Women’s contribution to economic growth

Women's contribution to economic growth - 1

The French economist Alfred Sauvy highlighted a shift in workforce throughout the three sectors of the economy; there is now more workforce in the service sector – the tertiary sector – than in the primary and manufacturing ones, as technical progress increased each sector’s productivity. It seems that women have benefited from these economic-related society’s transformations since they have become wage-earners in the 1960’s in developed countries. By earning wages, their work started to be taken into account when calculating the GDP; they became recognised contributors to their country’s economic growth. We might wonder then, what was women’s contribution to economic growth before, and how has it evolved?

Historical retrospective of women’s contribution to the domestic production 

The gross domestic product – GDP – began to be used as an economic indicator in the 1930s, thanks to the American economist and statistician Simon Kuznets. GDP can be expressed as the sum of all companies’ gross value added in a country. The first usual way to measure economic growth is in terms of production. Before establishing a national accountability system, census, which recorded the working population, could give an assessment of women’s contribution to the domestic product. In the XIXth century, women contributed to the national product by working in farms, as domestics, or in factories, for instance in textile manufactures. According to the historian Sylvia Schweitzer, women have always worked: they have never represented less than a third of the workforce. However, they were not considered as contributors to the economic growth, as they did not receive any salary. Indeed, the second way to assess the GDP is in terms of distribution, that is to say, by looking at the share of the value added. After the industrial revolution, the value added  essentially stemmed from the production coming from the manufacturing sector. During the XXth century, women have progressively been evicted from factories due to gender stereotypes. Until the end of the XXth century, the labour force was overwhelmingly male. One exception is the First World War, when women have been essential to the industrial production, by working in factories while their husbands were on the battlefield. Still, their ability to be employed was again denied after the war, even though some women wanted to keep working. Indeed, in France for instance, Vichy’s Government blamed women for dispossessing men of their job and for imperilling the national demography. Furthermore, in the same country, women were not able to work without their husband’s permission until 1965. The “Thirty Glorious Years” following World War II were, according to the French economist Jean Fourastié, a turning point. Women have gradually integrated the income earning sphere, and most of them worked as employees. Nowadays, according to the OCDE’s statistics, on average in Europe, the tertiary sector accounts for 70% of the value added; and in France, according to INSEE’s statistics, women make up 55,8% of the service industry. 

The impact of women’s consumption on economic growth

If the economic situation of a country is correlated with the domestic supply, it is also affected by people’s consumption. Indeed, in a Keynesian approach, companies produce only if they foresee demand of their goods and services, which means that economic growth depends on demand. Then, the consumer society, that has dawned in the XXth century, partly explains the average 5% growth in developed countries during the “Thirty Glorious Years.” In this consumer society, it is the housewife who is targeted by advertising. For instance, typical goods which emerged during that century are household equipment, first in the United States, and then in western Europe. Even though the women were the ones targeted, at first, it is their husbands’ wages which was used to buy these goods, and which, in the end, contributed to economic growth. Afterwards, with women integrating the salary society and earning wages, the number of consumers doubled, which had a positive impact on growth according to the Keynesian multiplier effect.


Endogenous growth theories

However, new theories of growth emerged in the 1960s. For instance, endogenous growth theories hold that knowledge, human capital and skills play a major role in economic growth. According to the American economist Gary Becker, “economists regard expenditures on education, training, medical care, and so on as investments in human capital.” Indeed, both Theodore W. Schulz, an American economist, and Gary Becker, highlighted that human capital favours people’s productivity and in the end increases the GDP. Following these theories, women have an important contribution to growth. In fact, the social scientists Christian Baudelot and Georges Establet highlighted that nowadays on average mothers spend ten hours per week helping their children doing their homework, while their husbands only spend four hours per week for the same task. Moreover, women are also more numerous to work in the medical care.

Is GDP the best economic indicator to measure women’s contribution to the national product?

Women's contribution to economic growth 2

Finally, there are three usual ways of assessing the GDP and its contributors: in terms of supply, according to the share of the value added, or by accounting for the demand. However, GDP may not be the best economic indicator to measure women’s contribution to economic growth. Indeed, while the output for one’s own final use is posted, the GDP still does not take into account the domestic labour. According to the Eurostat definition, “output for own final use consists of goods or services that are retained for their own final use by the owners of the enterprises in which they are produced,” for instance paid domestic services. It explains the following economist’s joke: “the GDP will decrease if you marry your cleaning lady,” as her labour will no more be accounted in the GDP. According to Christine Delphy, a pioneer of the materialist feminism movement, this represents an invisibilisation and an exploitation of women’s work. To conclude, if the domestic labour was paid and posted in the GDP in France, according to the INSEE, in 2012, it would represent 33% of the GDP, and 64% of the domestic labour was done by women. As a consequence, women are more likely to work part-time than men, and they officially contribute less to economic growth. GDP is even less reliable to assess women’s contribution to economic growth in some developing countries where domestic labour done by women is all the more significant. 

by Hélène Lechêne

References :

  • Baudelot, Establet, Christian, Georges. Quoi de neuf chez les filles ? Entre stéréotypes et libertés, Nathan, coll. « L’enfance en questions », 2007.
  • Becker, Gary. Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis with Special Reference to Education The University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  • Emploi par activité, OCDE https://data.oecd.org/fr/emp/emploi-par-activite.htm 
  • Marchand, Olivier. 50 ans de mutation de l’emploi, INSEE Première, no. 1312, 09-29-2010 https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/1283207 
  • Maruani, Meron, Margaret, Monique. Un siècle de travail des femmes en France. 1901-2011, La découverte, 2012.
  • Kuznets, Simon. “National Income, 1929-35”, report to the U.S. Congress. 1937
  • Roy, Delphine. Le travail domestique : 60 milliards d’heures en 2010, INSEE première, no. 1423, 11-22-2012 https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/2123967 
  • Sauvy, Alfred. La machine et le chômage, DUNOD, 1980.
  • Schultz, Theodore William. Investment in man: an Economist’s view. Social Service Review, vol.33, 1959.
  • Schweitzer, Sylvie. Les femmes ont toujours travaillé. Une histoire du travail des femmes aux XIXe et XXe siècles, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2002.
  • Tableaux de l’Économie Française, INSEE, 2016 https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/1906677?sommaire=1906743