast to productive labour, indicates “all the work that we do that is sustaining“. Being productive thus rests on a set of surrounding preconditions: being well-fed, clean, safe and healthy. It is work done over and over again. Asking “who cooked Adam Smith’s dinner?”, Katrine Marçal cunningly interrogated the ability of the father of modern economics to elaborate his ‘invisible hand’ theory, hadn’t it been for his mother’s ‘invisible heart’ taking care of her son? Similarly, care ethicist Joan Tronto recalls that it is merely due to a specific constellation of caring relationships and welfare if some people may have a sense of autonomy. Thus each ‘productive’ hour of work requires a certain amount of unpaid or poorly paid work. This is what Laetitia Vitaud terms the “hidden part of the productivity iceberg”.
Moreover, promoting the individualisation of productivity overshadows collective merit. Women shine less by their ‘productivity’, because the thankless tasks rest largely on their shoulders whilst men thrive in their individuality. At home, the reducing gender employment gap has hardly resulted in an erosion of traditional gender norms. Whilst data suggest that Europeans support feminist values, the actual behaviours point to the contrary. While men spend, on the EU average, close to 15 hours of unpaid work, for women, it is 30 hours. Even if men engage in paid work to greater extents, women have longer total working weeks when cumulating paid and unpaid work. The resulting unpaid care penalty is estimated to amount €242 billion per year. At work, the distribution of work mirrors similar patterns: most of the non-promotable work ends up on women’s laps (social activities for example, or meeting minutes, logistical work, preparing coffee, etc). The fact that these tasks are important is undeniable, but their unequal distribution is problematic.
Towards a substantive vision of equality
Instead of taking the ‘male standard‘ of productivity for granted, a fairer distribution of resources and opportunities calls for a profound deconstruction of the inequality gaps behind this sexist concept. Rather than solely placing monetary value on the production of goods, a new and more sustainable paradigm would cherish “everything we do to maintain, continue, and repair our world so that we may live in it as well as possible” as a central societal concern. Overcoming the Aristotelian principle of ‘likes should be treated alike’, it also supposes the quest for a more egalitarian social contract rooted in substantive equality. This implies a four-dimensional transformative approach focused on breaking the cycle of disadvantage through redistribution, ensuring human dignity, accommodating difference through social transformation and achieving structural change through social inclusion. The quest for such an approach finds a particular resonance in the face of the growing (yet piecemeal) engagement of EU law with care(rs). Future efforts in this regard need to rebalance the relationship between paid and unpaid work to foster wellbeing through the further enhancement of work-life-balance and the actionable valorisation of care work. To date, economic and fiscal policies remain blind to this gap. The EU’s recovery plans, where marginal attention is devoted to improving the accessibility of care infrastructures and working conditions of (un)paid care workers, best exemplifies the failure to take this urgent need more seriously. In order to re-value social ties and to eliminate stigma around work(ers) traditionally perceived as unproductive, a good resolution to pursue might thus be to first learn to see productivity with feminist glasses.
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