Rethinking in the social sciences

By Zubeida Mustafa

One positive result of the growth of consciousness of the women’s role in society has been that some rethinking is now taking place in the social sciences.

Economics, the most male-oriented of disciplines, specially finds itself outpaced by the changes in the status of women. While previously economists never took gender into account in formulating yardsticks and definitions to measure and explain various concepts and computing statistics, they are now being forced to take note of women’s contribution to economic and social activity.

Until now the criteria were set by male performance. Women had to fit into that conceptual framework, if they wanted to be counted. Admittedly, no tangible changes have as yet been incorporated in economic concepts in recognition of the role of women. But economists have at least begun to acknowledge that women’s contributions and their problems have been ignored by this branch of science.

Take the case of housework. This is basically performed by women and is the mainstay of the hidden support system which allows the economy to function efficiently. Yet it has traditionally not found mention in national accounts. The women who toil for hours at housework are not even counted as workers.

That is because GNP is conventionally computed by calculating the value of the sum of goods and services exchanged for money. Since the work done in the home by the female family members is not paid for it is excluded from the GNP. Workers are considered to be those who receive wages. Hence unpaid women workers do not qualify for inclusion in the organised labour force.

It was during the International Women’s Decade that the demand for a change in the definition of these terms was first voiced collectively. Thus the UN Decade Programme of Action prepared for the mid-decade Copenhagen conference asked member States to redefine the term ‘worker’ in accordance with the ILO standard definition of labour force participation so that the contribution of the unpaid work that women do in the farms, at home and in other fields can be recognised and reflected in the GNP

Although ten years later this demand has yet to be met, economists have begun to take note of it. John Kenneth Galbraith has stated that women’s household work in the United States would, if counted, amount to as much as 24 per cent of the US GNP. Another social scientist, Dr David Gil, is of the view that childbearing and child-rearing are not merely private and familial functions but also have societal implications. They assure the survival and continuation of society. Hence efforts invested in child-rearing should be considered part of the GNP.

Another area in which experts have displayed pronounced indifference towards women’s role is that of dependency ratio. Used as a simple and rough indicator of the relative size of the non-working age and working age population, this ratio uses age as the only criterion irrespective of the sex of the population.

The term is used to indicate the number of persons who are in the “dependent ages” (under 15 years and over 65 years) for every 100 persons in the “active ages” in a population. This information is used in planning old age pensions, child benefits and other social security spending which are linked to the age structure of the population.

But the dependency ratio has a direct bearing on women even though it is not calculated in the context of the role of women. It is the woman who primarily takes care of the young and the elderly. When the dependency ratio rises, the burden on women increases and this affects their capacity to work as members of the organised labour force — as it is conventionally defined. Hence economists have now developed a new concept. This is called the female dependency caring ratio. Presuming the worst case scenario in which women do all the caring for the young and the old, this indicates the number of persons who are in the dependent ages for every 100 women in the active ages. This can be adjusted to show the female caring dependency ratio for the young and the aging.

The given table shows how the introduction of the gender factor can change the entire outlook: The caring dependencey ratio is directly affected by fertility rates and life expectancy. It should be calculated to determine the situation of women and the limitations they face in contributing to what is conventionally taken to be economic activity The table also highlights the worse state of women in Pakistan. The caring dependency ratio is much higher here than the Third World average.

Until economists redefine terms and concepts keeping women in view and development planning takes note of the gender factor, economics will continue to be a patriarchal science. It certainly would do with some modifications determined by the feminist demands.

Source: Dawn 30 March 1990

The following table shows how the introduction of the gender factor can change the entire outlook:


Source: Dawn 30 March 1990