Global Economics as Feminist Art

Economics tends to make a lot of people I know feel stupid. My circle is largely comprised of activists, artists and writers, with a few political scientists in the mix. Generally speaking, gender stereotypes about women in mathematics aside, we’re not supposed to be very good with numbers. But because a lot of us care about how poverty harms women and children (not to mention how many of us grew up and/or remain working class or poor), we do our best to slog through statistical data and difficult government publications to better inform ourselves about the impact of low-wage and unpaid work, cyclical poverty and gender disparities on women’s work and advancement.

Every once in a while, studying gendered economics can actually be a pleasantly informative experience–and even visually stimulating. Take the Economica exhibit currently on display in the International Museum of Women (IMW). An online gallery with a physical office in San Francisco, the organization has put together some truly impressive collections of interdisciplinary work. Their current collection, devoted to women’s place in the global economy, is no exception.

While the exhibit offers an essay on working mothers in the U.S. by Karenna Gore Schiff, and podcasts by the likes of Nicholas Kristof and Kiva co-founder Jessica Jackley, what really stand out are the thought pieces about how women’s work can become (and is becoming) more greatly valued in both economic and social spheres.

Women for Women International founder Zainab Salbi (pictured above) writes that while women benefit greatly from microfinance programs, gender equity is ultimately linked to women’s ability to function on the macroeconomic level. Offering tangible solutions to the problem of women’s exclusion from equal-salaried jobs and prominent private sector work, Salbi suggests that government ministries engage in “gender budgeting,” making gender a priority both in terms of tracking programs that benefit women and girls, as well as making an effort to better fund gender-based programs and services.

Focusing on the less text-heavy artistic side of the exhibit, under the Business Leadership theme, Hazel Thompson’s photographs of businesswomen in the Arab world help alter the way many think of women as oppressed in the Middle East and North Africa. Focusing on Qatar, Thompson notes in her slideshow that women in the Persian Gulf emirate are able to vote, hold public office, drive and own their own businesses. As a result of their economic freedom, gender relations are slowly shifting in the country. Since many Qatari families are extremely wealthy, it isn’t considered necessary for women to work, and yet, according to a recent study released by the Qatar Statistics Authority, 36 percent do. While gender equity in Qatar may be linked to the impossible wealth of the nation, it’s important to remember that nations like Saudi Arabia are in the same wealth bracket but markedly different with it comes to acknowledging and accepting women’s liberation (see the new issue of Ms. for an update on Saudi women).

One of the most radical approaches to rethinking women’s economic freedom comes from Soul of Money Institute founder Lynne Twist. Pushing back against the scarcity mindset that we are not enough and never have enough, Twist challenges privileged people to reconsider how much we truly need. Instead of feeling fearful and empty because we lack money, things, or power, she points out that there are women around the globe who live with very little and happily thrive while doing so.

Perhaps most important for an online exhibition, the IMW’s Honor Women Around the World map allows you to interact with the exhibition and honor a woman who has greatly impacted your life.

Economica will expand to another region-specific project, Focusing on Latin America, later this fall. And look for the IMW’s new exhibit, Young Women Speaking the Economy–featuring global contributions from Denmark, the Philippines, Sudan and the U.S.–in Spring 2011.

Photo “Zainab Salbi” by United States Government, under Creative Commons 3.0.

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