From Global governance to domestic policies, they keep “missing women”

From Global governance to domestic policies, they keep “missing women”

The phrase “missing women” was dubbed by Amartya Sen (2010) in his seminal piece “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing,” where he uses the term to illustrate a demographic abnormality—the deficit of women—found in certain parts of the world.

Amartya Sen demonstrates that although women are normally expected to outnumber men by a ratio of approximately 1.05 to 1, they in fact suffer from unequal access to medical care, food and social services. Thus, fewer women survive. Estimating what the size of the female population would be if these inequalities did not exist and 1.05:1 ratio prevailed globally, he concludes that the world population is short of more than 100 million women.

Certainly, the demographic statistics are not the only milieu from which women are missing. The matrix of international economic governance (institutions, policies, actors, etc.) constitutes arguably the most crucial one, given the strength with which it shapes the economic landscape and the lives of peoples globally. Indeed, the gender-blindness that marks the amalgam of international economic governance has been subjected to fierce criticism, not least by feminist economists. This, coupled with Turkey’s newly acquired presidency of an institution emerging to be increasingly influential within this arena, namely The Group of 20 (G20), makes it timely, if not urgent, to evaluate the G20’s economic agenda from a gendered perspective.

The Group of 20 (G20) was created to tackle the challenges confronting the world economy primarily by reforming global economic institutions to reduce instability and prevent future financial crises.1 The timing of its self-declaration as the “premier global economic forum” in September 2009 is quite telling in this sense, as it locates the G20’s expanded role squarely as a response to the 2008 financial crisis. Within this context, the G20 has committed itself to a goal of shared and inclusive growth, and advocates a series of policy positions to this end. In contrast to the relative novelty of its prominence, G20’s approach to economic policy and governance is hardly original. It advocates responsible monetary policy, strong financial regulation and supervision, improved balance of payments, open trade and investment, price stability and liberal exchange regimes: old wine in new bottles.

The G20 also emphasizes the need for economic development to reduce poverty and narrow inequalities between countries, and that growth should be shared, inclusive, and sustainable (Heintz, 2013). It seems to lag behind, however, in acknowledging that gender is a fundamental dimension to be considered for this emphasis to go beyond lip service: gender equality is recognized in official documents only as late as 2012. Given that its policy stance holds critical implications for gender justice, scrutinizing the G20 from a gender perspective is crucial, especially under the light of its unfolding role and importance in terms of structuring the future of world economies.

Six policy areas for balanced growth

Heintz’s (2013) compact yet comprehensive review identifies six policy areas of the G20’s “Framework for Strong, Sustainable, and Balanced Growth” (and subsequent elaborations on it) that merit particular attention in terms of gender-specific impacts: fiscal policy, monetary policy, international financial flows and the balance of payments, financial policies, international trade, and social protection and employment policy. Indeed, all six are fields in which feminist economists have produced substantial work over the years to reveal the fields’ gender biases. The fundamental premise of this line of work is that economic policy is rarely gender-neutral: as gender signifies a differentiation in terms of access to skills and education, opportunities of employment, domains of work shaped by social norms, command over assets, etc., as well as an axis of power, economic dynamics mean different processes and outcomes for men and women. For instance, the fact that women are typically over-represented in certain occupations implies that policies that have distinct effects on particular sectors will have gendered-impacts. Similarly, women’s responsibilities of unpaid household work often translate into less labor market experience and lower earnings, on the one hand, and intensified labor burden on women, on the other, when they take up paid jobs in the labor market.

The present article is not intended to engage in a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of the G20’s macroeconomic governance and economic policy agenda from a gender perspective (see, for instance, Heintz, 2013 for a more detailed evaluation). Rather, it aims at synthesizing the gender-biased dynamics implied by different policy suggestions emanating from the G20, and concretizing them within the context of Turkey. The article focuses on two arenas in particular, women’s participation in paid employment and unpaid household production/care work, to delineate potential gendered effects.2 In this sense, the article will inevitably present a partial picture, albeit hopefully an illuminating one.

Women’s paid work: Dynamics of vulnerability

The policies that the G20 endorses within the framework mentioned above have a number of important implications for both the level and nature of women’s participation in paid employment. To start with, the G20’s stance in terms of fiscal policy prioritizes cutting public expenditures in order to reduce government borrowing, as opposed to the alternative of strengthening efforts to raise tax revenues. Although the G20 framework does not explicitly specify the strategies to accomplish this, a well-known method to lower public spending is (and has been) to reduce the size of the public sector by privatizations.

Given that the public sector is a primary site of female employment in many countries including Turkey, where overall low levels of female labor force participation is concentrated in the public sector, shrinking the public sector would imply a disproportionate effect on women compared to men in terms of employment opportunities (Çağatay, 2003); with a smaller public sector, the availability of the types of jobs that women are more inclined to hold would suffer.

Loss of employment by the public sector’s contraction is likely to be gender-biased as well: it is often the case that women are laid off before and faster than men when public enterprises are downsizing. In fact, in a case study of the controversial privatization of the State Monopoly of Tobacco, Cigarettes and Alcoholic Beverages, (TEKEL), Günlük-Şenesen and Akduran (2007) demonstrate that more than 70% of female laborers were laid off, as opposed to 43% of male laborers during the process the downsizing of the company between 1987-2003. In addition, privatization would have gendered effects in terms of labor compensation, since women tend to get higher wages in public sector jobs than in private sector ones, while men get higher wages in the private sector in Turkey (Tansel, 2005). It follows that when released from public sector jobs and forced to seek employment in the private sector, women would generally have to face lower labor compensation than before, while men would benefit from higher wages.

The G20’s stance on international trade and balance of payments is another major arena that carries important implications for women’s labor force participation. The G20 framework, in addition to endorsing open trade and investment flows, underlines the need for balancing current accounts internationally to strengthen global stability and advises countries to increase trade competitiveness. For countries that have been running current account deficits consistently (like Turkey), the emphasis on the rebalancing of current accounts implies expanding export capacity. This, coupled with the call to increase export competitiveness, would have critical implications in a context like Turkey, where the existing export capacity depends fundamentally on labor-intensive sectors such as food processing and textiles, and trade competitiveness is often acquired through lowering labor costs.3

It has been well-documented that export-oriented strategies usually leads to feminization of the labor force in export sectors that involve low-skill, labor-intensive, standardized, repetitious, monotonous tasks, especially in developing country contexts (Elson and Pearson, 1981; Çağatay and Özler, 1995; Joekes, 1995; Standing, 1989). This is mainly because female labor is seen as constituting a competitive advantage due to its lower costs, supposed docility, controllability and easy manipulation stemming from the social and economic subordination of women. While an overall surge of female labor force participation did not quite happen in Turkey during the export-led development phase of late 1980s and 1990s (İlkkaracan, 2012; Başlevent and Onaran, 2004; Dedeoğlu, 2010), women’s paid work was nevertheless concentrated in exporting sectors such as food processing and textiles. In fact, Turkey’s export competitiveness, especially in textiles and garments, has historically depended on the lower costs, informality and flexibility of women’s labor (Özay, 2011). Within this context, a number of studies have demonstrated that women’s home-based or informal work within the garment industry expanded with the growth of exports especially in the 1990s (see, for example, 1994; Ecevit, 1991; İlkkaracan, 2000; Özar, 2000).

Female labor is still largely concentrated in the export-oriented labor-intensive sectors in contemporary Turkey (Dedeoğlu, 2012). Given that export-led growth and feminization of labor force often go hand-in-hand with the use of flexible and precarious labor, efforts to increase competitiveness in these sectors are likely to lead to further pressure on wages, informalization and flexibilization, with serious implications for women’s labor. In fact, it has been noted that sectors such as garments and textiles are already relocating domestically to regions to take advantage of lower labor costs, such as the Eastern, Southeastern and Northeastern Anatolia, often with the help of state subsidies.4

On the other hand, strengthening the competitiveness of the “rising stars” of exports (such as transport vehicles, telecommunication devices, metal and petroleum products) is likely to depend on efficiency enhancement through technological renovation. Women often lack access to the necessary skills for employment in higher-technology production and these sectors are already dominated by disproportionate male labor. Given the absence of measures to address the gender skill-gap in Turkey, women and men would be differentially affected by the changing employment opportunities by such technological upgrade. Therefore, an overall technological change and a reorientation of export capacity towards these technology-intensive sectors (as attested by explicit strategies to shift investment from the labor- intensive traditional export sectors to this second group) might push women out of employment more rapidly than men.

Women from feminist movements, women`s organizations, labor and professional organizations, trade unions, students` organizations, migrants, LGBTI organizations, Kurdish movements, houseworkers gathered in Kadikoy, Istanbul to celebrate International Working Women`s Day. — Image Credits
Women’s unpaid work: Compensating vulnerability

As discussed above, G20 urges countries to reduce public spending in the name of fiscal consolidation. Within this context, the types of public expenditures that are targeted gain significance as men and women benefit differently from different categories of public spending. It has been demonstrated, for instance, that cutbacks particularly in social provisioning (e.g. health care, education, food and housing subsidies, etc.) affect women disproportionately (Çağatay, 2003; Çağatay et al., 2000; Elson & Çağatay, 2000). Since women are the primary providers of unpaid care and reproduction within the household, their work burden often increases in the face of cutbacks in services such as healthcare and education as they are forced to pick up the slack. Such reductions might mean that women will have to care for the sick and elderly inside the household when hospital stays are no longer funded by the state; or that they will have to devote more time to childcare when public nurseries are no longer available. Such an intensification of women’s unpaid labor burden might be of particular concern in a context like Turkey where the care regime is characterized with strongly-marked gender roles and women undertake a highly disproportionate amount of unpaid care work (İlkkaracan, 2012).5 Against this backdrop, it is almost certain that unpaid female work will be the primary source that would compensate a reduction in social provisioning by the state.

Similar dynamics of the intensification of women’s unpaid work has been observed within the context of economic crises. This is not only due to dynamics unleashed by typical cuts in public spending typical at times of crisis, but also because it is usually female labor that compensates for the loss of household income (Antonopoulos, 2009; Berik and Kongar, 2013; Seguino, 2010). During times of financial hardship and falling household income, women are often the ones who take up extra work in the paid sector and/or undertake unpaid home-production of goods and services previously purchased in the market. In a recent study of the impact of the 2008–09 crisis on work time in Turkey, Kaya Bahçe and Memiş (2013) find that there is a positive relationship between spouse’s unemployment risk and the time women devote to both paid and unpaid work activities, while men’s work time does not show a strong spousal influence as such.

The link between women’s (unpaid and paid) labor burden and economic downturns is of concern given the potential contractionary impacts restrictive monetary policy that the G20 advocates: low inflation target via high interest rates and contraction of credit demand by making borrowing more costly and/or reducing credit availability. As these measures are likely to weaken demand and halt growth, reduce job creation and lead to higher rates of unemployment, they might unleash dynamics similar to an economic crisis and can therefore have parallel effects on women’s work. In addition, despite the fact that the G20 made progress in identifying key areas of financial regulatory reform, implementation has generally fallen short and the vulnerability to economic crisis ensues globally.

En-gendering G20’s vision

In his review, Heintz (2013) rightly concludes that the G20 agenda fails to genuinely incorporate gender as a fundamental dimension of its vision of inclusive, shared and sustainable growth. In this regard, he points to a number of concrete recommendations, such as establishing a task force on gender equality and preparation of a toolkit on gender and economic policy to formalize and implement G20’s commitment to gender equality within its broader objective of realizing shared and inclusive growth; ensuring that gender equality is comprehensively reflected in the G20’s policy frameworks; incorporating gender equality into the G20 monitoring activities of international organizations; using existing gender equality indicators and developing new indicators to assess progress within the G20 and internationally; and initiating a process of consultation with key stakeholders on the ways in which the G20 can be held accountable for advancing gender equality.

It remains to be seen whether the Group of 20 will take decisive steps towards en-gendering its frameworks and the policies that stem from them. In any case, it is obvious that sustained, broad-based criticism and advocacy is needed to push the demands of gender justice into the G20 agenda. This is not because international institutions are somehow to be taken as the prioritized venues where decisive, progressive change can happen; but rather because the G20 is likely to become too significant to overlook too soon. Especially in contexts like Turkey which are marked with multi-layered gender inequality, e.g., a low female labor force participation rate, notable gender differences in income and asset distribution, and a disproportionate vulnerability to poverty, a rolling out of policies endorsed by the G20 can be expected to operate on, and reinforce, existing inequalities. Furthermore, the impacts of gender-biased macroeconomic dynamics are likely to be perpetuated by the increasing conservatism of the political discourse in Turkey that portrays women first and foremost as wives and mothers, rather than equal participants of the economic sphere. Given the critical implications it holds, intervening in the G20 agenda is an urgency, and not a luxury.



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1    From its first meeting in Berlin in 1999 (after a series of financial crises in East Asia, Russia and Latin America) to its current form, its membership shifted from finance ministries and central banks to the level of country leaders: today, it is comprised of 20 core members (representatives from 19 countries and the EU) and representation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, in addition to approximately five other countries and international organizations invited by the President of each summit.

2 The choice of these arenas does not reflect an attribution of hierarchical importance (relative to other arenas of women’s lives where the potential impacts of these policy suggestions would inevitably be realized); but they represent the spheres where the effects of macroeconomic policy would be more clearly observed.

3    Countries can also employ exchange rate policy as a strategy to increase export competitiveness. Keeping the value of the domestic currency (in terms of other currencies) artificially low makes exported goods cheap (in terms of other currencies) and thus more in demand in international markets. But since the G20 framework also advocates market-determined exchange rates, i.e. no government intervention in determining the value of the domestic currency in terms of other currencies, the only strategy considered here is lowering the costs of production.

4    Technological innovation can also lower costs and thus boost competitiveness, although it has generally failed to be a widely-adopted strategy by the primary export sectors in Turkey. On the other hand, it is usually women who lose employment opportunities when labor saving technologies are adopted. It has been reported that the adoption of new technologies in large and medium enterprises in textiles and food sectors leads to job losses by female workers, and especially the unskilled among them, while firms often continue to employ male workers (Ansal, 1998; Koray et al., 1999).

5    According to the results of the only official time use survey conducted in 2006, an average adult woman spends 5 hours and 17 minutes on household care, as opposed to the 51 minutes spent by an average adult man (İlkkaracan, 2012).

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