Neoliberalism and gender. How things looked like… back in 2005.

Back in the academic year 2004-2005, I was a Erasmus student at the University of Amsterdam. Given that I had already completed my compulsory courses back in Spain, I was able to enrol in any subject that was useful, complementary or simply appealing. One of those who turned out to be really helpful was ‘Europe in the Global Political Economy’, especially for becoming proficient in the development of a transversal approach to the 21st century realities. Here is one of the assignments I wrote, regarding gender equality and the evolution of the economic, political systems towards neoliberalism.



Is neoliberalism compatible with gender equality policies?

The European Union paradox: deregulation and reduction of inequalities



Xosé Alberte López Arias Erasmus student from the Universidad de Sevilla


Gender-based inequalities are present in many fields of study of Global Political Economy, but one of the most representative is the labour market. GPE theory has been considered by some scholars to be gender blind, and so some alternative approaches have been proposed in the recent years.

Deep, structural inequalities remain present in many regions of the world, while policies for reduction are addressed in some political and economic areas as the European Union. However, the effectiveness of these regulations has not been achieved, according to some Eurostat data: in 1999, only 53% of women in working age had a job. Quality of these employments is also an issue to be address by European Commission’s discourse, for 77% of low-income employees are women (1).

This paper will consider the main critical views to GPE from a gender inequality perspective. In the same aim of revision, impact of neoliberalism and the end of the welfare state is different in men and women, according to scholars. Compatibility of this neoliberal scene and reductions of public investments with constructing an equal society for men and women has been a matter of debate and is the core of this paper. As an end, the example of European Union’s policies and public discourse on gender inequalities will be analysed.


1. Is GPE blind to gender inequality theories?

Global political economy is a start point to understand gender relations. In recent years, feminist approaches to GPE have warned about the need to rethink political and economic theories to start considering the influence of gender relations

Evolution of neoliberal economics has been largely studied without considering private sphere (2). Since domestic activities are not analysed in public statistics, their contribution to the economic development has not been acknowledged. Nonetheless, the relevance of private and domestic work, mainly developed by women, is important when we think about assistance to children, old and sick people, as well as the housework and reproduction-related tasks.

In a more political ambit, but still linked to economics, Marxist-feminist tradition has elaborated an approach to gender relations: gender as a form of social inequality based on women’s private work and controlled sexuality (3).

Power and unequal relations are based in many factors, but gender is the one that has affected and will affect the majority of women.

Women’s incorporation to the formal, paid labour market has not turned out to be a solution for gender equality: the wages for an equal job are still lower for women, unemployment rates are higher and the burden of unpaid, informal work is still carried by women. This situation is to be addressed in developed areas as the European Union (4), but is still far from being considered in other developing regions, where the load of work of export processing zones (EPZs) is to a large extent performed by women (5).

Isabella Bakker has studied the features of labour markets, as regulated by public policies that affect the principle of equality (6). As an example, Bakker explains how “‘protective’ legislation which may limit women-s access to paid employment (…) can put pressure on the reserve price of female labour in the informal sector”.

In the same list of public interventions, Bakker has studied their influence in land market, financial market and product markets. When analysing land and financial markets, Bakker has considered how gender inequalities have been applied for years and how public policies do not reduce these differences, in many cases. Thus, inheritance or property rights laws are gender-based in many societies. In the same direction, male authorisation or signature is often needed for women to access loans or other bank products.

Study of product markets is also reflected in Bakker’s report. She concludes that women’s access to priced controlled products is often affected by direct government policies, for example with the indirect taxes as value added tax.

These approaches show how the study of gender inequalities can be addressed under a global political economy perspective. As an aspect of inequalities with political and economic implications, policies of actors such as the European Union have been largely studied from many perspectives, such as the Marxist-Feminism or the critical theory.


2. The end of Keynesian welfare state and neoliberalism in the European Union 

Only by understanding the evolution of EU from its foundation by the Treaty of Rome to the current organisation could we understand gender policy-making that has affected labour market and private sphere of European women in the last fifty years.

The transformation of the Union from Jean Monnet’s project of an administrative and prosperous united Europe – based on economic and political interdependence among states – to a disciplinary example of neoliberal capitalist entity has been firmly developed by member states (7).

In the 1950’s, communitarian states remarkably applied different social and economic policies. Nevertheless, the influence of Keynesian welfare state concepts was essential in the internal policies of the six founder member-states.

After the oil crisis in the 1970’s, a period of stagflation involved the ECC – as the rest of developed and industrial areas connected to the oil exporters in conflict. With the accession of new member-states by the start of the decade (United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark), consensus on the protective measures was, for the first time, debated. Influence of Margaret Thatcher’s initiatives is important in this transformation towards a more neoliberal, deregulated identity of the European Economic Community.

Scholars have studied this process in terms of a ‘negative integration’ (8). New instruments were adopted to enforce this transformation process and to ensure its success: qualified majority voting, instead of former unanimity, and mutual recognition of national product standards. While the first measure is devoted to avoid veto power on the communitarian policy-making, the second reduces the need of supranational regulating institutions and, therefore, it contributed to ensure the deregulation of the common market.

In other words, the aim of the EEC was not to build a ‘positively integrated’ (9) European market, based on the correction of the conditions in which market develops, but to build a free trade area, large enough to compete with the Japanese and American markets.

The Treaty of the European Union, signed at Maastricht in 1992, and moreover the new Treaty for an European Constitution, recently signed in Rome and still in process of approbation by national referenda or parliamentary decision in every member-state, are aligned with the effort towards a neoliberal character for the European Union.

Maastricht agreement created the financial system known as European Monetary Union, which implied the creation of a single currency and a European Central Bank. The new treaty, commonly acknowledged as the European Constitution, adds a list of European Fundamental Rights, which, along with other unified economic principles, ensure the individual and corporate liberties.


3. EU neoliberal principles and their impact on gender inequalities

The influence of these deregulating policies on gender equality initiatives is easy to find. Brigitte Young explains that “in order to meet the Maastricht criteria, individual member-states have had to reorient their labour market institution and constrain wage increases” (10). In her article, Young states that a contradiction has arisen, regarding the gender implications of this wage cuts and other austerity measures.

Since employment of women was in a high proportion based on public jobs, the cuttings on public investment and social expenditures seem to be in a radical contradiction to the equal opportunities guidelines. The Scandinavian social democratic model was based in job creation for women: neoliberal conception “shuts the door” to such a “public sector employment strategy”, Young considers (11).

On the other hand, EU’s equal opportunities policies have also been defended by some scholars, even by not denying the contradictions these policies involve. Sylvia Walby has studied how UK standards on low-pay employment had to be more protective to these workers, essentially women (12). Young adds the example of southern European countries, where large gender segregation traditions have been affected and reduced with the public debate on gender equality (13).


4. EU public discourse on gender

The European Union releases a wide range of periodical publications that report the situation of policy-making, statistics, guidelines for new projects, etc. European Commision’s gender equality unit has published the Gender equality magazine for more than a decade, as an approach to interested citizens and organisations.

In the issue for 2001, Commision’s equality unit presented its new director, Marie C. Donnelly, in charge of the current gender equality programme (2001 – 2005), agreed in Nice’s summit in 2000.

Donnelly had been working as an executive in industry prior to her debut in European organisms. Therefore, she is said to have a “valuable experience with the world of work” (14). Among the proposals, Donnelly suggested a prize for companies that enforce equal opportunities. She assumes, however, that the EU itself is far from achieving gender equality. “We are all women talking between ourselves. We have to go out there and also talk to those who are not involved and get their attention”, she finally states (15).

This public discourse of the EU has affected policy-making of member-states. As was pointed by Sylvia Walby and Brigitte Young, southern countries’ societies have started to debate gender equality issues, and as an example of the political will, eight of the sixteen ministers of Spanish government are women. The first law approved by the 2004-elected cabinet was a programme to reduce marital violence by changing legislation, in a direction that led some counter-arguments arise to qualify the new initiatives as discriminatory against men. President Rodríguez Zapatero has even declared himself to be a “radical feminist” (16).


5. Conclusions

Moving from the mere study of public spheres to the analysis of all kinds of work, both public and private, has been addressed by some scholars for putting an end to what had been considered ‘gender-blindness’ of Global Political Economy theories. The fact that working domestic work or assistance to children, sick or old people has largely been carried by women must be considered in the analysis of labour markets, given the fact that women are incorporated into employments without, in a large proportion, readjusting their commitment to the domestic, familiar work.

Public policies face this fact with the aim of reducing inequalities between men and women, but at the same time these ambitious objectives are fixed, their actual application is limited by the governmental cuttings in social expenditures. This trend is motivated by the neoliberal conception of politics and economics that has guided worldwide policies in the last decade. The European Union has had an important role in the strength of this model, by enhancing deregulation in many fields, such as employment active policies. The result is a revision of inequalities between men and women that has lead to a negative integration, instead of the promotion of women to the possibilities traditionally applied to men.

The paradox of the European Union towards employment is present in the EU’s public discourse.




1 Some facts from Eurostat Labour Force Survey 1998 – 1999 are listed in Gender equality magazine, edited by the European Commission, no. 10 (2001), pp. 16 – 17. Download.

2 Steans, Jill. ‘The private is global: feminist politics and global political economy’, New Political Economy, vol. 4, no. 1 (1999). Read.

3 Ibid. 

4 Gender equality magazine, edited by the European Commission, no. 10 (2001), pp. 13 – 14. Download.

5 Enloe, Cynthia. Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (1989). View at Google Books.

6 Bakker, Isabella (editor). The strategic silence. Gender and economic policy (1994). View at Google Books.

7 Young, Brigitte. ‘Disciplinary Neo-Liberalism in the European Union and Gender Politics,’ New Political Economy, vol. 5, no. 1 (2000). Read.

8 Scharpf, Fritz W. ‘Negative and positive integration in the political economy of the European welfare states’ in: Marks, G.; Scharpf, F. W.; Schmitter, P. C. and Streeck, W. Governance in the European Union (1996), pp. 15 – 39. Read at Google Books.

9 Ibid.

10 Young, Brigitte. Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Walby, Sylvia, ‘Changes in women’s employment in the United Kingdom’, New Political Economy, vol. 4, no. 2 (1999). Read.

13 Young, Brigitte. Ibid.

14 Gender equality magazine, edited by the European Commission, no. 10 (2001). Download.

15 Ibid.

16 Extracted from an interview to Spanish president published by The New York Times on May 7th 2004, page 3. Read.

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