The “Other” 51%

By Juliana Jiménez

Davos World Economic Forum 2011.
Ngaire Woods, Professor of International Political Economy, University of Oxford, UK, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 30, 2011. Credit: World Economic Forum/Swiss-image.ch/Sebastian Derungs/Wikipedia.

It’s finally becoming not controversial or fringe to say that investing in women is smart economic policy, at least in the development sector. The Daily Beast‘s recent article,“Why the Global Economy Needs Businesses to Invest in Women”, speaks about the new trend in the World Economic Forum in Davos,

“Businesses are starting to understand what development experts have long known: investing in women pays dividends.”

It’s good, wholesome, mainstream, capitalist, feminist reading, wholeheartedly positive and realistic at the same time.

The subheadline, though, was problematic: “The global economy needs the other 51%.” This is implying that this other 51% is someone other than “the global economy,” as if women were not an active or a passive agent of this global economy.

Yet again, that may be true; according to UNICEF,

Women earn only one tenth of the world’s income and own less than 1% of property … Women’s rights and access to land, credit and education are limited not only due to legal discrimination, but because more subtle barriers such as their work load, mobility and low bargaining position in the household and community prevent them from taking advantage of their legal rights.

Nonetheless, I still find the language of the article interesting. The writer takes the viewpoint of a man, since the “other 51%” are women, implying that men are the global economy. When we read we take the perspective of the author, especially when written in this semi-objective tone. This is like reading anything prior to a couple of years ago, where anything referring to people in general would have “he” and “him” written all over it. We’re even lucky that English lets us do this not-so-cumbersomely; it’s a whole other story with languages with clear gender distinctions, as, for example, Chinese and all Romance languages (I’m sure many more do this, if not all, but these I speak of from personal experience).

The general is male, the specific is female. We all know this from grammar or language classes. It seems like a harmless rule, but it is actually deeply, darkly sexist, going back to the inception of language itself. And in this way it continues to perpetuate sexism unconsciously in more harmful ways than we imagine.

Simone de Beauvoir, Cuba, 1960.
Simone de Beauvoir, Cuba, 1960. Credit: Wikipedia.

The way we relate to other people is always in terms of a subject and an other. For everyone, oneself, or the “I”, is the subject, and anyone else is the other. This “otherness”, or alterity, has plagued the condition of women everywhere throughout history, as philosopher Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote about in The Second Sex.

In it, de Beauvoir explains that it is normal that for man the woman be the other; what is funny though, is that for woman, women are also the other.

This is particularly relevant here, since the authors of the article were two women, Melanne Verveer and Kim Azzarelli. That women are the eternal other, even to each other, is neither good nor natural, and has various consequences, like preventing women from having a clear identity, from feeling that they are agents of change, like their own person. For men, being the eternal subject brings a sense of validation, of being the center of the world, while the “other” remains at the periphery, passive, as audience. It relegates the other to the status of the unnecessary, to the innessential, the ornamental. For de Beauvoir this is also how women’s use of make-up, jewelry, fashion — in short, ornamentation — came to be, and why, in a sense it is a mark of inferiority.

What is even more interesting than the sex of the authors, is who they are: Melanne Verveer is the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, and Kim Azzarelli is Vice President at New Ventures at Newsweek Daily Beast & President of the Women in the World Foundation. The feminist credentials on these two are impressive, and I imagine the amount of impact they have on women’s well-being and empowerment is massive. This further proves the point that no one, no matter how sensitive to the subtleties of language and/or gender discrimination is safe from following thousands of years of male-dominated language inertia.

In every other sense, the article is spot-on,

Women are more likely than men to put their income back into their communities, driving illiteracy and mortality rates down and GDP up.”

We couldn’t agree more. And we should all be careful how we say it.

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