Beyond homo economicus: Making positive change in the economy by challenging traditional assumptions about gender – my interview with Womanthology.

Delighted to be interviewed by Fiona for Womanthology – a completely wicked stealth-feminist blog. My interview came in a series around economics during World Economic Forum at Davos 2016.

Family-figuresFull interview available here or read it below:

 

Polly Trenow is a campaigner on gender, economics and education who has worked in women’s rights and gender equality since 2005. She is a freelance campaigner on gender equality working with schools, local government and charities and she currently holds several different roles, including sitting on the Management Committee of the Women’s Budget Group and working as Senior Policy and Campaigns Officer at the Fawcett Society. Last November, Polly became the 2016 Esmée Fairbairn Gender Equality Fellow on the Clore Social Leadership Programme.


Polly Trenow

“…We’ve…got to change the cultural pressures on men, for whom it’s often still seen as unacceptable to take time off to care. Gender stereotyping works both ways so men are disadvantaged too, and that’s something else that we need to challenge…”

Getting interested in working at the interface between gender and economics and saving the world

I think it was my degree. I studied Social Anthropology and as part of that I did a module on Gender and Trade. That was looking at how societies organise their economies, and what importance they place, if any, about what gender you are when you’re trading. I didn’t realise at the time how interesting I thought it was, but then when I left university I decided: “I want to save the world!” It seemed obvious that I should try and improve women’s equality, so that’s what I went for.

I started off volunteering in the women’s sector, working for a variety of different international development charities and UK charities. I became a trustee of a Zimbabwe women’s organisation (and I hadn’t even been to Zimbabwe!). I felt really at home and I loved what I was doing, and the people I was working with.

I then get my first job working in the Women’s National Commission, which was a quango – a quasi non-governmental equality organisation – and that was fascinating because we were based within the Civil Service, but we were theoretically independent. I got my first understanding of the challenges of talking to people in positions of power and how to manage what you’re saying to them.

No compromising: Making change from the outside shouting in

I had this great boss when I was doing one of my internships – a proper old-school feminist, who said to me: “Polly. There are two ways to make change. You’re either on the inside, or you’re on the outside shouting in. If you’re on the outside shouting in you don’t really have to compromise what you say, but if you’re on the inside you do.” So I thought, “I don’t want to compromise what I say! So rather than doing something like being in the Civil Service or being a Government adviser, I’m going to stick to charities and campaigning.”

So I worked for a variety of different women’s organisations. Lots of them were membership or network based where I got a real appreciation of the power in numbers, and also the importance of engaging members who have so much to give, but who maybe need some guidance to know how they can help or what they can do.

Ultimately the women’s sector is quite small, quite underfunded, and after about five or six years I was quite exhausted from low paid jobs and I didn’t really know where I was going, so I took a career break, which I though was just going to be a year, but it ended up being three years. I did something completely different with my life. I went to America and sang in a band!

I eventually thought I’d had enough of a break. I really missed the women’s sector and I felt I needed to do something a bit differently. I wasn’t that healthy or happy in the women’s sector before, so I decided to develop a freelance career, and I was lucky enough to get a part time job as a Policy Officer at Maternity Action and then at The Fawcett Society, which left me over half my week to do my freelance work, which I’ve been doing for about four years now.

The work of the Women’s Budget Group

I’ve been involved in the Women’s Budget Group for ages. I started off as their coordinator way back in 2008, and then whilst I was in America I was on the policy advisory group because it was a writing and research role, so I was able to do it long-distance. When I got back to the UK I joined the Management Committee, and I’ve been on it ever since.

MoneyThe Women’s Budget Group is about analysing economic policy and saying: “What impact is this going to have on men and women, and how equal they are?” We have lots of academics who are there to crunch the numbers and to get into the nitty gritty. I’m not an academic, I’m an activist, but I suppose I see my role in the Women’s Budget Group as trying to communicate all of this vital, interesting academic work in a way that is going to engage the public.

At the moment I’m running a series of workshops across the country – so in Bristol in the South West, in East Anglia, in Manchester and in Glasgow. We’re bringing together feminists, because in the last few years we’ve seen a real resurgence in feminism, with lots of new feminist groups starting up and it’s really exciting, but a lot of those people are campaigning on things like sexual harassment or page three, and not really entering the economic sphere.

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Going on the Today Programme

IMG_3403As someone who is dedicated to feminist economics I understand that this is (wrongly) considered by most to be quite a niche subject and will rarely warrant discussion on national radio programmes. So you can imagine my delight when I was asked to appear on BBC Radio 4’s the Today Programme to discuss this very issue.

It was all thanks to Yvette Cooper who in her leadership speech in Manchester had said we must organise the family in a feminist manner, so Today thought they would get some of us on to discuss it. You can listen here until it expires – I’m endeavouring to permalink. I’m on in the last 10 minutes of the programme.

 

 

Feminist economics at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

I was delighted to be asked to come and discuss feminist economics at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in York. I did two sessions – the first was a general talk about the ways in which gender interacts with the economy, you can see that session captured in the video below. The second was a session for the policy staff who asked a lot of tough questions! We looked more specifically at some of the measures the Women’s Budget Group advocate for in order to create a more equal society.

Great to be up in York with you all!

Adventures at Unison Women’s Conference

Last month I was delighted to be invited to present at Unison Women’s Conference in

unwc15Southport on behalf of the Women’s Budget Group. Last year I also presented at the Local Government Conference and there was a lot of enthusiasm for my analysis of local government spending and the impact on gender equality. I also gave a similar talk to the Essex Feminist Collective who were the ones who recommended me to speak at Unison.

unwc15 2

It was a fascinating morning as the caucus passed motions. Much to my delight

one of these motions was a call to continue to work closely with the Women’s Budget Group on the ongoing impacts of austerity on women, which was an

excellent start to the day.

In the afternoon I was presenting in the main conference hall which was slightly terrifying. We first looked at some of the problems with economic theory which is predicated on the household male-breadwinner model and does not have any means for understanding how resources are split within the household. Secondly there is a total failure by mainstream economics to take into account the impact of unpaid care work. We then moved to local government and looked at equality impact assessments. These can be quite dry but they are a good tool to show how the basics of gender budget analysis works.

It was a fantastic day and I am looking forward to working with Unison more closely this year.

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The transferable tax allowance for married couples: another blow for women?

My article on behalf of the Women’s Budget Group for Society Central. First published here. Photo – hands with wedding rings by Greg Kendall-Ball shared under a creative commons license.

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On announcing the Transferable Tax Allowance, David Cameron said: I believe in marriage, I believe marriage should be recognised in the tax system. I see this as….a start of something I would like to extend further.” 

wedding ringsThe TTA (or Marriage Tax Allowance) is a scheme that allows the high-earning partner of married couples (or those in a civil partnership) to use some of their low/non-earning partners’ tax-free allowance.

The move promises to reward couples that have taken a vow of commitment to each other but on closer inspection the policy is deeply flawed. Leaving aside the morality of using fiscal policy to shape interpersonal relationships and the radical departure this represents from the Conservative policy of independent taxation, the benefits of this scheme are frankly, unequal.

New analysis from the Women’s Budget Group using data provided by the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows that, far from helping families, the beneficiaries of the TTA are actually 85% male. Women are more likely to be the low-earning partner in couples for reasons including (but not limited to) the fact they tend to work part-time or not at all to care for children or relatives. It is mostly men who are the high-earning partner in couples and, therefore, men who will benefit from this tax break.

Proponents have argued that a tax break for one partner is saving for all the family. But the idea that an individual’s income is split equally with their partner is questionable.

Financial power dynamics between couples are complex and often unequal. There is little evidence to suggest that men split their income equally with their spouses. In fact available evidence suggests that men are more likely than women to use their income for personal spending. This gendered tax relief is therefore unlikely to benefit the rest of the household.

It is important not to overstate the impact of this policy, as the rewards are relatively meagre. High earners will be able to transfer £1000 of their annual personal allowance of tax-free income between themselves, as long as neither pays income tax at more than the basic rate. This will mean the high earner in eligible couples will pay up to £200 less tax a year or around £4 a week.

Given Cameron’s commitment to extending the tax allowance in the future, this announcement is only the thin end of the wedge. Yet increasing this type of tax allowance will only create further economic disparity between men and women and put increasing pressure on low earners, namely women, to remain unemployed or in part-time work.

The limitations also mean that very few married couples will actually benefit. If both partners earn over the income tax threshold it won’t apply. The poorest families (where both partners don’t earn enough to pay tax) also won’t benefit, even though they are most in need of support.

Moreover, only 18 per cent of families with children will be eligible, calling into question the Conservative pledge to do “everything [they] can to support families during tough times”. This is because of the eligibility criteria outlined above, but also because many couples with children are not married including the 2 million single parents in Britain today.

Finally as couples will need to apply to receive the their tax allowance, this automatically reduces uptake for the sizeable proportion of those who don’t know or don’t know how, to claim.

Stranger still, this policy represents a radical departure from Conservative party ideology.

Prior to the 1980s, a married woman’s income was treated as her husband’s. Following a consultation on the matter, the Conservatives (along with all the other major parties) rejected a transferable tax allowance, opting for independent taxation instead. The move made sense.

Marriage has no financial need in and of itself and independent taxation is better for women’s economic autonomy. So why this sudden shift? Few couples will actually benefit from the TTA and those who do, will receive only a token amount.

The £700 million that it will cost to fund the TTA could be used instead to tackle some more urgent social needs. For example, this figure could be used to make up for two of the four years for which child benefit has been frozen or raised by less than inflation.

Alternatively, the money could be used to reinstate child benefit as a universal benefit for all children. The higher income charge was projected to take £690 million from parents in 2013/14, almost exactly the same amount as would be paid out to married couples through TTAs from 2015/16.

Rather than further reducing the incentive for women to return to work, the money could also be spent on improving childcare, the cost and availability of which remains one of the biggest hurdles for women returning to the workforce after childbirth.

Only £200 million – about one third of the amount being spent on TTAs – would be needed to extend the proposed additional childcare help in Universal Credit to all, rather than restricting it to those earning above the tax threshold, as currently proposed.

Sue Himmelweit of the Women’s Budget Group said that it was:

both morally suspect and almost certainly counterproductive to bribe people into marriage.”

And given how few married couples will actually benefit from the programme, this can only be seen as Cameron’s attempt to appeal the social conservatives of his party.

Yet the announcement of the Transferable Tax Allowance in the Autumn Financial Statement passed with little remark from either public or press. Perhaps it was seen as small fry compared to the other headline-grabbing commitments of continued austerity or perhaps the public doesn’t see it as a threat.

Either way, if this really is the thin end of the wedge, we should be concerned. The government would be better off helping the most vulnerable in our society rather than using tax to reward one type of living arrangement over another.

Women left behind in the Autumn Statement

women against the cutsThis blog first appeared on the TUC’s Touchstone Blog and is written on behalf of the Women’s Budget Group.

This morning’s Autumn Statement felt rather too familiar. Not only because the headlines were leaked to the press in advance but also because, once again, women were left behind.

Osborne congratulated himself on the indicators of recovery, but at the Women’s Budget Group we asked, recovery for who?

Unemployment is falling, yet women’s unemployment has fallen by less than 4% since 2011, half as fast as men’s (9%). Real earnings are not recovering; instead they have continued to fall for both men (0.4 % for gross hourly earnings) and for women (0.7%). As the cost of living rises and progress on the gender pay gap stalls, inequality only becomes further entrenched.

Yet again the Chancellor’s announcement focused on investment in physical infrastructure and said nothing about care services for children, elderly and disabled people. Investment in social infrastructure is just as important for the long-term health of the country and the further £3 billion cuts in public spending will continue to hurt women the most.

The £700 million married couples tax allowance would be better spent elsewhere. Only 18% of families with children will benefit from this measure. This money will go to the higher earner (the vast majority of whom are men) which will worsen income inequality within married couples.

Taxation policy is no place for moralistic judgements and the tax allowance will not help Britain’s poorest families: couples where both partners earn below the basic tax rate or lone parents (92% of whom are women). What’s more it appears this announcement is only the thin end of the wedge as Osborne promises to extend this tax allowance in the future.

In September 2013 the Women’s Budget Group argued for Plan F – economic recovery for gender equality but this financial statement does nothing towards that.

George Osborne claims Britain’s economy is on the up, but with low wages, spiraling costs of living and a dramatic decrease in social security, whose boat is lifted by the rising tide?

Women are feeling the pinch more than most, and the Autumn Financial Statement does little to alleviate the pain.

Osborne’s recovery is an illusion, women still feel the pinch

Women’s Budget Group press release on the Autumn Financial Statementwomen & economic recovery cartoon

George Osborne claims Britain’s economy is on the up, but people are still struggling to cope with low wages, a rising cost of living, and a dramatic decrease in social security. Women are feeling the pinch more than most, and the Autumn Financial Statement does little to alleviate the pain.

Women’s unemployment has fallen by less than 4% since 2011, half as fast as men’s (9%). Real earnings are not recovering; instead they have continued to fall for both men (0.4 % for gross hourly earnings) and for women 0.7%. Progress on closing the gender pay gap has also stalled.

Yet again the Chancellor has focussed only on investment in physical infrastructure and said nothing about investing in care services for children, elderly, and disabled people. Making long-term plans investment in social infrastructure is just as important for the long-term health of the country. The cuts in spending continue with a further £3 billion over the next three years.

The £700m given away on the married couples tax allowance would be better spent on elsewhere. Only 18% of families with children will benefit from this measure. This money will go to the higher earner, the vast majority of whom are men, which will worsen income inequality within married couples.

Professor Diane Elson, chair of the Women’s Budget Group, said: “The chancellor talks of recovery but it to doesn’t feel like it to most people with real earnings still falling. The Autumn Financial Statement does nothing to ensure a recovery that supports gender equality”

The WBG’s Sue Himmelweit said: “Transferable Tax Allowances are a bad idea and we concerned to hear the Chancellor plans to build on them. Money given away on the married couples tax allowance would be better spent on real social priorities. One of these would be to extend help with unaffordable childcare costs to the lowest earners among families on Universal Credit, a measure that would cost just £200m.”

 

ENDS.

For further comment, please contact:

Sue Himmelweit : 07963951333

Jerome De Henua: 07860556254

The Women’s Budget Group is a network of over 200 academics and activists. For more information, please visit www.wbg.org.uk or contact Amy Watson (admin@wbg.org.uk) WBG Coordinator

NOTE: An in-depth analysis of the impact of the Transferable Tax Allowances will be published by Women’s Budget Group on Saturday 7th December 2013.