Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Economism"

Lourdes Benería

I would like to add a gender perspective to the debate, particularly given that the process of modernization and the gradual establishment of economism as a religion have historically affected women differently from men. Despite the many changes in women’s lives since the end of the last century, this fact has implications that take us to the present discussion on the Great Transition.

Historically, women did not become part of the market economy at the same time or at the same pace as men. As capitalism expanded and wage labor became the norm for an increasingly larger part of the working population, a significant proportion of women remained in the domestic sphere. This is the case despite the many differences between societies and levels of development. Adam Smith wrote about “economic man” and not about “economic woman” because he saw economic rationality being expressed mostly through individual men's activities and choices in early capitalism.

In the same way, as capitalism expanded and orthodox economics developed, assumptions around the search for the maximum economic gain through the market have mostly been based on men’s behavior, taken as “natural” and not socially constructed.

On the other hand, and subject to exception and historical changes, women's main concentration on domestic work and family care resulted in a much less direct connection to the market and to economism. Feminists from different disciplines have pointed out that women’s behavior has tended to respond to different motives than men’s, such as those related to care, love, solidarity, and empathy rather than to purely economistic goals. This is not to say that women have not participated in the religion of economism, for example as consumers and as members of the “church.”

Without essentializing these differences, and although women’s massive incorporation into the labor force and into the capitalist system in general might have changed their motives and behavior, there is a lot of evidence showing that women’s behavior continues to be less guided by economistic goals. It is no surprise for example that the different expressions and institutions being built around what we call the Solidarity Economy across the world include a disproportionate number of women. In the same way, women’s contribution to the care of humanity provides a guide to what sharing care with men on an equal basis will require in an egalitarian society. Many other examples can be provided.

Building alternatives towards the Great Transition and moving beyond capitalism and its current neoliberal incarnation is already happening at some levels. This debate has discussed the need for a radical change in our values and belief system that would deal with the complexity of ways in which we view the transition. The feminist movement has contributed not only with critical analyses of existing problems but also with action and policies to build alternatives. As clearly pointed out by a woman who participated in the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing, women are needed not only to point out the many problems of gender inequality, but also to find a solution to the world’s problems.

Lourdes Benería
Lourdes Benería is Professor Emerita at Cornell University. She is the author of such books as Gender, Development, and Globalization and Changing Employment Patterns and the Informalization of Jobs: General Trends and Gender Dimensions.

Cite as Lourdes Benería, contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Economism," Great Transition Initiative (December 2015),

Back to Publication

As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.