It’s time to talk about a new social contract—one that women desperately need.
The call for a new paradigm, a social contract superceding the neoliberal ‘Washington consensus’, is becoming a trend in global thinking, taking in the G7. The most far-reaching implication of the ‘Cornwall consensus’—as it was labelled after the group’s summit in Britain in June—would be a revitalisation of the state’s economic role to pursue social goals, build international solidarity and reform global governance in the interest of the common good.
The economist Mariana Mazzucato is one of the main voices calling for a radically different approach to international economic governance. Yet she rightly emphasises that this is not only about increasing public spending:
Marshalling more money is not enough: how that money is spent is equally important. Public investment must be channelled through new contractual and institutional mechanisms that measure and incentivise the creation of long-term public value rather than short-term private profit.
Many feminist theorists would argue that the empowerment of women and gender responsiveness is the most relevant ‘long-term public value’ in the new social contract we need. Even the most revolutionary transformations of modern times, from the enlightenment through to the welfare state, were conceived by and intended for men and their wellbeing. Women were basically ignored and subordinated, their rights denied.
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Articulating and evidencing the structural and multidimensional discrimination against women, and so putting it on the political agenda, was a milestone for feminist political theory and activism. As a result, over the past quarter century—since the Beijing Platform for Action of 1995—historic changes have been set in motion in the lives of girls and women around the world. Feminist thinking now permeates institutions, policies and norms.
Yet we remain far away from where women need to be if they are fully to contribute to, and benefit from, the system. The new social contract needs to comprehend and integrate what works for women and what they need.
Only nine years are left to attain the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. A predominant idea in this agenda is that women’s empowerment and equality between men and women is not only a specific goal (number five). It is also a transformative tool, to renovate the social norms which maintain the symbolic, cultural, political and economic discrimination against women. But as the Covid-19 crisis has shown—and the 2008 financial crisis before that—the political and intellectual discourse in favour of women’s empowerment is in contradiction with pervasively neoliberal governance practice.
Devastating for women
Indeed, as Wendy Brown argues, neoliberalism has become ‘the rationality of a governance present in every human act that redefines democracy’. It has accommodated the feminisation of the labour market and access of women to public and political life. But it has not been able to factor in the non-remunerative care economy and the lack of freedom and security for women—and what this means for girls and women in every act of their lives. This has left the social system at a crossroads.
In her recent book, Gender Inequality and Welfare States in Europe, Mary Daly contends that the impact of the attenuation of the welfare state associated with austerity—less redistribution towards services and benefits—has been far more devastating for women than is generally realised, even though it has occurred at the same time as these same women have been formally gaining access to more rights. She argues that ‘the goal of gender equality has been an elusive one, not just because of political opposition but also due to a lack of clarity in how to best frame equality and take account of family-related considerations’.
In its Global Gender Gap 2021 report, the World Economic Forum records that the pandemic has reversed global progress in achieving gender equality. In July 2020, McKinsey had revealed that women across the world were nearly twice as likely as men to lose their jobs with the pandemic, linked to their disproportionate care burden. Women are worse off due to multiple gender gaps and in reality their day-to-day lives are far from equal to those of men.
Feminists would in this context mainly attack the system over its lack of legitimacy and social justice. But for neoliberalism the only argument that counts is ‘efficiency’: McKinsey estimates the potential consequence of the female economic participation thereby denied as $1 trillion subtracted from global economic growth over this decade.
This is the crossroads: neoliberal governance meets a political discourse on women’s empowerment about which, deep down, it doesn’t care. The norms and social goals of the rationality that governs us are still male-driven. But ignoring what works for women’s empowerment is now seen to be having damaging economic results.
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New social contract
It is imperative that the new social contract embodying the emerging economic, political and cultural paradigm is built, conceptually and in practice, with a clear understanding of the reality of women worldwide. For once, women’s social citizenship must be embraced. This means overcoming the public/private—male/female dichotomy and addressing as a global emergency public spending, including through public-private partnerships. The goal would be to ensure co-responsibility in the use of time, in caring and domestic tasks.
The ‘Cornwall consensus’ provides us with a glimpse, in governance terms, of an associated ‘gender-parity democracy’, which must be founded on three principles. Of course two are freedom and equality, but freedom must also mean freedom from gender-based harassment and violence, and equality must mean substantive gender equality, with men and women having the same conditions and opportunities to develop their personal and professional lives—which necessarily implies the masculinisation of care.
The third principle is both an objective and a tool to achieve substantive gender equality and freedom. It is gender parity—equal voice and influence in decision-making. Take Latin America as a case in point.
My book, Gender Parity Democracy in Latin America, analyses the determinants of the broad mobilisation towards gender-parity democracy in the region in the past 25 years. There is now an opportunity to remove neoliberalism from Latin American governance and convince social and political actors that a new social contract which is in synergy with the gender agenda is possible and necessary.
The Montevideo Regional Strategy for the implementation of the 2030 agenda requires a new governance model with strong state intervention, partnering with the private sector. With the pandemic, this has become more compelling and a pressing task.
A new Latin American double ‘pink tide’—of governments that defend a social agenda but also one of women’s empowerment—could provide a glimpse of a profound transformation, incorporating gender parity and substantive equality in the political vision of parity democracy. The constitutional process under way in Chile will be a test case.
Irune Aguirrezabal Quijera is a senior legal, policy and strategic international professional on global affairs and matters related to sustainable development. A former United Nations civil servant, she has worked in senior positions in governments and civil-society organisations, in Europe, Africa and Latin America. She has a PhD in multidisciplinary gender studies.