Austerity seemed to end in 2020 as governments around the world spent unprecedented amounts of public money to address the Covid-19 pandemic. So why ask now whether austerity is gendered?
There are three key reasons. First, the cuts in health and social services during the preceding era of austerity meant that societies were ill prepared to face a pandemic. Second, when the immediate health crisis passes, austerity is likely to return in order to pay back the huge public debts incurred and, if so, it will have all the gendered and discriminatory impacts outlined in this book. Third, and even more importantly, as societies attempt to rebuild after this crisis, it is crucial to do so in more equitable, inclusive and sustainable ways.
Austerity appears to be an abstract, gender-neutral economic policy, but in practice it is gendered in two distinctive ways. First, women and men play different roles in the economy and in the home, and therefore are affected differently by economic and social policies. Second, austerity policies reflect a particular kind of masculinised free market thinking that prioritises the health of ‘the economy’ over and above social wellbeing and, perhaps not unwittingly, serves the interests of high-income elites.
So, austerity is gendered not only because the outcomes of policies are unequal and tend to disadvantage women disproportionately, but also because the economic thinking that underpins austerity is profoundly gendered.
Gender is differentiated by social class, age, race, ethnicity, citizenship status, (dis)ability, sexuality and other markers of social distinction and disadvantage which, together with geographical location and state policies, make the experience of austerity very different depending on who you are, where you are and what you do. Some of these differences are highlighted by drawing on examples from different geographical locations and by reporting on how experiences differ between different groups of women and men depending on social class and race. What becomes clear, however, is that, while the way in which austerity is gendered is variable and contingent, the fact that austerity is gendered is not.
Specifically, austerity is gendered because it creates a triple jeopardy for women. As international data shows, women in comparison to men lose more jobs, more social protection and more services. These services include those relating to gender-based violence which doubled in many countries during the lockdowns.
While there is much talk of building back better and some talk of building back fairer there is a real risk that societies will return to ‘normal’. For most people ‘normal’ means a society with high levels of insecurity and inequality, a crisis of care and an imminent existential threat caused by the failure to take global warming seriously.
This book shows how unjust and gendered austerity is, why policymakers fail to notice or take account of these injustices and outlines some of the alternatives to austerity that are much more likely to resolve the problems austerity is designed to address and more likely to lead to equitable and sustainable outcomes.
At present there is a momentum for change, a readiness to invest in public services and in the people who work in them, a desire to ensure that key workers are rewarded in ways that reflect their importance to sustaining life, a sense of need to address gendered and racial inequalities, and a will to take measures so that global pandemics do not return, environmental disasters do not follow, and the world is made safer for everyone.
There is no shortage of ideas about how to build a better future, so it is crucial that progressive academics find ways of brainstorming with activists to make the arguments for alternatives policies better known to politicians, international institutions, and the wider population. That way it will be possible to build consensus, or at least a majority support, for some of the very credible alternatives to austerity with more inclusive, sustainable and gender equitable outcomes.
Diane Perrons is Professor Emerita in Feminist Political Economy in the Department of Gender Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her latest book, Is Austerity Gendered?, is available now from Polity.