I’m a feminist who doesn’t have kids, why should I care about parenting?

This post was inspired by a conversation on twitter sparked by a piece on teen mums and feminism in The Telegraph. I would like to thank prymface and blue milk, with honourable mentions to drlangtry_girl, Glosswitchboudledidge and Sarah Ditum, for making me think about these kinds of things. I’ve included Wikipedia links for a few concepts which may be unfamiliar to some readers. 

I’m 26 years old and I am not a parent. I have never had a partner who is a parent. I have never been pregnant. I have never been wholly or partly responsible for caring for another human being. The closest I have come to parenting is having a dog (and only ever for a few weeks at a time) or through my university’s  LGBT+ society Parenting Scheme (a sort of mentor/buddy system for new members to meet established members).

In fact there is a good chance that I will never have children. I haven’t quite committed to that, but on the whole I lean towards a “childfree” future for myself. In any case I won’t be seriously considering starting a family for at least three years. Yet in the last year or so I have become increasingly interested in the world of parenting, especially parenting from a feminist perspective, and I thought I’d like to share the reasons why. This post somewhat joins together my interest as a feminist and my interest as a social scientist. For some aspects these are inextricably linked, however my social science background is limited to heteronormative households*.

I’ve found feminist discussions of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding have been a valuable space in helping me rethink my cissexist assumptions surrounding the kind of bodies parents have and the roles they play. Breastfeeding has become quite a contentious issue in some feminist circles, and my views have definitely been heavily informed from the Attachment Parenting that I’ve learned about from blue milk (e.g. this post). What I’ve taken from the discussions is that it’s like so many issues: people should be well informed so they can make the decisions that work best for them. Parents and their children have different needs; in trying to apply a set of rigid or narrow guidelines many people will be poorly served.

The more specific conclusion is that we, as a society, should try harder to make spaces, specifically public places and workplaces, more breastfeeding-friendly for all parents of all gender expressions and identities. There are also significant implications for how we structure workplaces and employment. The current guidelines from the UK government is that where possible children should be breastfed exclusively for the first six months. The NHS has guidelines for breastfeeding parents and their employers where those breastfeeding want to return to work, but I don’t know enough about how many employers are really supportive. The challenge is to create a culture which supports breastfeeding without judging those who don’t. As an economist this appeals – the idea is that we create an environment where individuals really can make the best decision for them, their children and their families with as few constraints as we can manage.

Another aspect of parenting in couples is that it extends and heightens negotiations over and division of household responsibilities. It will come as no surprise that all the evidence from surveys in the UK and similar countries show women spend more time on domestic chores than men within different sex couples, even in couples where both work full time. In fact in some countries (e.g. USA and Australia) women who earn more than their male partners perform an even higher share of the housework to “compensate” for taking over the “breadwinner role”**. As well as requiring time and attention, children also make more general housework (laundry, cleaning, cooking, etc). How does the addition of children to a family affect the the time parents put into housework, particularly after accounting for changes in hours of paid work?

Moving on to childcare, culturally there is often a strong emphasis on young children spending time with their mothers, yet in the social sciences there are a range of research questions related to who does childcare: how does it affect family income and future employment prospects of parents, and what is best for child development. In the media the tropes are the “stay at home mother” (often abbreviated to SAHM) who has a (male) “breadwinner” partner and the “career woman” who works full time (with a partner who also works full time) and puts her children into childcare. Lone mothers are often part of a different discussion. Every so often for a bit of variety you might read about fathers who take on the role of main carer; in the household survey data from the UK these still constitute a tiny number of families***. I am particularly interested in distinguishing between the economic and social incentives for these patterns.

Finally, part of parenting is introducing children to the world and trying to explain it. This can throw certain issues into sharp relief as children ask difficult questions or you become aware of your children’s needs. The classic case is men seeing sexism for the first time or more clearly when they are responsible for a daughter (a high profile example is Jay-Z). There is also the urge to teach your children to be “good people”. For intersectional feminist parents, this means bringing up children to have an awareness of the many inequalities in our societies, which can mean there’s a motivation to develop a good understanding as adults.

There are several issues that I have seen examined with great wisdom by feminist parents; a non-exhaustive list includes being an effective ally to minority groups, accepting diverse forms of gender expression, the importance of good age-appropriate sex education, how to deal with body image when faced with the pressures from advertising and mainstream media. This are issues which are relevant for all feminists, not just parents. I don’t want to stray into the cliché that parents (and in particular mothers) have special access to empathy or social conscience (see this brilliant piece for a great riposte) but I want to recognise the contribution to these discussions from a feminist parenting perspective.

These are just the areas that leap to mind when I think about why I care about parenting.  My personal focus in my research is trying to understand the mechanisms which affect how couples make decisions, and particularly how those decisions reflect, reinforce or change social norms around gender. I would love to read other thoughts on why feminists should care about parenting and what we can do.


*By heteronormative households I mean households with different sex couples where both partners are cisgender. Further the literature generally restricts attention to households where both partners are of working age and there aren’t any other adults in the household.

** Breen, Richard, and Lynn Prince Cooke. “The persistence of the gendered division of domestic labour.” European Sociological Review 21.1 (2005): 43-57

*** In the Family Resources Survey, just three per cent of families with two working age adults and at least one child aged less than 16 have a mother working full time and a father working part time or not at all.

BBC three and Transphobia – Round we go again

About a year ago the BBC messed up with “Russel Howard’s Good News” (see here for more info). Now it’s the turn of “Snog Marry Avoid?”.

This programme is hardly a bastion of good taste but in the past I have quite enjoyed it. I have a strange fascination with totally overdone looks – enormous fake eyelashes, tiny glittery outfits, big hair, all that (the complete opposite of how I present myself, incidentally). There are some problems with the programme which I won’t go into now, but when I heard that it had been transphobic I had to check it out. I haven’t watched since a new presenter took over, although POD (the Personal Overhall Device – a fictional “make under” computer which analyses participants looks and changes their outfits, hair and make-up) is still there and still voiced by the same person.

So I took some time out of my revision schedule to check out the episode (on iPlayer here). The offending comment is at 25 mins 30 seconds (approx). Someone on Facebook kindly transcribed it:

POD – Who are you?
SMA Contestant – I’m Rachel.
POD – Are you sure it’s not Richard?
SMA Contestant – Why?
POD – Pod computes that with those eyebrows, eyelashes and ridiculously big hair, you look like a transexual.

All said in POD’s usual condescending and disparaging tone. I will admit that there is a lot that’s problematic with this programme, not just this particular exchange, so perhaps I should have lower expectations. Regardless, the derogatory use of transexual in this context is inexcusable. I can’t imagine the BBC allowing a similar exchange based around a woman looking like a lesbian.

I complained, dutifully (the complaints form is here if you’re interested). I know some people object to people going out of their way to find things to complain about (or even complaining about things they haven’t even watched) but I think it is legitimate to investigate whether a broadcaster has made a mistake and do something about it. Here is my complaint in full:

I was really shocked by what I heard on Snog Marry Avoid?. I have previously enjoyed the show as a bit of fun, but POD’s words were like a blow to the head. It is totally unacceptable to use transphobic slurs ever, not least in the name of entertainment.

Number one – to remark in a way that is meant to be negative that someone looks like a trans woman is outright transphobia – would the BBC air an episode where POD said in a negative way that someone looked like a lesbian? I certainly hope not, but I also doubt it. This is no different, because transgender people suffer from discrimination and abuse, partly due to the media coming out with “gems” like this.

Number two – were the woman to have been trans, her name would likely not have been “Richard” anyway, since Richard is typically a name for male people and trans women are female, so would almost certainly not have a name like Richard.

Perhaps the term POD, or the scriptwriter, was looking for was “drag queen” – female impersonation is completely different from being transgender (transgender is an umbrella term which includes transsexual). This is not a complicated distinction and I would hope that at least one person involved in the making of this programme could realise this.

Thank you for your time. I hope you can improve standards in the programmes you air in future.

It was written in a bit of a rush and I’m concerned that I’ve said something problematic. Feedback appreciated, as ever. But I think it makes the main point clearly enough.

I got a very quick response from the BBC as follows:

Thanks for contacting us regarding BBC Three’s ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid?’ recently.

We understand you were unhappy POD suggested that a participant in a recent broadcast looked like a transsexual.

This was meant as a light-hearted comment and was typical of POD, which we hope viewers will be familiar with, but we’re sorry for any offence caused.

Please be assured that your concerns have been raised with the production team who will bear this in mind for future editions of the programme.

We’ve also registered your comments on our audience log made available to BBC staff across the Corporation.

Thanks again for contacting us.

It’s good to know that it’s ok to be bigotted and prejudiced as long as it’s “light hearted”. I don’t think I’m quite being ignored though, which is something. It’s interesting that all BBC staff can see complaints (your personal details get removed according to the website) and I wonder whether that will raise any comments internally.

I’m not sure where to go from here, whether to push over the “light-heartedness” of the comment. I’ve got a reference number for contacting them again if needs be. Really I should be focusing on my exams, so I might give it a few days to work out where to go next. However I definitely encourage anyone who’s willing to watch a bit of junk TV to watch the episode and complain.

A note to myself

Starting projects is never easy. Some aren’t so bad, when you know what kind of structure they need, but blogs are definitely a challenge. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t actually start them until I’ve already got several finished posts that I can publish at the same time, but I’m just going to go out on a limb and start here.

Something has crossed my mind a few times recently. I try hard to be sensitive to prejudice and systematic discrimination. This grew out of my interest in feminism and LGBT issues; I became aware of the concept of priviledge and started to explore my own in all its dimensions. There is a long way to go, but right now I am interested in something called “ableism” which I don’t think is that well known (this seems like quite a good explanation of what it is). In particular I am interested by ableism related to mental illness.

A whole host of commonly used insults are directly related to ableism. Things may have gradually shifted but so many were originally explicitly related to disability, whether physical or mental (this is an excellent resource on these kinds of things). It can be hard to wean yourself out of using them, although I am trying. “Crazy” is the most insidious I find – it gets used a lot in emotionally charged political debates, and is often applied to politicians or others who speak publicly who voice opinions we find seriously distasteful. This is particularly common when people take misogynistic or homophobic attitudes, ones we feel that any reasonable compassionate person couldn’t hold. But people do say and believe these kinds of things and we have to find a way of talking about those views without resorting to terms related to mental illness, even if somehow we feel (and I’ve definitely felt this) that they must not have a good grasp on reality if they really think that way.

Looking at myself, I generally consider myself well-versed on mental illness, due to some personal experience, but recently I’ve noticed that it’s very superficial and is analogous to “I’m a woman so I can’t be a misogynist”. I’ve got to look much harder at myself, at how I use language, at how I feel about people who seem to have mental health problems that are much more serious and long-term than anything I experienced.

This is a topic I’m sure I’ll come back to, as I start to articulate more of my shortcomings and the collective shortcomings I see around me.

Orthodox Economics & The Far Left

This is a post I originally posted on my LiveJournal but thought it was worth copying over.

It’s so good to be reminded why I do my subject!

A bit of background: I’ve always been left of centre on a variety of issues and for several of my teenage years I was on the far left – usually calling myself a socialist but for about 6 months or so being a pretty full-on communist (public ownership of property and all that). These days I call myself a social liberal.

The point of this post: Over the last two weeks in Micro we have been looking at Welfare Economics and I have learned a particularly interesting result. Given a utilitarian social welfare function where all individuals are given equal weight and a social planner who can perfectly observe individual’s labour supply/effort and consumption, then the best possible outcome perfectly embodies “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” – each person gets the same utility from consumption and the most productive people work the hardest.

I’ll try to make that a bit clearer, because that paragraph’s prime jargon (I know, I’m just showing off)! The social planner is only interested in one thing – getting the highest possible welfare for society. This welfare is just the sum of the welfare of each individual – which economists refer to as utility (this concept deserves a post of its own sometime when I’m feeling philosophical). In our simplified little model it has two components – consumption and leisure (which is total time minus time spent working). It’s not a straightforward linear relationship – both components have diminishing marginal returns (for each extra unit you have the less welfare is added). This is pretty intuitive – if you’ve got very little food then getting some more makes a lot of difference, but if you’ve got a fair bit then having some more doesn’t matter so much (although it’s still nice). Likewise leisure, having your weekends off makes a big difference but once you’re down to a three day week, getting an extra half day really doesn’t improve things much. For simplicity we make the components “separable” – i.e. they don’t interact. If you’re interested in how they could, check out Becker (Nobel-prize winner) but it’s not what we’re interested in here.

So into this mix we add a production function – how inputs result in output. We stick to something very simple – number of hours working times a constant that represents productivity, which varies across individuals. Then there’s the constraint that society can’t consume more than it produces (you can’t save or borrow – we want clarity rather than stringent realism because then the results tend to get lost in a mass of complexity). Then it’s just a simple maximisation problem for our social planner.

Who is the social planner? A disinterested individual? (NB that’s disinterested, like impartial, not uninterested! So many people misuse this word). The government? A committee? A collective? It doesn’t really matter, all that matters is that they have this one (and only this one) objective. This requirement does clearly cause a fair few problems when looking at the real world, and there’s a vast and fascinating literature on the behaviour of politicians, but that’s for another blog post.

Anyhow when you do the maths (a nice tidy Lagrangian in this case) you get this interesting result: where everyone has the same utility function (i.e. get the same welfare from each unit of consumption and each unit of leisure as everyone else) each individual gets the same amount to consume but the more productive you are, the harder you work. This means the more productive people are producing a lot more than the others, so there’s a lot of redistribution going on – think about the utility function as measuring “need” and productivity as “ability” – then it’s classic Marxism in a simple orthodox model.

So why aren’t more economists communists? Because now the interesting stuff happens – we introduce imperfect information (which needs several blog posts of its own – this is the stuff I *love*).

This is really a fascinating view of how much difference information makes – when looking at perfect competition, perfect information is one of the requirements for competitive markets to provide an efficient equilibrium (in Economics jargon efficient means that you can’t find another outcome that benefits someone without hurting someone else), yet here perfect information is what we need for communism to be the best possible system. Of course the models in both cases are hugely simplified, particularly in the communism case, where the productive function has no subtlety whatsoever, but I still think it makes an interesting point.

What exactly is that point? Perhaps if we have perfect information it doesn’t matter how we organise our society? Actually no, although I imagine many centrists/right wingers would love that to be the case. When looking at competitive markets the distribution of resources is barely affected by trade, even if everyone’s lot is improved, whereas our social planner goes in for drastic redistribution, so much so that your more productive folk end up with lower welfare than the less productive because everyone gets the same amount of “stuff” but those able workers have to do more hours (cue Daily Fail screeching about benefit scroungers).

The Merry Men & Economics

This is an old post, originally published on my LiveJournal.

So lots of people are talking about this Robin Hood Tax, which is related to the Tobin tax, but different in many ways.

First off, a disclaimer: I’m not very strong in this area, I don’t have much specialist knowledge or much experience of analysing the effect of taxes. However there are a few things I’d like to say.

The Tobin tax was mooted by the excellent James Tobin, who was fairly left-wing by economist standards (it’s extremely rare to find an economist who’s completely anti-free market). The aim was to reduce “hot money” flows. “Hot money” is money that enters and leaves a country very quickly and easily, taking advantage of small differences in exchange and interest rates, that sort of thing. It doesn’t go towards long-term investment, which is what drives economic growth, so while it may play a part in arbitrage, which improves overall economic efficiency (by making sure that prices/returns reflect the fundamentals), it can have disastrous consequences (see the 1997 East Asia crisis). Several economists (e.g. Stiglitz ) think that the instability that hot money can provoke is worse than the efficiency is may encourage, so want countries to be able to impose a tax on these flows, if not permanently then at least when the financial system is fragile. I’m not 100% sure but I think I remember reading that one of the East Asian countries did this and also suffered much less than the others, but I’d hesitate to put that down as causality because I think they also did other things differently (like ignoring the IMF completely! And good for them for doing so – See Globalisation & its Discontents by Stiglitz).

The Robin Hood tax is a slightly different beast, as, according to the campaign, its aim is to raise revenues and punish the bankers who bear a large responsibility for the current state of the world economy and financial system. Here are two excellent responses from economists who are left-of-centre politically (the first one is an easy read, the second two are more technical):

Tim Harford @ the FT
The Freethinking Economist (Giles Wilkes) Part 1
The Freethinking Economist Part 2

I would love to know who (if anyone) did the economic analysis for the Robin Hood Tax campaign, or if it’s all based on wishful thinking. I know on the website they link to an interview with Stiglitz in the Evening Standard, but Stiglitz’s reasons for the tax are the same as for the Tobin tax, rather than to raise revenue, and Stiglitz these days is a little problematic.

Stiglitz has been recommending the Tobin tax in times of financial near-crisis for a long time and is based on his witnessing of the East Asia crisis. I have a lot of respect for Stiglitz as an economist and for his older stuff (hence why I’ve mentioned him above), but I’m worried here because his comments smack of marketing. He’s got a new book out and if he allies himself with the Robin Hood campaign then people who support the campaign might buy his book. Is that too cynical of me? I don’t think so. He’s got his Nobel prize, he’s getting on a bit, so he can make the most of his reputation by saying populist things that don’t necessarily stand up to thorough economic scrutiny, because he no longer needs his reputation among economists (I doubt he’s planning to publish much in the way of economic research -looking at his website it looks like he’s either publishing more comment-style pieces in lesser known journals or working with a lot of co-authors), and if he is planning to publish more stuff, he can probably rely on the economics community judging it for its quality rather than his reputation. As a game-theorist he’ll probably know that’s exactly what he’s doing. (If you’re feeling brave I recommend skimming Tadelis, S. “The Market for Reputations as an Incentive Mechanism” – the link is for JSTOR so you’ll need access – if you’re desperate I can email you a copy).

So to conclude, I’m very sceptical about the benefits of the Robin Hood tax and would love to see the analysis done by the campaign. I’d take Stiglitz’s comments with a pinch of salt as I think he’s got vested interests. I’d love to know what Krugman thinks, I suspect he’d say similar things to Wilkes and Harford, as he usually bangs on (in a good way) about proper reform of the financial system, and the tax certainly is not that.