The fault is not in our stars: Gender-bias in the European Troika’s policy design and implementation
What can a gender analysis teach us about the nature of Troika’s economic adjustment programs (EAPs) in Greece? Most importantly, the Troika has been found guilty of gender-bias on three counts: exclusion of the reproductive economy; reshuffling costs from the public to the private sphere; and inducing breaking points for women.
In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, the Greek government found itself at the brink of financial default and reached out to the European Central Bank (ECB) for help. The ECB responded by forming a tripartite alliance with the European Commission (EC) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). For recovery, the European Troika, as the alliance came to be known, prescribed and pushed a parcel of assorted free market policies, cuts in government spending, privatization and export promotion. These measures were captured in three consecutive agreements, known as EAPs, and were implemented over the course of almost a decade.
If the measures sound all too familiar and lacking in innovation, it is because they are. Minus the monetary measures, the EAPs were identical to the structural adjustment policies (SAPs) Sub-Saharan and Latin American countries received in the 1980s and 1990s. And like the SAPs, the EAPs are also underpinned by neoclassical macroeconomics that are presumed neutral and value-free. This presumed neutrality, however, has been questioned by feminist political economists long before the implementation of the EAPs. They found the SAPs guilty of gender-bias on three counts1. This finding begs the question of whether the European Troika learned anything from the IMF’s experiences in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Or did the coalition promulgate similar gender-biased policies in Greece as well? The following article explores this question by considering selected stories and narratives of urban Greek, working class women, which were collected over the period of six months in 2020.
Excluding the reproductive economy
Firstly, feminist political economists argue that under the guise of economic neutrality lies a systematic exclusion of reproductive and human resource management processes. Social reproduction refers to work necessary for maintaining daily life and reproducing a population, on a daily basis and intergenerationally. Such exclusion has led neoliberal, international organizations to take the reproductive economy for granted and to presuppose that it will keep functioning somewhat harmonically despite any resource reallocation2.
The stories of Venetia and Panagiota, however, prove otherwise: under the Troika’s measures, social reproduction is being carried out in a stressful, rushed and exhausting manner3. Venetia, a 43-year-old dance instructor and mother of three, explained how taxing the mere task of cooking lunch can be: “At 7:10 in the morning, we turn into a madhouse: I help the girls shower and get ready for school, while I also get ready for work. I, then, set up some breakfast, at the same time I cook lunch, I put some clothes in the drier from the night before, I take the laundry out. Then the girls leave for school, the food is ready, the laundry is under way and there is a bit of quiet till 8, when I leave for work to come home after 11 at night.” Panagiota’s situation is even more stressful, as her manicure studio is located at her house and her daughter is just 3 years old. When the latter comes home from day care late afternoon, Panagiota tries to finish off her appointments and tidy up the house, so she can simultaneously cook and play with her daughter. By 10:30 at night, she has managed to put her daughter to bed, complete cooking, clean the house and then she “falls on the couch, begging for someone to come and shoot at her.” It is important to highlight the commonalities in the two women’s experiences: both women have had to intensify their labor in the formal economy to secure their ever-decreasing income due to the adjustment measures. As a result, they are left with meager time for household activities and have had to undertake multiple social reproduction tasks at once. What these stories teach us is that housekeeping and childrearing were not seen as ‘true’ economic activities and hence not taken into consideration when the EAPs were designed.
Shifting costs from the public to the private sphere
Secondly, feminist economists argue that another component of gender bias in macroeconomic theory is its flawed understanding of the family. According to the macroeconomic view, the household constitutes a unified and welfare-maximizing unit that pools and shares resources. Based on that assumption, policy makers believe that households can and will absorb adjustment-related transition costs4.
Unfortunately, Iosifina’s story proves otherwise. Born and raised in northern Greece, Iosifina is a 53-year-old mother of two who has been working as a casino employee for the past 23 years. In 2010, she was demoted to part-time work, thus receiving minimum pay. Iosifina, however, retained her hopefulness: she could retire within 3 years with full benefits and her husband’s seasonal occupation as an ice-cream distributor could continue complemented the family income. In the wake of the second EAP, retirement age changed to 67 and Iosifina was suddenly filled with uncertainty, not knowing for how long she would be able to maintain her job. Wishing for a more stable living arrangement, Iosifina’s family took out a loan to purchase her current house, and ever since, they have been paying back the debt in monthly installments of EUR 630 with no end in sight. Additionally, Iosifina has been battling with obesity, which has caused her severe health problems. She got a gastric sleeve, after she was ensured that the surgery would be covered in its entirety by her insurance. By the time the surgery had taken place, the public health system had been fundamentally restructured, and Iosifina had to foot the entire bill of EUR 6,500. Iosifina’s and her husband’s employment status along with the loan repayment and the surgery bill have caused a sharp decrease in their household’s income. As a result, they have had to implement dramatic reductions in their spending, cut down luxury goods, and give up on family vacations.
Iosifina’s story illustrates that what neoclassical macroeconomics understand as households’ absorbing of adjustment-related transition costs actually equals with precarious and indebted living. EAPs, thus, instead of maximizing the efficiency of the Greek government, merely reshuffled social reproduction-related costs from the private to the public sphere.
Thirdly and finally, feminist economists showcase the dangers involved in assuming that women’s unpaid labor is infinitely elastic, capable of compensating for any shortfalls in alternate resources. This imagined flexibility has led to breaking points for women, which, however, remain comfortably ignored, as it is hard to quantify time and reproductive activities5.
At this point, it is imperative to note that in the contours of a society organized along traditional gender norms, Greek women are the captains of their households, responsible for the bulk of social reproduction activities, with minimal help from other family members. It comes as no surprise then, that Greek women during and after the EAP-era have reported physical exhaustion and a deteriorated mental and emotional state. Physical exhaustion manifests through women’s drastically reduced free time for themselves and piling unmet needs. Eleni, a 43-year-old housekeeper and mother of two, speaks of her state of mind: “I don’t look after myself. I don’t take care of myself, the money just isn’t enough. And I regret it now, I’m getting old and my youth isn’t coming back.” Katerina, owner of a local cosmetics store in a working-class neighborhood of Thessaloniki, identified another area of unmet needs: “I want to go out with my husband, but I don’t. Having to pay EUR 200 for my daughter’s private lessons, I had to ignore my own needs and those of my husband, of course.” Less available free time coupled with an array of unmet needs have had a compromising effect on women’s mental and physical health. These compromising consequences become obvious through the increasing frequency of intrafamily quarrels. Fotini, a 41-year-old sales assistant, explains: “My kids fight a lot because of their age and gender differences, but also because of me. It’s my fault, I yell and I am nervous and I’ve transmitted that to the kids. We fight, but at least we talk about it and get closer.” Unsurprisingly, then women express feelings of anger and exasperation like Iosifina did: “I am so mad, they’ve deprived me of a job, my basic human rights, I’m mad at all our governments. How am I going to live with EUR 534 a month?”
New country, old story.
What these findings and stories show, is that the European Troika has failed to learn from the mistakes made by the IMF in Sub-Sahara Africa and in Latin America in the previous century. EAPs can, thus, be found guilty of gender-bias in their design and implementation, which disproportionately affects women, in their multiple roles as workers, wives, mothers, consumers and producers6. For macroeconomic policies to contribute to societal recovery in an inclusive and sustainable manner, they must seriously and systematically account for the reproductive economy, as the latter constitutes an indispensable background condition for economic production in capitalist societies7. A well-fed, cared for and happy labor force will simply be more productive. Only by taking into account and caring for those parts of the economy where women are working the hardest will macroeconomic policies become genuinely efficient and not result in a mere reshuffling of costs from the highly visible and easily measurable public sphere to the private realm where women and their families suffer.
- Due, Jean M., and Christina H. Gladwin. “Impacts of Structural Adjustment Programs on African Women Farmers and Female- Headed Households.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 73, no. 5 (December 1991): 1431–39.
- Elson, Diane. “THE IMPACT OF STRUCTURAL ADJUSTMENT ON WOMEN: CONCEPTS AND ISSUES.” Manchester Discussion Papers in Development Studies. International Development Centre: Faculty of Economic and Social Studies, University of Manchester, May 1987.
- To ensure the anonymity of the women interviewed, I have chosen to change their real names. Instead of referring to them as participants and merely allocating them numbers, which felt slightly dehumanizing, I have invented new names of Greek origin for each of them.
- Sadasivam, Bharati. “The Impact of Structural Adjustment on Women: A Governance and Human Rights Agenda.” Human Rights Quarterly; Baltimore 19, no. 3 (August 1997): 630–65.
- Williams Kamara, Mariama. “Structural adjustment, trade liberalisation and women’s enjoyment of their economic and social rights.” In Les silences pudiques de l’économie, edited by Yvonne Preiswerk and Anne Zwahlen, 133–47. Graduate Institute Publications, 1998. https://doi.org/10.4000/books.iheid.6025.
- Afshar, Haleh, and Carolyne Dennis, eds. Women and Adjustment Policies in the Third World. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
- Bhattacharya, Tithi, and Liselotte Vogel, eds. Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. First published. London: Pluto Press, 2017.