Looking back in history, there has always been a gap between men and women not only in terms of wages but also in the opportunities both sexes have been given inside and outside the labour market. Different scholars have shown that up until now women are still dealing with discrimination, occupational segregation and different perceptions of values and responsibilities, especially when it comes to the area of care-giving (O’Reilly, 2008, p.1f). Consequently, even though nowadays, at least in most Western countries, women have access to the labour market, there is an imbalance between men and women when it comes to society’s expectations towards who should sit in front of a desk and who should take care of the children, the elderly and the sick, leaving the latter job of care-giving to women rather than to men. Even if this perception has changed slightly over the years and more and more men for example take on part of parental leave, for many women gender inequality is still reality. The gap between men and women therefore creates different models of adaptive lifestyles for men and women (Gheaus, 2008), making it difficult for women to balance care-giving, which they are often barely or not at all being compensated for, and work, where women have less opportunities anyway. The aim of feminists is therefore to create a society and a value system that enables women as well as men to strive for the same goals in life allowing for symmetrical-lifestyles.
Symmetry in that sense needs to be measured not only through equal wages but follows a rather emotional approach. Taking this into account, gender equality refers to job opportunities as well as the value system behind the whole debate.
As differences in job opportunities and the wage gap between men and women are the most obvious aspects when it comes to gender inequality, many social scientist as well as feminists have started promoting the concept of basic income (BI) as a way to set an end to gender inequalities, allowing men and women to live equal lifestyles. In short the idea behind BI is a concept ‘based on the principles of individuality, universality, and unconditionality’ (McKay, 2001, p.97), meaning that each member of a society will receive an income independent of gender, occupation and willingness to take on an occupation. It will be paid for by the political community to all its members (van Parijs, 2004, p.7), while still allowing financial top-ups of the BI through other income sources. Even though there do exist several definitions of the term – narrower and broader ones – the definition above given by McKay appears to be the most common one looking at the literature.
Supporters of the concept have argued that BI would allow women to take time off from work in order to be able to for example invest time into care-giving while still being compensated for it. Consequently, women would gain more independence concerning their life choices, being able to find a balance between work and care-giving. Simultaneously, they would achieve a stronger bargaining position within households (Robeyns, 2008). Some feminists on the other hand challenge this position by acknowledging the asymmetrical value system that is the actual reason for gender inequality. Thus, they argue, that BI on its own cannot be seen as a sufficient solution to the gap that exists between men and women. The question remains: Is BI able to solve issues of gender inequality?
It is my aim to review some of the negative statements concerning BI in terms of its potential effects on gender inequality in more detail in order to find a proper answer to the question above. In a comparison starting from the most negative view given by O’Reilly, who believes that in any case care-givers will always depend on some sort of ‘network of care arrangements’ (O’Reilly, 2008, p.2), the essay will further concern itself with McKays view stating that BI does not necessarily cover all basic needs nor does it give incentives to men to equally share care-giving with women (McKay, 2001). Gheaus goes even further when reasoning that more women would engage in home-centred activities if cash is provided through a BI rather than services allowing women to balance between care-giving and work (Gheaus, 2008, p.3). Lastly, Baker follows a rather emotional approach, stating that most inequalities between men and women exist in terms of ‘the love and care that people experience; […] in the degree to which such work is recognised, valued and materially rewarded relative to other work’ (Baker, 2008, p.2).
Despite the criticism, neither of the four authors is giving up on the concept of BI per se. They rather acknowledge that in order for BI to have a positive effect on gender equality and gender-symmetrical lifestyles, values concerning work and care-giving as well as the perception of gender roles need to change accordingly.
Baker, John: All Things considered should Feminists embrace Basic Income?, in: Basic Income Studies, Vol.3 (3), 2008, pp.1-8.
De Wispelaere, Jurgen & Stirton, Lindsay: The Many Faces of Universal Basic Income, in: The Political Quarterly, Vol. 75 (3), 2004, pp.266-274.
Gheaus, Anca: Basic Income, Gender Justice and the Costs of Gender-Symmetrical-Lifestyles, in: Basic Income Studies, Vol.3 (3), 2008, pp.1-6.
McKay, Alisa: Rethinking Work and Income Maintenance Policy. Promoting Gender Equality through a Citizen’s basic Income, in: Feminist Economics, Vol.7 (1), 2001, pp.97-118.
O’Reilly, Jacqueline: Can a Basic Income lead to a more Gender Equal Society?, in: Basic Income Studies, Vol.3 (3), 2008, pp.1-7.
Robeyns, Ingrid: Introduction. Revisiting the Feminism and Basic Income Debate, in: Basic Income Studies, Vol.3 (3), 2008, pp.1-6.
Van Parijs, Philippe: Basic Income. A Simple and Powerful idea for the Twenty-first Century, in: POLITICS&SOCIETY, Vol.32 (1), 2004, pp.7-39.