Looking at economics with women's eyes

March 4, 1991

By Angela Matheson

SYDNEY — A world first for women is taking place in an electric purple office in the inner city suburb of Glebe. The Women's Economic Think Tank, or WETTANK, has been set up by a group of women with expertise in economics to evaluate Australian economic policy in terms of women and provide a consultancy and educational facility on women's affairs.

The project is the brainchild of Eva Cox and Helen Leonard, whose long experience as senior consultants on women's affairs in the public sector led them to believe it is crucial that women take control of their own political destinies. They conclude that mainstream economics fails to take the experience of women into account.

"Our aim is to debunk the mystique", says Cox, policy analyst for the Women's Electoral Lobby and former adviser on women's affairs to Senator Grimes. "We want to open up economics and restore it to the public. The way it's taught now is like a foreign language for most people. Economics is actually a social science. When you start talking about it in social terms, women can identify with it."

Cox and Leonard are critical of the way economic policy is formed by a male elite whose class and gender biases further limit its political perspective. In such a system, they claim, women are the losers.

Says Cox, "Government tells us we must cut spending, unfetter markets and cost everything that moves. But despite years of cutting the public sector, we still carry a huge foreign debt. It is women who bear the brunt of these cuts, not the policy makers."

The consultancy arm of WETTANK has recently been contracted to research the economic costs of domestic violence by the Women's Coordination Unit of NSW. Cox says, "The way domestic violence is not treated as an economic issue by government is a perfect example of how women's issues get hidden in the economic model we now use — and at great cost to women.

"Our report will spell out the costs — the income forgone by women, the costs for housing, police, social security and legal aid which ensue from domestic violence."

Research is also under way on tax mixes, consumption tax and the economics of sole parenting.

High praise

Justice Elizabeth Evatt applauds the venture: "It is high time women were given this sort of opportunity to take a meaningful interest in economics and make a significant input into the priorities of government".

Dr Gretchen Poiner, senior research fellow of the Women's Studies Centre at Sydney University, concurs. "At last we have a think tank which takes into account the contribution and essential part played by women in maintaining the national economy", she said. Dr Poiner believes economic policy fails to acknowledge that the everyday events of women's existence forms the bedrock of the Australian economy. "Women have the responsibility for the entire social and physical reproduction of society. This is as important an economic issue as the balance of payments, but until the WETTANK was set up, this wasn't publicly recognised", she said.

Cox and Leonard haven't restricted their venture to policy making. In December the Women's Academy was launched to provide alternative education courses for women. Says Leonard, "The academy generated out of the government's obsession with user pays. University extension courses and other education options have become too expensive for many women."

Courses for this year include Women and Political Action, Politics and Chaos and Women and Local Government. Dr Poiner believes the academy to be an important option for women who wish to pursue education outside formal institutions. "The academy provides for women across the social spectrum. It is a significant step toward counter-elitist and counter-ageist education", she said.

Cox and Leonard offer support and a reference point for other women's organisations. The feminist journal Refractory Girl, Women's Redress Press and the Women's Radio Network are housed at the Glebe office.

The non-profit side of WETTANK is financed by a private consultancy called Distaff. Distaff offers research and policy making skills and training courses. Says Leonard, "What we're providing here is a model of what can be done by women in a hostile political environment. We raise money outside the normal structures of government to provide funds for things we believe are critical for women."

Beyond bureaucracy

Dr Zula Nittim, a social planning consultant, commends the self-sufficiency of the WETTANK venture, " Often women's organisations funded by government are constrained or controlled by the parameters of bureaucratic departments. Women's issues don't fit neatly in parameters. They are broad spectrum — housing, health, child-care and education for starters. They need to be dealt with in their totality."

Distaff has recently completed a consultancy on the cost effectiveness of child-care for the NSW Water Board. As a consequence, the Water Board is now having plans drawn up for two child-care centres.

Distaff also runs workshops for women to help them identify their work skills. Leonard and Cox believe the term "skill" is gendered and that women automatically think of tasks associated with machinery and other technology or formal educational qualifications as skills.

"A lot of skills and services women have don't even have a name", said Leonard. "We write up resumes for women who haven't been in the paid workforce for years but who have been running a home and volunteer organisations. They don't even know they have skills." Leonard and Cox believe women's skills are more tailored to the changing workplace: "A lot of the expertise that women develop at home — prioritising, multitasking, organising and information processing — are far more related to the way the workforce is changing as it moves away from huge industrial complexes".

Overseas feminists who have visited the WETTANK intend to export the venture. Vera Eckhardt, a consultant in law and social policy in Denmark, believes the venture to be unique. "This organisation is wonderful", she said. "There is nothing like it in Europe."

Says Dr Poiner, "This venture is an eminently exportable commodity. Perhaps this is the way Australia's export market should go."

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