Economies of worth

Photograph by Amber Procaccini

There is power in money. And there are gender issues connected with both “power” and “money.” Dr. Deep Shikha takes on these issues of worth at St. Catherine University where she chairs the Economics Department and works with the Center for Women, Economic Justice and Public Policy. Shikha has a passion for studying world economics, looking through the lens of women. She challenges her students to question their assumptions and to consider multiple perspectives to develop critical thinking skills. The Minnesota Women’s Press spoke with Shikha in July.

Q. How do you define gender economics?

Gender economics is looking at how we allocate limited resources to satisfy our unlimited wants in a way that is meaningful to women’s lives. When we look at those needs and wants from a women’s perspective the equation changes-then it becomes gender economics.

One example of “women’s work” is child bearing and child rearing. There is no economic compensation for that work so, economically speaking, it becomes worthless.

Q. What do you see as some of the barriers?

In the U.S., as little girls grow up, they receive messages that they should be pretty, outgoing, cheerleaders and that they really are not good in math and science. And if they are good in math and science they must be nerds and boys are not going to be interested in them. Right now, right there, we are developing barriers for their future work.

As I was growing up [in India] there were a lot of things that I could not do because I was a female, but I was never ever given the message that I could not be good in math or science. I was never told that I could not be a doctor or an engineer or professor if I wanted to be. And that is the [limiting] message we give constantly to our young girls and women here in the United States.

Q. How do we go to address this?

I don’t have the solution. I just know there are barriers. Maybe what we need to have are part-time careers for women and to recognize this work [of mothering] is just as important for the society. It is that work of child bearing and child rearing that creates the future citizens and the future taxpayers of the United States. If that work is not acknowledged or rewarded then I think we lose a lot as a society.

Economics gives understanding but it needs to go to policy makers to make change. Who has access to politicians? Is it me, a professor who does not have $10,000 [to buy a ticket to a fundraiser with the governor]? Whose voice is heard? I tell my friends in women’s studies-you can’t tell policy makers to make policies because they are good for women. We must show them economically that it works for the nation and the people. When women are happy, acknowledged for their work and when women are not exploited, then we all will be prosperous.

Corporate leaders have access to policy makers. It is not in their best interests to value this [child bearing and caring] work. They say that if they give maternity leave their profits will go down and that will create instability. No one goes back and asks how they can do this in other countries. The very same companies [give maternity leave] in Europe, in Canada and in India, too.[Internationally,] we already know that women grow more than half the food crops in the world. [In many countries women] have minimal access to resources and their work is often marginalized, not seen as central to the well being of society. Once that happens, then policies are the ones that disadvantage women and we are in a downward spiral.

I think as a society we need to grapple with how much profit is enough and when it is enough. We think every single quarter it should be higher in terms of percent than it was the last quarter. That is not a sustainable model. Sometimes as a society we don’t want to face the truths that affect our own lifestyle. We need to talk about businesses that will pay livable wages and not have the highest profit margin. We need a smaller disparity between the lowest paid workers and the CEOs. Our economic difference compared globally is obscene. What makes that acceptable?

Q. How are these ideas received in the classroom?

When I ask students about gender issues they say, “I have not experienced [discrimination].” After a couple of classes, they come back and say, “We were in denial” or “If we were to admit it, to voice it, consequences in the workplace would be terrible.” “I knew it, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself.”

Q. Do you have advice for your students entering their adult lives?

Financial management is the key to a happy and healthy life-the need to be in control of your finances. Spend within your means. That is how we protect our human dignity. In the corporate environment, you need to make ethical choices that lead to sustainable business practices. And, you have to vote.