Going on a Big Energy Diet: Will the Status of Women Be a Casualty?

Going on a Big Energy Diet: Will the Status of Women Be a Casualty? 1

Warning: this post is speculative, since no one yet seems to have thought much about the headline issue. But having come of age in the US at the time when women were making significant advances in the workplace, and benefiting greatly from that development, I’m conscious of how rapid the improvement of the status of women was in the 20th century. And those gains may not be durable. The coming energy crunch has the potential to erode the gains women have made, particularly in societies that face chaotic changes (flooding and destruction of critical infrastructure due to ocean level rises plus storms).

Although correlation is not causation, the big advances in women’s standing have come in times of prosperity: the Roaring Twenties. The post World War II boo
1960s. And to a fair degree, the dot com era. The 1920 boom was to a significant degree the result of electrification and the establishment of new consumer goods industries such as the radio. Mass production of automobiles was also becoming a leading growth engine (pun intended). The post war era saw even more labor-saving devices introduced to homes, from vacuum cleaners to washers and driers to blenders. Big consumer good companies were also increasing their work-cutting offering, ranging from cake mixes to prepared sauces to frozen dishes.

Women were also becoming better educated. From Wikipedia:

Going on a Big Energy Diet: Will the Status of Women Be a Casualty? 2

But the big shift in the 20th century was improved reproductive control, and control in the hands of women, notably the pill.

Now this is an obvious and superficial list, but frankly you don’t need much more than that to see that rising standards of living were fundamental to creating enough surplus so women did not have to be full time mothers and homemakers (and in the not-that-much earlier era of subsistence farming, sometimes fieldworkers).

Now expert can point to evidence that some hunter-gatherer and indigenous societies had not terribly unequal division of labor. But women can’t work much in late pregnancy and women would always be the main if not exclusive child-rearers, due if nothing else to breast-feeding. And it’s not as if that labor was well respected. European aristocrats regularly ignored their progeny and farmed their care out to the help. See Winston Churchill and Talleyrand as famous examples. Men on average are bigger, stronger, and faster than women, which means they can physically dominate them. And they don’t like dealing with a lot of bodily fluids, which is what caring for babies and toddlers includes.

Various agencies interested in promoting women’s advancement have set forth some of the preconditions. But they weirdly accept and perpetuate the degradation of women’s role in the household as lesser by seeing female advance as coming about by virtue of more women’s participation in the market, a historically male realm. But again, in societies where survival depends on labor, and it is male labor that in most cases provides food, plus men are usually stronger too, it’s not hard to see why role stereotyping is so deeply entrenched.1

Here’s a pretty typical list of what it takes to improve women’s lot. From the Urban Institute:

We found evidence that broad-based and gender-specific policies can enable women’s economic empowerment; that is, improving women’s ability to make decisions and affect outcomes important to themselves and their families. Here are six of those policies.

Broad-based policies

  • Promote economic growth: In countries experiencing rapid economic growth, increasing demand for labor and the availability of better-paying jobs ensures that women’s economic empowerment does not become a zero-sum game between men and women. When the economy demands more workers, women will not replace men if more women participate in the labor market.
  • Invest in public services, infrastructure, and women-friendly public spaces and transportation: The quality of and access to public services, including basic utilities such as water and sanitation, improves all-around well-being through greater economic productivity and growth, but may be especially beneficial for women. For example, because women do most household work, electricity and tap water can free up their time, enabling greater labor market participation. Access to speedy and reliable transportation can reduce safety concerns that discourage women from entering the labor force or limit them to working at home.
  • Promote innovation and technology: Information and communications technology can help increase women’s inclusion in the economy, particularly in high-productivity service sectors. Greater access to information and technology can also stimulate changes in social norms and attitudes toward women’s roles in society, potentially improving access to education and political involvement.

Gender-specific policies

  • Provide child care: Evidence suggests that the availability of child care is strongly associated with an increase in women’s labor force participation and productivity. Child care, particularly high-quality child care, is one of the most important enablers of women’s economic empowerment and can have a positive impact on children’s learning.
  • Change laws that limit women’s economic independence: Reforming inheritance and family law to lift prohibitions on daughters’ legacies and to reduce husbands’ power over wives’ economic activity can have positive economic effects, going beyond the specific outcomes they are intended to address.
  • Improve or reduce work in the informal sector: Women are concentrated in the informal sector, which includes jobs that are unregulated and insecure, like street vending. Policies designed to move workers from the informal sector to the formal sector can significantly benefit women. Working in the formal economy is more likely to empower women because it is associated with more control over their own incomes than they would have in informal work. Evidence suggests that strengthening the collective bargaining capacity of women workers in this sector and improving awareness of women’s rights is important to ensuring that income levels and working conditions improve in the formal economy.

As we have repeatedly pointed out, countries on a broad basis need to move towards radical conservation. Satyajit Das has described in his recent series at Naked Capitalism how the various green energy schemes are problematic, due to lower EROI than current sources, infrastructure requirements and other life-cycle costs often omitted from conventional calculations, and inadequate supplies plus high environmental costs of key resources. His last post described how energy demands are set to keep rising while the needs for cuts loom. He showed that many climate plans are based on reducing energy consumption by 25%, and why that was implausible. He pointed out a key conundrum:

Increases in energy efficiency perversely lead to higher energy usage. Since 1990, global energy efficiency has improved by around 33 percent but energy use increased by 40 percent primarily due to economies growing by 80 percent.

To put it another way, increased efficiency had the effect of making energy cheaper, which led to so much growth that it more than offset the savings.

Now that process is going into reverse as various states adopt piecemeal carbon-curbing programs and are running into issues like grids being inadequate for the planned transition to electric vehicles. One outcome of this process will be less consistent energy supply. How does that affect commerce, particularly energy intensive industries that run continuous processes manufacturing, like paper? These operators have to run their machines all time, save for scheduled maintenance, due to very high capital costs.

We are seeing in Europe an early example of what happens when energy becomes expensive, and as we have pointed out, those high energy consuming industries have been cut back production and some have shuttered operations and are moving to countries with cheaper energy. This is a first stage in the sort of changes that we may see as climate pressures increase and efforts to curb energy use intensify. The Wall Street Journal describes some of the results in Europeans Are Becoming Poorer. ‘Yes, We’re All Worse Off.’ The Journal attributes this “decline” to Europe’s poor demographics and preference for leisure to American levels of consumer goods consumption. But if you look at the timing, the problem clearly became acute in the wake of Covid and the sanctions on Russia which have cut Europe’s access to cheap Russian gas:

Adjusted for inflation and purchasing power, wages have declined by about 3% since 2019 in Germany, by 3.5% in Italy and Spain and by 6% in Greece…

The pain reaches far into the middle classes. In Brussels, one of Europe’s richest cities, teachers and nurses stood in line on a recent evening to collect half-price groceries from the back of a truck. The vendor, Happy Hours Market, collects food close to its expiration date from supermarkets and advertises it through an app. Customers can order in the early afternoon and collect their cut-price groceries in the evening.

“Some customers tell me, because of you I can eat meat two or three times per week,” said Pierre van Hede, who was handing out crates of groceries.

Karim Bouazza, a 33-year-old nurse who was stocking up on half-price meat and fish for his wife and two children, complained that inflation means “you almost need to work a second job to pay for everything.”…

Weak growth and rising interest rates are straining Europe’s generous welfare states, which provide popular healthcare services and pensions. European governments find the old recipes for fixing the problem are either becoming unaffordable or have stopped working. Three-quarters of a trillion euros in subsidies, tax breaks and other forms of relief have gone to consumers and businesses to offset higher energy costs—something economists say is now itself fueling inflation, defeating the subsidies’ purpose.

Public-spending cuts after the global financial crisis starved Europe’s state-funded healthcare systems, especially the U.K.’s National Health Service.

As you can see from the Urban Institute list, the subtext is clear that women’s access to the labor market is generally precarious. They are a secondary source of labor. Employing men is seen as a priority since they are the traditional breadwinners. It’s politically unacceptable to say that in advanced economies but that it is pattern in developing countries and in very bad times.

In particularly, women have benefitted from the rapid advance of technology, since it creates jobs that don’t require strength (desk jobs and in developing economies, assembly work). As Das again pointed out:

Most technological developments, designed to improve lifestyles, are energy dependent. Aviation and information technology illustrate this aspect of energy demand…

Similarly, data centres in which over $100 plus billion is invested each year consumes $7 billion in electricity over a similar time horizon. Data and computation intensive applications, such as artificial intelligence, and virtual or augmented reality such as that of the metaverse, will require significant amounts of energy…

In computing, energy use per byte has decreased by an astonishing 10,000 times over a similar period but global computing demand for electricity has risen sharply due to the proliferation of devices and a 1,000,000+ times increase in data traffic.

So as economic conditions come under strain, social safety nets will be cut, and you can be sure that child care subsidies and funding for education, two big boosts to women’s past advancement, will be cut. At least Europe has extensive public transportation, and that will presumably remain well subsidized to discourage use of cars. But what happens in the US? Electric vehicles are more expensive than autos powered by gas. In the UK, when electricity prices rose, they also became more expensive to operate; subsidies seem to have reversed that, but how long can they be sustained?

The reason for the focus on cars is the improved status of women here, as Elizabeth Warren described in her book The Two Income Trap, is their workforce participation when married or co-habiting. Warren pointed out that led to a new baseline of higher costs, such as (critically) for a second car and home help. By contrast, the Journal article on Europe mentioned one woman who had given up her car and was cobbling together rideshares. Expect this to become a new normal, particularly if planned prohibitions on the sale of new gasoline vehicles is not reversed. Some may be able to convert to scooters as their second car, but that isn’t realistic for someone with a four or five day a week job and harsh weather. And what happens to the cost of help when their transportation costs rise? Or to put it from their perspective, what happens to the incomes of home cleaners and various underpaid casual women home workers when their costs of doing business rise yet their employers are squeezed?

And that’s before getting to the cheery forecast that AI will destroy more women’s jobs than men’s.

Another set of factors is that societies tend to become more politically conservative in poor economic times. The impact of the global financial crisis was a big reason for the much-decried rise of right in Europe. If
traditionalist forces become more powerful, that will lead to a faster gutting of social services. It’s not hard to see that programs like day care would be high on the list.

Of course, worrying about the status of women might seem like a luxury if we are facing worst case climate outcomes. But in a way that encapsulates the issue. Most of what we value or see as normal will come under stress as this crisis progresses.


1 Of course, the evolution of Western society is path dependent, and some economists have pointed out that women’s work isn’t even part of class analysis. As Margaret Benson wrote in a 1969 essay in the Monthly Review:

The position of women rests, as everything in our complex society, on an economic base.

—Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling

The “woman question” is generally ignored in analyses of the class structure of society…The status of women is clearly inferior to that of men, but analysis of this condition usually falls into discussing socialization, psychology, interpersonal relations, or the role of marriage as a social institution.1 Are these, however, the primary factors? In arguing that the roots of the secondary status of women are in fact economic, it can be shown that women as a group do indeed have a definite relation to the means of production and that this is different from that of men…

The appearance of commodity production has indeed transformed the way that men labor. As he [Ernest Mandel] points out, most household labor in capitalist society (and in the existing socialist societies, for that matter) remains in the premarket stage. This is the work which is reserved for women and it is in this fact that we can find the basis for a definition of women.

In sheer quantity, household labor, including child care, constitutes a huge amount of socially necessary production. Nevertheless, in a society based on commodity production, it is not usually considered “real work” since it is outside of trade and the market place…This assignment of household work as the function of a special category “women” means that this group does stand in a different relation to production than the group “men.” We will tentatively define women, then, as that group of people who are responsible for the production of simple use-values in those activities associated with the home and family.

Since men carry no responsibility for such production, the difference between the two groups lies here. Notice that women are not excluded from commodity production. Their participation in wage labor occurs but, as a group, they have no structural responsibility in this area and such participation is ordinarily regarded as transient. Men, on the other hand, are responsible for commodity production; they are not, in principle, given any role in household labor. For example, when they do participate in household production, it is regarded as more than simply exceptional; it is demoralizing, emasculating, even harmful to health.

And in keeping, a story I have told from time to time:

In the early 1990s, Radcliffe held a conference on work-life balance. I didn’t go to this event, but it became notorious among Radcliffe women of my age. The speakers and the participants recommended a lot of family friendly policies, which sounded all well and good, but query how you’d ever get them implemented.

The woman who was arguably the most successful woman professional in the room as the first woman partner in M&A on Wall Street (and I know her personally, she is formidable) got up and said: “Nothing will change until women own the means of production.”

The room went silent.

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