What does degrowth say about gender equality and social justice?

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About the project

We drew upon domestic, international and cross-sectoral evidence to understand how degrowth—or planned economic contraction—might be reconciled with gender equality and social justice to guide public policy and practice agendas in Canada. We reviewed the existing literature and evidence published within the past 11 years (2010-2021) on degrowth, gender equality and social equity, and tried to identify potential impacts degrowth in industrialized countries may have on gender relations, gender equality, social equity and social justice. We also selectively identified promising programs and policies from industrialized, emerging and developing economies for reconciling degrowth with gender equality and social justice.

COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic just as we received news that this grant application was successful. The global economy shrank dramatically soon after, in effect offering opportunities to study degrowth and its implications for gender equality in real time. Of course it is important to clarify that what we had planned to study was the relationship between planned deliberate degrowth, gender equality and social justice, not unplanned economic contraction triggered by a pandemic. Proponents of degrowth envision the economies of industrialized countries shrinking by design, not disaster or disease. Nevertheless, in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19 being declared a pandemic, iterations of interventions endorsed by degrowth proponents—basic income support, telecommuting, flexible work and remote work, for example—were rolled out in industrialized, emerging and developing economies around the world. This created a unique opportunity to understand the potential and policy implications of degrowth under planned circumstances.

Key findings

  • In Canada, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), although introduced as a temporary income support program, rather than as a universal basic income (UBI), has reinvigorated an existing debate about a guaranteed basic level of income for all Canadians, irrespective of employment status.
  • The deployment of CERB also led to a broader conversation about the possibilities and benefits of providing universal social protection within a human-rights framework and delinking social security from employment status.
  • COVID-19 has created an unprecedented reckoning of what constitutes essential work and essential service in Canada, leading to calls for comprehensive reforms of sectors such as long-term care, home care and child care as well as for higher wages, more secure employment, paid sick leave and other enhanced social protections for those who work in these areas.
  • The unprecedented global expansion of remote and flexible work caused by COVID-19 may also lead to longer-term changes in ways of working in many sectors of employment, with important consequences for gender equality.
  • Strengthening long-term investment in the care sector (including care for seniors, children and adults with special needs) is essential to enable workers to benefit optimally from the availability of remote and flexible work options.
  • It is also crucial to make flexible work hours available at all levels of employment, including in executive and management positions.
  • For remote work to be effective as a means of reducing gender-based career advancement gaps, a redefinition of who an “ideal employee”—based on performance in measurable terms instead of number of hours spent at work—is necessary. This will benefit all employees, since balancing work and family responsibilities is emerging as a concern for all workers  irrespective of gender identity.
  • Proponents of degrowth have emphasized that while energy and resource-intensive sectors of the global economy need to shrink in the future, especially in industrialized economies, critical democratic infrastructures, such as infrastructures of care, must expand and flourish. The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the need for a structural reform of the care sector.

Policy implications

  • The deployment of CERB during COVID-19 may provide the impetus for the creation of a UBI in Canada.
  • Minimally, a national policy dialogue on UBI is imminent and necessary.
  • Lessons learned and evidence generated from the pandemic have the potential to inform responsive social and economic policies that could benefit large groups of essential workers who are presently underpaid and often precariously employed (personal support workers, health aids, sanitation workers, truck drivers, grocery clerks, meat packers, etc.). Within these groups, women, new immigrants, racialized minorities and documented and undocumented migrant workers are overrepresented.
  • For remote and flexible work to become a policy prescription that advances gender equality, structural changes to employment norms and gender norms are necessary.
  • Policies aimed at expanding the care sector and improving wages and working conditions could emerge as a positive legacy of COVID-19.
  • Before the pandemic, degrowth proponents struggled to convince people of the value of a planned contraction of industrialized economies alongside expansion of redistributive activities and policies. Amid tangible evidence that an economic system based on rampant exploitation of natural resources, overproduction and overconsumption is not sustainable, support for degrowth may continue to grow even as we put COVID-19 behind us.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Bipasha Baruah, professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, Western University; bbaruah@uwo.ca

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR and the Government of Canada

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